Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Double Standard for the Non-Native Speaker

     When I was in Spain as a grad student I had a conversation with a relative of a Spanish friend about fishing.  Since I had never talked about this topic before in Spanish, I didn't have a lot of vocabulary to describe things so I resorted to circumlocution and asked how to say them.  One word I was at a loss for was 'bait'.  I described it and was told to use "cebo".  Of course after 15 years of hearing Latin American varieties and 10 years of speaking like this, I continued my story pronouncing the word as 'sebo'.  I was stopped and told that I pronounced it wrong because 'sebo', with an 's', was a different word with a different meaning.  Unfortunately I didn't know that word either so I asked about it and got the idea it meant 'fat' or 'grease'. But I insisted on pronouncing 'cebo' as it would be in any part of Latin America, arguing that millions of native speakers in the Americas pronounce this way and word pairs like these can be understood by context.  Her reply was that she can understand them but can't understand me.  This was ridiculous but I didn't want to make a scene (we were in public) and it wasn't worth the trouble seeing as this was someone with a preexisting bias, so I prounounced that ONE word, out of a full conversation that surely including other words with 'ce' or 'ci',  as she asked.
     The Spanish woman's statement that she understands Spanish speakers from Latin America but not me, got me thinking that for her, there is a double standard for the non-native or second language speaker who is not seen as having any legitimate claim to the language by way of family.  He therefore supposedly falls under the authority of the native speaker with whom he interacts, regardless of his actual proficiency or fluency which might not be taken under consideration.  As a consequence, in this case, she assumed that I should be speaking as she, a Spaniard, does because it is 'proper' ,  'correct' or 'the real Spanish' .  Because the language was thought to not be 'mine', my imitation of speakers outside her country or region was not acceptable but yet, in the end, we are pronouncing the same way.  Although it is frustrating when this sort of thing happens, this person probably looked down her nose at Latin American speakers too and maybe thought she was doing me a favor in correcting me of my 'bad habits'.  After all those other speakers can't help that they were born into the language.  So even though I sound remarkably like them and even get asked by Spanish-speakers from Latin America if I have Spanish-speakers in my family, in this case, I was like a bastard child.  Same sound but the wrong parents.

1 comment:

  1. "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." - Bertrand Russell

    "The fool thinks himself to be wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." - William Shakespeare

    How true this is...

    The problem is that native speakers believe themselves to be the authority on their language. This is most certainly not the case. Even more painful is trying to debate linguistic topics with people who think they know anything about the subject by the simple fact that they speak. By this logic, I could become a doctor since I take Tylenol or a world renowned chef because I eat. Even I myself know how little I know about linguistics and how much more studying I have to do in order to properly comment on sociolinguistics and dialectology. I am however ahead of the curb. Do I go to a doctor and tell him that he's wrong because I have a body and I should know about my own body than anybody else...

    I digress...