The Culture of Language

All through high school, one of my best friends spoke English as a second language. She was from Columbia, and while her nanny taught her and her siblings English since the age of five, she was classified as a near-native English speaker.  Even though her accent was barely there, and she spoke English beautifully, you didn’t have to be  one of her good friends to tell that English didn’t come to her as easily as Spanish.  All of her school forms were sealed with an international student title and she had to attend all the international student orientations and information sessions at the beginning of every academic year.  Although she had a house in Miami, and had been educated in English at various boarding school in the States since middle school, she was labeled as a near-native speaker.  Writer, and Anthropologist, Anna M Babel, expressed her experiences with being labeled as a near-native speaker and the prejudice that come along with cultural bias of being a native speaker as well as experiencing stereotypes of a non-native speaker.   While my friend had some relatable disrespectful experiences, they were never of the same magnitude as Babel recounts.

In Babel’s piece On Being a Native Speaker, she recalls occasions where the diversity of her near-native title was apparent.  Depending on her company, attire, and the event, she was treated differently by locals, service staff, and even officials.  If she traveled with her husband, dressed in business casual attire she was treated with a level of respect unparalleled to the respect she received when she was traveling with her husband’s family dressed as a local.  Although Babel is a college professor teaching Spanish, she describes that her accent and manner of speech are seen as rural, quaint and cute by educated Spanish speakers. In her opinion, her collogues, and even some of her graduate students, her grasp of the language unconventional and does not match the expectations she is held accountable for.  To the educated, fluent Spanish speaking community Babel’s dialect is often questioned, which in turn accounts for the confusion experienced by natives she encounters in Bolivia.

While my friend and I were often in the same stations, due to her understanding of the English language we were often treated differently.   After reading Babel’s piece on her experiences carrying the title as a near-native speaker, I could directly relate her accounts to that of my friend. Language is powerful and can affect the evaluation and reception someone has on another individual.  Babel concludes at the end of her story that she will never lose her title, that there will always be something different that sets her apart.  She also concludes that “if there’s anything I’ve learned as a linguistic anthropologist, it’s that the words we use to talk about our experiences matter.  When we say near, how near?  And when we say native, of what?”