Speak Spanish like a Cuban? You may be surprised by what fellow Miamians think of you

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If you speak Spanish with a continental lisp, you must, pues claro que sí, be educated, professional and well off.

Speak it with a cubano accent and omit your eses? Then, óyeme, you must fall at the low end of the socioeconomic scale.

Welcome to Miami, where it turns out your variety of español will get you pigeonholed, even — or especially — by fellow Hispanics.

According to a new academic study, not all Spanish speakers are regarded equally in Miami, the most diverse cauldron of Hispanic residents in the world.

The study, conducted by a Florida International University professor, found that young Miamians will readily judge Spanish speakers’ status and background by their particular dialect and, implicitly, by their country of origin.

And those language-based snap judgments, often unconscious and unacknowledged, can affect how people are treated when they apply for a job or a bank loan, the study’s author, FIU English professor and sociolinguist Phillip M. Carter, said in an interview.

“Maybe we need to acknowledge these biases and stereotypes exist in out community and find ways to work around them,” Carter said.

Participants in the study, mostly FIU undergraduates, were asked to listen to recordings of three men — one from Spain, one from Cuba and a third from Colombia – read the same 25-second-long Spanish-language text, on the irrelevant subject of children and tobacco. Then participants were prompted to guess the speakers’ income, education and family and work background.

The widespread — if not really accurate — perception, the study found: That speakers of Castilian-accented Spanish (i.e., those from Spain) are likely lawyers or executives from high-income backgrounds, while those with Cuban-inflected voices work in blue-collar jobs and have less money and education.

Those from Colombia, the country widely considered by Spanish speakers all over the world as possessing the finest spoken and written Spanish, are seen as falling somewhere in between Spaniards and Cubans, the study found.

Carter said the relatively poor perception of Cubans’ educational and professional status in Miami is perplexing, given their obvious economic and political success.

But he said the results likely reflect persisting biases among Latin Americans about the superiority of those hailing from European Spain, the mother country — or madre patria — over mixed-race former colonial subjects in the Caribbean and South America.

Carter said other studies have found that speakers of Caribbean Spanish, in which the letter S is often aspirated or dropped, are perceived as being less intelligent or less educated than those who do pronounce it — even by those from the Caribbean themselves, as well as others in Latin America.

“People can make life-changing decisions based on how others speak,” Carter said in a statement released by FIU. “That’s a really, really big deal.”

For his study, Carter selected speakers of three varieties of Spanish commonly heard in Miami. The Spaniard was from Barcelona, the Cuban from Havana and the Colombian from Bogotá. All three were college-educated back home and working in professional jobs in Miami.

The professor recruited 292 participants, 67 percent of them of Hispanic origin and just over half of them native Spanish speakers. Carter said it made sense to include non-Spanish speakers in the study because they’re exposed to Spanish constantly in Miami and their perceptions are also significant.

“They’re aware of the social meanings that attach to certain language forms and can at least identify Cuban Spanish as such,” Carter said.

As it turns out, the perceptions of Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers in the study were not far apart, he said.

The participants in the study were told each speaker was living in Miami. They were also somewhat misled: They were given a country of origin for each of the speakers’ parents — Spain, Colombia or Cuba — in addition to one version where that information was not provided. But the parents’ country information was randomly assigned to the speakers, meaning that participants might hear a Colombian voice but believe the parents were from Cuba, for instance.

That was to test whether participants were responding to what they heard in the speakers’ voices or the information about their probable nationality, Carter said. In most cases, there was little variation, with most consistently rating the Castilian-accented speaker more favorably than the Cuban or Colombian readers.

After hearing the text, participants were given a series of choices involving income and education, and asked how strongly they agreed those characteristics applied to the speakers, with a rating of 5 meaning the strongest agreement.

Participants put the Spaniard’s chances of being an attorney at 3.4, compared to 2.8 for the Colombian and 2.7 for the Cuban. In contrast, they put the likelihood of working in a cellphone store at 3.1 for the Cuban and the Colombian, and at 2.6 for the Spaniard.

On the likelihood of coming from a family that provided opportunities to get ahead, the Castilian voice got a score of 3.7, the Colombian 3.3 and the Cuban an average of 3.2.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin, was published online in the academic journal Latino Studies. It will be included in a forthcoming special print edition of the journal focused on Miami and its Hispanic, or Latino, culture, Carter said.

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