Being a Near-Native Speaker

In her article entitled “On Being a Near-Native Speaker,” author Anna Babel reflects on her experience of being a “near-native” Spanish speaker and how her dialect of Spanish affects the way she is treated in Bolivia. Babel is a Spanish professor, but the dialect of Spanish that she speaks in is considered to be “non-prestigious.” She describes it as “a manner of speaking that educated Spanish speakers hear as rural, uneducated, lower-class, and above all, incorrect.” It is not that she does not know how to speak a more educated variety of Spanish, but she simply is able to speak this non-prestigious dialect the most fluently and with the most ease. While her ease and comfort with this dialect make her appear as though she could be a native speaker, she is still considered an outsider, but with certain insider qualifications. She is an outsider because of her class, upbringing and ethnicity, but at the same time, she is an insider because the sample population she studies is her husband’s family. She difficultly treads the lines of an insider/outsider between her professional and personal lives.

The author and her family at the baptism of her godson. Photo courtesy Maricel Fiorela Gutierrez Avila

Tag: The author and her family at the baptism of her godson. Photo courtesy Maricel Fiorela Gutierrez Avila

Her blurry insider/outsider status and her appearance as a near-native speaker additionally affects the way she is treated in Bolivia. If she is traveling with simply her husband, the couple is viewed professionally mostly and treated with respect. However, when her husband’s family is present, who represent a lower class standing than Babel and her husband, she is treated with much less respect. She could easily resort back to American roots to gain respect and behave like a tourist, but she knows it is this option of privilege that she possess that restricts her from being an insider.

For any anthropologist studying in a foreign country where the dominant language spoken is not his or her own, similar insider/outsider problems may arise. However, Babel’s situation is especially difficult because she has chosen to use people close to her as her sample population. She will always be regarded as a near-native speaker, regardless of how well her Spanish dialect is because of her American ethnicity and background.