Luisa Martin Rojo, “The Impact of the Native-Speaker Model in the Construction of Inequality”. Commentary by ARC Student Fellows Lauren Spradlin and Jennifer Hammano

ARC Distinguished Fellow Luisa Martín Rojo, Professor in Linguistics at the Universidad Autónoma in Madrid, presented her current research project The Impact of the Native-Speaker Model in the Construction of Inequality on November 12. Her presentation focused on what it means to be a ‘native’ speaker of a language and the privileges that come with it, and conversely, how inequality is structured, legitimized, and propagated through prejudices relating to notions of who is a ‘native speaker’ of a language.

Native speakers of a language are typically defined as those who have grown up hearing and speaking that language from birth, though scholars have begun to challenge both the validity of this definition and the concept of ‘native speaker’ altogether. As Martín Rojo expressed, native speakers of a given language are usually considered (by linguists and speech communities alike) to be the models and the authorities on that language. In line with this notion, there is an expectation that all speakers of a language should strive to sound like a local native speaker. Any language users who choose to use structures, words, or sounds that do not conform to the prestige variety as spoken by a native speaker are perceived as ‘non-authentic’ speakers of the language, and are policed by authentic speakers accordingly. Speakers whose language practices are non-nativelike are subjected to linguistic shame, which carries social and economic consequences.

In order to demonstrate how power is exerted using language, language policing linguistic surveillance, and notions of nativeness, Martín Rojo conducted a study on university students in Spain who had migrated at a young age from Latin America. She interviewed university students about their experiences being the subjects of linguistic surveillance, with specific reference to use of /θ/ vs. /s/. /θ/ (used to represent a th-sound) is not used in Latin American Spanish, but is used in the area of Spain where the subjects lived. This is an interesting twist in a study exploring the status of ‘native speaker’ – the speakers who took part in the study were truly native speakers of Spanish, in that they had been speaking Spanish from birth. Yet, their language practices were still ‘othered’ by speakers of the prestige variety of Spanish spoken in Northern Spain.