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Columnist Beatriz Báez explains her experience with language fatigue at Penn.

Credit: Oscar Vasquez

On my first day at Penn, I called my father in distress, telling him I needed to move back home and study there as I was going to die alone at this university. My father asked why, and I quickly responded, “I haven’t met anybody in three hours. I have no friends. It’s over for me.” 

That very same night, I went to a New Student Orientation event at Houston Hall. As I nervously paced the floor in my Crocs, I overheard some students speaking Spanish and immediately gravitated toward them. Confessing, “I heard Spanish, and I feel saved,” I ended up meeting three genuine individuals, all from various parts of Latin America. Having arrived in the United States, it felt comforting to hear voices that reminded me of home. This comfort is priceless in such a foreign environment.

All my life, I’ve taken courses in Spanish, spoken Spanish at home, and been berated by my grandmother whenever I spoke too much English. Arriving at Penn, I didn’t anticipate the struggle I would face taking classes taught in English, as I had been lucky enough to have been extensively taught English from a very young age.

But speaking in a second language most of the time, even as a fluent speaker, is incredibly draining. Meeting native Spanish speakers at Penn was truly a blessing. However, I have found that some people react adversely to me speaking my primary language. These are not continuous reactions of a high degree, but there have been enough small instances to mark me. 

On various occasions, I have had Latinx friends say, “Let’s speak English so X person doesn’t feel excluded,” or even resort to English for “convenience” when we’re alone. For the former, I understand the sentiment. I wouldn’t want someone to be excluded from a conversation in such a way. However, when I’m naturally speaking Spanish, having my speech interpreted as a personal offense is off-putting. 

In one instance, I met a student through a mutual friend on a night out. This friend and I speak fluent Spanish; the person I had just met did not. Throughout the night, I had various conversations with my new acquaintance — who I found quite amicable — and my friend. I would naturally speak Spanish with the latter, not thinking much of it. The next morning, my friend told me how the new acquaintance felt I hated them for speaking Spanish in front of them, knowing they didn’t speak the language. 

I was shocked by the assumption and, in all honesty, a little offended. I found it quite conceited that one would think another person is speaking in their first language to actively exclude them. Speaking in a first language, for me, is purely a relief issue. Although I am fluent in English, after an entire week of speaking it, it can be extremely draining; thus, particularly in a social setting, I don’t want to add to the exhaustion. 

It is more than fine to be curious about what somebody is saying and ask for a translation. However, immediately expressing discomfort upon hearing another language and presuming the other person is talking badly about you is inconsiderate toward them. More often than not, this language switch is for comfort. This was the first of sufficient instances that exposed a pattern in my time at Penn. In another class, I grew close to a few other Spanish-speaking students. One of them continuously suggested we switch back to English for seemingly no valid reason and would reply to any comment of mine in English. 

This harsh reality on campus expands into the club scene. In one instance, a native English speaker attended a club meeting primarily led in Spanish. Within this meeting, if club members asked questions in Spanish, any other members who answered quickly switched to English. Evidently, the intent is to have everybody be able to partake in conversation. However, members within a Spanish-led group should be able to detach from English formalities within club meetings, particularly if the club seeks to embrace Latinx heritage. 

Speaking in my primary language is the greatest manifestation of my culture, particularly since Spanish accents are so diverse throughout Latin America. Having to switch to English not only in academic settings but in seemingly every other sphere of Penn life further disconnects me from the culture I’ve been surrounded by my entire life until now. This applies to any person whose main language isn’t English, not only to Spanish speakers. 

Penn has students from over 100 countries, with around 19% of the student body being international. If one truly wants to immerse themselves in Penn’s multilingual community, one needs to recognize that a language barrier works both ways. Just as an English speaker may be tired from learning another language, a non-English speaker can be drained from constantly speaking English. It’s crucial to recognize that for the latter, multilingualism surpasses a simple language requirement and spills over to nearly every sector of their life at Penn. 

Language fatigue is a true reality, especially for individuals who haven’t learned English from a young age. Thus, if somebody within your social group is speaking their first language, which you are not fluent in, it does not give you the right to feel offended or urge them to speak in a tongue you understand. And, if you are a non-native English speaker, as much as you can, "habla en tu primer idioma y que los demás se ubiquen."

BEATRIZ BÁEZ is a College first year studying mathematics and political science from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her email is