“The first day I got here, everyone was saying ‘y’all.’ I had no idea what they meant. Of course, it only takes you a couple times of hearing it to understand what it means, but that was definitely something I remember.”
It’s words like these that make English such a tough language to learn. According to the Oxford Royale Academy, the various oddities that English contains make it difficult for non-English speakers.
According to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, in 2002 there were at least 464,441 Spanish-speakers in Appalachia, which equates to approximately 2 percent of the Appalachian population.
Spanish-speakers in the mountain areas before the 1990s had been mostly transient young men who came temporarily to work, according to the encyclopedia. By the 21st century, Spanish-speaking immigrants began to bring their families and buy homes.
They were drawn by jobs and by the "sense of community and security found in small towns and the desire to escape from the urban problems of pollution, traffic and noise. The trend toward more stable Hispanic communities in Appalachia has made it more likely that Spanish language will become permanently established.”
Spanish-speakers will likely learn English as quickly as immigrants from other places in Appalachia, but they may be less likely to stop speaking Spanish, according to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
"The first day I got here, everyone was saying ‘y’all.' I had no idea what they meant."
Idioms, regional dialects and unique phrases that are riddled throughout Appalachian English pose problems for people learning the language.
Chrysandreas, who has taught English as a second language to Tennessee schoolchildren, understands the difficulties English language learners face in the South.
A native of Mexico City now living in Knoxville, Chrysandreas moved to Alabama to attend college. There, she was forced to pick up on the unique sayings people were using around her.
“When I went to college, there were definitely a lot of things that I didn’t understand,” Chrysandreas said. “You have to figure these things out through context.”
Words that come as second nature to Southerners are completely foreign to people new to the area. Some words can take years of practice to use and understand.
Last year, a group of Spanish speaking students at Elizabethton High School compiled a list of Appalachian words that Spanish-speakers are unfamiliar or struggle with: words like “ain’t,” “honey” and “buggy.”
To illustrate the meanings, the students showed what they look like in a sentence. For the word “ain’t,” the students gave the example of “They ain’t going to school today.”
The phrase “bless your heart,” common in Appalachian dialect, came as a surprise to Andres Rivero, a native of Venezuela who has lived in Johnson City for about three years.
“I heard people saying, ‘Oh, bless your heart!’ I didn’t know the meaning of this,” he said.
He was also surprised by the common use of the word “honey” in the South, which is not used the same way in Spanish.
“They use ‘honey’ for everything!” he said. “For us, honey is just something that you eat.”
Terms used in everyday shopping experiences can also be strange for people learning English. One example is how Southerners refer to what someone puts groceries in while shopping.
Some people call this a “buggy.” Others prefer to use “cart.” Although the words are different, the meaning is not.
“I don’t use a buggy,” said Antonio Rivero, Andres’ father. “I use a cart.”
Although Chrysandreas has been here over 30 years, she occasionally finds herself misspeaking when using prepositions.
“There are things that I still struggle with,” Chrysandreas said. “For example, when you say ‘in’ or ‘on.’ In Spanish it translates differently. There is just ‘en’ in Spanish.”
Not only are certain words challenging, but the Tennessee accent can be difficult for English language learners to understand.
Antonio Rivero joined his son in Tennessee two years ago, and finds the unique pronunciations in a Southern accent challenging and also humorous at times.
Although he knows the meaning of a word, its pronunciation can make a difference in his understanding. For example, the drawn-out pronunciation of the letter ‘I’ in words like ‘rice’ and ‘nice’ has given the elder Rivero some difficulty in conversations.
“Understanding words like ‘rice and beans’ is harder when people speak quickly,” Antonio Rivero said. “When they start to speak slower it’s easier to understand.”
Andres Rivero has also struggled with the pronunciation of “I.” In Spanish, the letter “I” has only one pronunciation – “EE.”
“It took me about a month to understand this,” Andres Rivero said.
Both men notice that Southerners have another tendency when they speak.
“They cut their words off very quickly,” Antonio Rivero said. “Sometimes it’s hard to understand.”
Some say learning English in Tennessee, where accents are strong and words are sometimes confusing, can still be a good thing.
According to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, “new dialects of both Spanish and English have begun to emerge in Appalachia as newcomers become more integrated into the community and opportunities for interactions become more frequent.”
Adolfo Martinez moved from California to Elizabethton, and has enjoyed the experience of learning English in East Tennessee. He likes how nice the people are, and how they are willing to talk with him. Martinez appreciates both English and Spanish, which he believes makes him the person that he is.
“I like my two languages,” he said. “Whether I’m speaking English or Spanish, I’m still the same guy.”
Above right: Andres Rivero reflects on his unique experience with learning English.
Above: Antonio Rivero appreciates when people speak English slowly.
Photos by Caroline Hughart