Bilingualism as a Literary Device Analysis

At Issue

Bilingualism in literature is a means by which writers may clarify, interpret, and communicate a community’s cultural identity. The technique produces a synthesis of cultural attitudes, values, beliefs, and perspectives. One may argue that bilingualism in literature is a powerful way of maintaining a community’s identity within a larger culture. For example, switching from English to Spanish and then back again is one way Chicanos can reflect the norms of their community. In addition, the use of two languages in one literary work produces compelling images.

Code Switching

In Chicano literature, bilingualism, especially in poetry, may take two different forms. One form is to have one language on the even-numbered pages of a book and the other language on the odd-numbered pages; readers see more or less the same literary piece in two separate languages. This form lends itself most readily to poetry. A reader who is able to read only one of the two languages may, in a sense, read the work. Another form is to mix the two languages together in one piece of writing. This mixing is called code switching, after the linguistic term for the practice of switching languages while speaking. The advantage of code switching is that it may capture accurately the speech and experience of a bilingual person; the clear disadvantage, from a publishing standpoint, is that the audience for a code-switching bilingual work is limited to those who speak both languages.

Mexican American Poetry

For Mexican Americans and others who are reared in an environment in which two languages are in constant use, bilingualism in literature may be seen as a means of establishing a distinctive sense of community identification. Further, many contemporary Mexican American poets have found that, by code switching, they may discover the most apt phrase or image. For those who are bilingual, bilingualism in literature enhances and accurately reflects their artistic powers. Mexican American literature is in its origins a hybrid of Spanish, Mexican, Indian, and Anglo elements, and it is a result of intense historical cultural conflict. Bilingualism in literature is a natural response to this cultural situation and is a technique for the clarification of a community’s cultural identity.

The use of two languages within a single work of literature is not the exclusive domain of Mexican American writers. The technique, however, does hold political significance for this group. Chicano author Rudolfo A. Anaya, in his essay “Take the Tortilla out of Your Poetry” (in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, 1993), writes that the use of bilingualism in literature is one way to preserve cultural identity. He also states that bilingualism may often prevent certain writers from getting an unbiased reading from editors. Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972) uses bilingualism as well as elements of religion and mysticism that are specific to Mexican American culture. Ironically, the book, which is set in New Mexico, was banned from high school classes in New Mexico.

Bilingualism has also been utilized in literary works by such groups as Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and others. For example, while writing primarily in English, Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz incorporates words and speech patterns from his...

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Suggested Readings

De Dwyer, Carlota Cardenas, ed. Chicano Voices. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Gutierrez, Ramon, and Genaro Padilla, eds. Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage: Chicano Literature. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1993.

Lattin, Vernon, ed. Contemporary Chicano Fiction. New York: Bilingual Press, 1986.

Simmen, Edward, ed. North of the Rio Grande. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Sommers, Joseph, and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, eds. Modern Chicano Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979.