Of native speakers and other fantastic beasts

We all refer to ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ not just in English Language Teaching (ELT), Second Language Acquisition (SLA) or linguistics, but also in daily life. Consider the following sentences:

  • She’s a ‘native speaker’ of Spanish.
  • I don’t know how to say this, to be honest. Let’s ask a ‘native speaker’.
  • We can’t hire you because you’re a ‘non-native speaker’.
  • The aim of this research is to study the differences between Chinese bilingual English learners and native monolingual English speakers in expressing motion.

So the term’ native speaker’ seems very familiar to us. After all, we could argue that everyone is a ‘native speaker’ of the language they learned first. And we all have probably seen, met and had a beer with a ‘native speaker’, right?

Why then put inverted commas around the terms as I’m doing now? And stranger still, why say: I no longer review research that compares ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers as though the groups are real and not imagined, as Adrian Holliday recently did on Twitter.

What does Holliday mean when he says that the two groups are not real but imagined? And “when we say:

  • you’ll have to ask a native speaker, or
  • don’t ask me, I’m not a native speaker,

what is it we are appealing to? What is it that human native speakers know? What sort of knowledge does the native speaker have?” (Davies, 2012, p.1).

Native speakers and language proficiency

Most of us I think would agree that a ‘native speaker’ is proficient. Perhaps not in the idealised sense as someone who lives “in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its (the speech community’s) language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors” (Chomsky, 1965, p.3). However, certainly a ‘native speaker’ is proficient in their mother tongue.

But proficient how?

All sorts of people are proficient. I happen to be completely proficient (or at C2 level on the Common European Framework) in three languages. Does this make me a ‘native speaker’ of all three of them?

Possibly, at least if we are discussing the question on purely linguistic grounds. Yet, I’d never call myself one (more on this later).

So how would we characterise ‘native-like’ proficiency that ELT recruiters are so fond of now?

We can’t really talk about this subject without referring to the late prof. Alan Davies. Over the years he proposed six linguistic factors that define ‘native speaker’ proficiency:

1.      early childhood acquisition;

2.      intuition about grammar (both pertaining to dialect and standard language);

3.      capability to generate spontaneous and fluent discourse;

4.      capability to write creatively;

5.      ability to translate into their L1;

6.      and creative communicative range (Davies, 1991, 2003, 2012, 2013).

Are these six characteristics exclusive to ‘native speakers’?

In this post Geoff Jordan confidently asserts that there is a difference between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’, citing studies which seem to confirm that ultimate, or ‘native-like’ attainment of a language is very rare. In addition to the ones he mentions, when Sorace (2003) compared grammaticality judgments of ‘native’ and proficient ‘non-native speakers’, she concluded that there was a fundamental difference between the two groups.

However, there are also other studies which shed serious doubts on Sorace’s findings. For example, Birdsong (1992, 2004), Bialystok (1997) and Davies (2001) also studied judgments of grammaticality and all concluded that statistically there was no significant difference in the judgments made by ‘native’ and proficient ‘non-native speakers’. In other words, both groups have very similar intuitions about the language. And it is important to add that they all focused on adult learners who were well past the critical or sensitive period (see below).

So linguistically speaking, is there a difference between the two groups? There might well be. And the word MIGHT is important here.

It is important because as Davies (1991, 2003, 2013) himself highlights, apart from the first factor, none of the others are exclusive to ‘native speakers’.

We’ve dealt with point 2 (language intuition) above. As points 3, 4 and 6 are concerned, think of people like Joseph Conrad, born and baptised in Poland as Józef Korzeniowski. Or Vladimir Nabokov. But also thousands of other ‘non-native speakers’ who are incredibly proficient in English.

While it is more common for translators and interpreters to translate into their L1, there are also those who translate into L2. Personally, I find it much easier to switch between Spanish and English (or vice versa), rather than any of these two and my L1, Polish. I’m not a professional translator or an interpreter, but your L1 does not make you one either, so I don’t see why you couldn’t learn to translate into your L2 (or L3).

This leaves us with early childhood acquisition. What is it, though, that a child acquires? Well, clearly points 2-6. But then it seems that they don’t seem to be exclusive to ‘native speakers’, which means we’re back to square one.

Geoff Jordan also quotes a review of the research that has been conducted on critical/sensitive period, which seems to suggest that it is incredibly rare for ‘non-native speakers’ to reach ‘native-like’ proficiency, as there are different cut-off points. This might well be true, although we still have the problem of defining ‘native-speaker’ proficiency (or indeed the ‘native speakers’ who took part in those studies). There are also the studies cited above on grammaticality which show that ultimate attainment is possible even for adult learners. And of course there all those ‘non-native speakers’ out there who are virtually indistinguishable from a ‘native speaker’. Finally, to quote Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2003, p.580) – whose 2009 paper Geoff quotes to prove there is a fundamental difference between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ – “the highly successful L2 speakers that we have characterised as having reached ‘only’ near-native proficiency are, in fact, native-like in all contexts except perhaps in the laboratory of the linguist with specific interest in second language learning mechanisms.”

So while Geoff is 100% convinced that there must be a fundamental linguistic difference between the two groups, I think we would do well to hedge this statement: there MIGHT be a difference. One reason is that while SLA researchers have placed nativeness at the centre of its enquiry (i.e. as the benchmark against which learners’ progress should be measured), they have had surprisingly little to say about who this ‘native’ (or ‘non-native’) under scrutiny actually is (Davies, 2013). As Han (2004) points out, SLA researchers – such as Sorace (2003) cited earlier – have taken the ‘native speaker’ for granted, to a large extent ignoring the individual (linguistic) differences between them.

The second reason is that while Geoff authoritatively states that there is a difference between the two groups, other researchers in the field are much more cautious. For example, in a recent publication Hulstijn (2015) observes that while past a certain age it MIGHT be difficult or unlikely for people to acquire ‘native-like’ proficiency, it is possible (see e.g. Birdsong’s studies). Furthermore, he also points out that even though some learners don’t reach full mastery (as measured by an SLA researcher in lab conditions), they can still be functionally bilingual, which brings us back to Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson’s quote from above.

Even more importantly, however, I think we need to look beyond language proficiency as the defining characteristic of a ‘native speaker’. In fact, it is quite ironic that in the opening sentence of his blog post Geoff calls Russ Mayne (Evidence-based EFL) a “cheery cherry-picker of evidence”, when he himself has cheerfully cherry-picked the evidence limiting the discussion to SLA research, completely ignoring wider sociocultural issues that are also at play. I wouldn’t be the first one to say that SLA should adopt a more socially informed approach, though. For a very extensive discussion please see Block (2003).

So I’m not saying the evidence Geoff presented is wrong. However, it is very limited. And thus questionable.

As Block (2003, p.4) says, SLA has for a long time dealt with “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”. Who the ‘native’ or the ‘non-native speaker’ under study really is has very rarely been problematised in SLA. However, Block’s (and others’) calls for a more socioculturally oriented SLA have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The possible reason for this is exemplified really well by one of Geoff’s Tweets where he referred to what I’m planning to engage in the rest of the post as “sociolinguistic twaddle that obfuscates a simple psychological reality”. But wouldn’t the reverse hold true as well? Namely, that the psycholinguistic twaddle obfuscates a rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality?

I’ll let you judge for yourself. But let’s look at the evidence first, shall we?

Sociolinguistics and the ‘native speaker’

So, putting psycholinguistic differences and the issue of proficiency aside for a minute, there are two other good reasons why I would never call myself a ‘native speaker’ of English, or of any other language that isn’t Polish for that matter. And they have nothing to do with my proficiency in English, or in Polish. The first reason is because I don’t feel affiliated with the language. In other words, I don’t feel I belong in the ‘native speaker’ community (Brutt-Griffler & Samimy, 2001). Even if I did, though, would I be accepted as a ‘native speaker’?

The answer is quite likely no. So affiliating with the speech community and being proficient aren’t enough. The third factor is being accepted as a ‘native speaker’ by the speech community (Inbar-Lourie, 2005). This of course can lead to differences between the self-perceived and externally perceived linguistic identity of a speaker. For example, some people would describe themselves as a ‘native speaker’ and affiliate with the speech community, but wouldn’t be accepted as such, or vice versa.

The reasons for this can be quite varied, but many scholars have pointed out that being a ‘native speaker’ of English is frequently associated with being white and Western-looking (Kubota & Fujimoto, 2013; Romney, 2010). For example, Li and Andres, two ‘native speaker’ teachers of English of Hong Kong and Mexican descent, respectively, who were studied by Javier (2016), report having their ‘nativeness’ questioned on numerous occasions by students, recruiters and colleagues. So while in an SLA researcher’s lab they might be authoritatively proclaimed to be classic ‘native speakers’, they don’t seem to be treated as such in reality.

To illustrate this further, I’d encourage you to watch this short clip.

Another problem is that some multilingual people find it difficult to identify with one or the other group. For example, Faez (2011) studied English teachers in Canada and their feeling of linguistic self-identity. The participants identified with six different categories:

  1. bilingual;
  2. English as a first language speaker;
  3. second-generation English speaker;
  4. English-dominant;
  5. L1-dominant;
  6. English-variety speaker (Faez, 2011, p. 16).

And there is more. Piller (2002), for example, interviewed L2 users of English. A third of them reported they could successfully assume the ‘native speaker’ identity and pass off as one in front of other ‘native speakers’. A curious finding from this study was also that the participants had had their L1 identity, or their ‘nativeness’ questioned at times – corroborating Javier’s (2016) findings. As a result, Piller suggested that being a ‘native speaker’ is something one does, rather than an immutable category bestowed on the individual at birth.

As a proficient speaker of three languages (but possibly a ‘native speaker’ of just one of them), I can completely relate to Piller’s (2002) findings. For example, there are times where I can and in fact do pass for a ‘native speaker’ of Spanish (whether I am one psycholinguistically is a different kettle of fish, but I’m not planning to go to an SLA lab any time soon to find out). In addition, my proficiency in Polish seems to fluctuate a lot too. For example, after prolonged stays abroad some of my relatives or friends have told me I speak in a strange way, and I catch myself translating idioms directly from English or Spanish to Polish.

To sum up, there might be psycholinguistic differences between the two groups. However, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Especially as far as English is concerned, there are important questions of power, prejudice and racism. To give you an analogy, we’d probably all agree that there are certain biological and physiological differences between men and women. However, we’d also agree that there are many individuals who would find it difficult to subscribe to one or the other category, and that we cannot simply ignore the sociocultural reality when talking about these two groups. And being a ‘native speaker’ is far from so biologically or physiologically clear-cut as being a man or a woman.

What I’m trying to say is that while there MIGHT be psycholinguistic differences between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’, we can’t ignore the sociolinguistic aspects. If we do, we are simply – to steal Geoff’s phrase – cheerfully cherry-picking evidence.

Whichever position you subscribe too, though, or even if you’re sitting on the fence; there’s a very important question that remains.

What do we do with the ‘native speaker’?

Paikeday (1985a) tried killing it over forty years ago (see his article May I kill the native speaker?). Not the flesh-and-blood ‘native speaker’, you see, but the term itself as it is currently and uncritically used in linguistics and SLA. To cut a long story short, Paikeday utterly failed.

But many others followed. This time not trying to kill the ‘native speaker’, but offering more neutral and objective terms to use in SLA and ELT. For example Rampton (1990) suggested expert user. Jenkins (2000, 2007, 2015a) proposed using monolingual, bilingual and non-bilingual English speaker, while Paikeday (1985b) – having failed to kill the ‘native speaker’ – suggested proficient user. The problem with all these attempts is that they have had very little impact, and the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ are still widely used.

The second option is to continue using the two terms and the acronyms NEST, NNEST, NS and NNS. This has certainly helped put the finger down on the problem of discrimination many ‘non-native speakers’ suffer from. It has also led to an establishment of what some have referred to as a NNEST movement, creation of a NNEST Interest Section by TESOL International, as well as countless articles and books on the topic (Kamhi-Stein, 2016; Selvi, 2014, 2016). However, as Kumaravadivelu (2016) points out, what the NNEST movement has utterly failed at is bringing about a more equal professional ELT field, where teachers are judged on their merits rather than a perceived belonging to one or the other group.

In addition, the continuous use of the two terms and their acronyms has led to a situation where they are accepted as well-defined, objective and value-free. Yet, who is perceived as a ‘native speaker’ is anything but an objective matter, but has everything to do with power, prejudice, ideology and even racism. As Holliday (2013, p.25) writes, the two labels are “ideological, chauvinistic and divisive”, and the quasi-mythological status the ‘native speaker’ enjoys in linguistics, SLA and ELT has very little to do with language proficiency, but everything with opinions and biases (Aboshiha, 2015) that are themselves rooted in the ideology of native speakerism (Holliday, 2005, 2015).

I’d argue – as Davies (2011) did – that both being a ‘native speaker’ and the mother tongue are fundamentally social traits, just as culture is. This ties in with Rampton’s (1990) distinction between language expertise, inheritance and affiliation. In other words, you might be a ‘native speaker’ in terms of language proficiency, however, you don’t necessarily need to have inherited the language, nor to feel affiliated with it. All the other permutations are of course also possible.

What I’m trying to say is that who is a ‘native speaker’ (and who isn’t), just like any aspect of our identity is “dynamic, dialogic, multiple, situated, and, more importantly, contextually negotiated” (Faez, 2011, p.5). It can also evolve over time (see e.g. Hansen, 2004). And there are times in ELT when it’s not you who decides whether you are or aren’t a ‘native speaker’, but the recruiter. Or the students. Or your colleagues.

As a result, I think it’s important that we recognise these complexities and stop treating ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ as if they were well-defined and objectives categories of meaning. The two groups might be different, but the difference is much more complex, nuanced, fuzzy and subjective than what Geoff presented in his post.

So I’m not that surprised after all that Adrian Holliday refuses to review research that treats ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ as though the groups are real and not imagined. Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction. Perhaps Block’s (2003) call for a more socioculturally oriented SLA will be finally heard. At the very least, when used in research, the two categories need to be problematised, and their subjective nature needs to be recognised.

Hence the inverted commas (see Holliday 2005, 2013, 2015). To remind the writer and the reader that ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ are very much subjective, ideological and value-laden terms. And to distinguish the flesh and blood ‘native speaker’ (Davies, 2013) from the fantastic beast the NS has become in theoretical linguistics and SLA labs.

If you’re interested in further exploring these issues, you might enjoy the on-line course Going beyond the ‘native speaker’ model in ELT, which I run on TEFL Equity Academy. It’s a 20-hour course where we discuss the issues we touched upon in this blog post in much more detail, and look at the practical implications this discussion has for teachers, trainers and materials writers.


Bialystok, E. (1997). The structure of age: in search of barriers to second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 13(2), 116–137. https://doi.org/10.1191/026765897677670241

Birdsong, D. (1992). Ultimate attainment in second language acquisition. Language, 68(4), 706–755. https://doi.org/10.1353/lan.1992.0035

Birdsong, D. (2004). Second Language Acquisition and Ultimate Attainment. In A. Davies & C. Elder (Eds.), The Handbook of Applied Linguistics (pp. 82–105). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Block, D. (2003). The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition . Edinburgh University Press.

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Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Davies, A. (1991). The native speaker in applied linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Davies, A. (2001). What Second Language Learners Can Tell Us about the Native Speaker: Identifying and Describing Exceptions. In R. L. Cooper, E. Shohamy, & J. Walters (Eds.), New Perspectives and Issues in Educational Language Policy (pp. 91–112). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Benjamins.

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32 thoughts on “Of native speakers and other fantastic beasts”

  1. Hi Marek,
    I enjoyed your thorough treatment of the differences between NS and NNS of any language. I was particularly intrigued about the ‘self-perceived and externally perceived linguistic identity of a speaker’.
    I was raised as a bilingual (Italian and Finnish) and I identify myself as NS of Finnish even though my proficiency in the language has dimished over the years and has been surpassed by my proficiency in English.
    Nevertheless I will never consider myself as an English NS and I even feel extremely self-conscious whenever I speak English with the so-called NS.
    When I teach I do not have this problem though and in the classroom I feel confident.
    My Delta tutor defined me trilingual but I don’t feel that way either.
    I agree with the importance you give to sociolinguistic factors (not only to psycholinguistics). Maybe we could add psychological factors as well.
    It is a pity though that the terms NS and NNS have not yet been susbstituted by other terms that might better reflect the realities of our multifarious, multicultural, multilingual society.
    Just like David Crystal says in your homepage about applicants for an English teaching position: ‘I would not be interested in where they were born, what their first language was, or whether they had a regional accent’.
    The definition of native as ‘relating to or describing someone’s country or place of birth or someone who was born in a particular country or place’ from the Cambridge online dictionary is too limited for its use in this field.
    I hope you will continue advocating for ‘NNST’ of English for a looong time.

    1. Thanks for your comment and for sharing your story. Can I ask if you ever feel self-conscious when speaking Finish? Why (not)?
      It is a pity no other terms have caught on, but I can’t see this happening any time soon, unfortunately. ‘Native’ and ‘non-native’ are too deeply embedded in both the professional and the everyday discourses. What we can do, though, is start with the professional discourse – use alternative labels, use inverted commas, problematise the terms whenever using them in research, etc.
      Cambridge definition is indeed very limited. The best researchers have come up with in my opinion is that the ‘native speaker’ is proficient (in Davies’ sense), affiliates with the speech community, and is accepted as a member of this community. But then of course we’ve got all the borderline cases who don’t fit the description. Perhaps the whole enterprise of trying to define the term is misguided. After all, no labelling applied to groups of people will ever be complete or objective. What do you think?

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  4. Thanks for the blog post Marek. It’s really interesting and helps to put the whole issue of the “non-native” teacher bias into a wider context. I think I’ll use (and then point out) the inverted commas every time I write about/speak about this in future. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a change in terminology any time soon but for me, what’s more important, is a change in attitude and that’s already started. I like the term multilingual to draw attention to the positive aspect of a “non-native” teacher. Unfortunately it gets complicated when a “native” teacher might also be multilingual. Children usually see things in a much simpler way. My son and daughter always used to call their (“non-native”) English teachers, ‘Teacher’. Because at the end of the day, that’s all that mattered. Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Katherine,
      Sorry for not getting back to you earlier. I’ve also made a conscious decision to try and use the inverted commas whenever I use the two terms. It’s a bit tedious, but serves really well as a reminder for myself and the reader that they are very subjective.
      You’re right about the term multilingual. And in fact all the other proposed labels bring in their own problems and inadequacies.
      I love that from your daughter! Couldn’t agree more – at the end of the day, we’re all English teachers.
      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  5. Hi Marek, thank you for your answer. You raised some very interesting questions. First of all, you asked me if I ever feel self-conscious when speaking in Finnish and the answer would be it depends. Sometimes in shops or when dealing with the administration or the local authorities I might. I think it depends on knowing those set sentences the locals use in the same situations. However the same happened to me in Italy a few years ago when I was attending the Delta course in Milan (once a week for about 9 months). Italian is definitely the language I identify with the most having lived in Italy almost my whole life. Anyway every week I had to buy a couple of underground tickets. The first few times I asked for them using the word underground and explaining where I had to go. Then I listened to some people from Milan buying them and for the rest of the course I just said the number of tickets I needed and I felt part of the bustling city life.
    You also asked my opinion on the whole labelling groups of people as ‘NS’ or ‘NNS’. I think that we could do without both terms altogether.
    The point is either you are a teacher of English, just like Katherine Bilborough said, or you’re not.
    I believe that certain requirements should be met before anyone can call themselves a teacher of any language. And identifying oneself as a speaker of that particular language is only part of the story.
    I am not a teacher of the Italian language for example, even though some people might think it would be no problem at all for me teaching Italian. Well it would be. I have not studied to be a teacher of Italian. Or Finnish. I have studied to be a teacher of English though. At university (MA). Then I got a state qualification here in Italy to be recognised as a licensed teacher of English. Then I took the Celta (more on that on a future blog post, not the best of experiences!). And then the Delta. I am a teacher of English. That’s my job. Regardless of which language I may or may not identify with and regardless of being recognised as part of that language’s speaker community.
    Which is the reason why I’ve turned down several times the offer to teach Italian.
    What really gets me mad is that a lot of mother tongue English speakers still think they can teach English even though they have no qualification whatsoever. They have studied other subjects at school/university and they may have no interest in teaching, but hey it’s an easy way to work and travel the world.
    In Italy, by the way, only mother tongue English speakers can teach only with a high school diploma otherwise you will need at least to have majored in the language you want to teach. Which is also outrageous to me. Not the part where you need an MA (which is fair) but that you need it or not depending on your passport.
    As regards proficiency wouldn’t it be cool and even fun if everybody had to take the C2 test in all the languages they feel most confident about including their mother (or father) tongue? The results might surprise us all.
    Your Tefl equity enterprise is most welcome in the industry. We badly needed it.
    So thank you Marek.

    1. Thanks for your answer!
      I sometimes feel self conscious when speaking my L1, and at other times when speaking my L2, 3 and so on. This is usually connected to my not feeling proficient enough in terms of lexis in the topic. Or when I realise that I haven’t phrased something ‘naturally’. Often also when I need to talk about something in one language that I’ve read in another language. I guess it comes back to what we discussed earlier – your proficiency in L1, 2, 3, etc. varies depending on the context.
      In terms of the labelling, I agree that we could definitely do without it. However, as I said in the post, many alternatives have been proposed, but none is used anywhere near as often as ‘native’ and ‘non-native’. So I’m a bit sceptical we can get rid of the labels any time soon. Perhaps, though, we can promote not using the two terms in job ads, school websites and publicity materials, etc. That would be a good start.
      Totally agree with you on the point that we’re all English teachers. And we should be primarily valued for this,not for our passports.
      Thanks for your positive feedback. It’s thanks to people like you, who comment, share, discuss the topic, and who are passionate about equal opportunities, that this whole enterprise is worth all the time and effort it takes to run it 🙂

  6. Sorry, sorry Marek. I forgot one thing I wanted to say. Proficinecy in any given language (including our own mother/father tongues) changes according to how much we practice it and how much exposure to it we get.

    1. I would totally agree with this. I’d also add that your proficiency in a language can vary depending on the context. For example, as far as ELT and linguistics are concerned, I feel much more proficient in English than in Polish, but there are other areas of the language where it might be the other way round. As with overall proficiency, this depends on exposure to the language and practice.

  7. Whilst ‘ability to translate into their L1’ might be a definitive characteristic of ‘native speaker proficiency’ plainly it cannot be a definitive characteristic of being a native speaker. Just thinking about this makes my head hurt.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Patrick! Confusing, I know. I’ll try to explain. So being fully proficient in a language (whether as a ‘native’ or a ‘non-native speaker’) gives you the potential to translate into this language. However, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it well or easily. I think you’ll still need some serious training. Does this clarify matters a bit?

      1. Hi Marek. Thanks for your reply. What’s confusing me is that the ability to translate into a language surely requires at least some knowledge of another language to translate from. Could this really be a necesary condition of being a native speaker of a language? That it necessarily entails some degree of proficiency in another language? Otherwise, we seem to be talking about an ability to translate from a language into itself. That’s the part that makes my brain hurt. I think I see what you mean now, though. Being a native speaker of a language would involve the ‘potential’ to translate into that language, conditional upon sufficient knowledge of another language from which to translate (i.e. any inability to translate into the language of which one is a native speaker would be a consequence, not of any lack of proficiency in that language but of a lack of proficiency in other languages). This right?

        1. Hi Patrick,
          You made a very interesting observation there that had never occurred to me when reading Davies’ work. Yes, the ability to translate is conditional on knowing another language. I’d also add that translating and interpreting on a professional level is conditional on extensive training. But being highly proficient does give you the potential to do it.
          The more I think about it, though, the more I want to get rid of this characteristic from the list. Perhaps any list aiming to define ‘native-like’ proficiency will be inherently flawed?

  8. Hi Marek. A bit late in the day but… I suspect that Geoff insists on the NS-NNS distinction because it is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project (to which he is fervently – dare I say uncritically – committed) which presupposes an innately determined (hence genetic) language learning device which, like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period, whereafter general (i.e. non-language specific) learning abilities kick-in, accounting for the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters. If, on the other hand, you take the perfectly plausible view (e.g. argued by Michael Tomasello, Nick Ellis, and many others) that general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go, and hence that there is no need to hypothesise either a genetically-programmed language acquisition device nor a qualitative difference between native and non-native speakers, then the whole Chomskyan enterprise collapses, taking with it the distinction between man and beasts, and leading to the end of civilization as we know it.

    1. Hi Scott,
      Not late at all 🙂
      That would definitely clarify a lot about his insistence that there is a clear, objective and fixed division between the two groups. I have a feeling that this is crucial to the whole SLA enterprise, really, since a lot of it is based on comparing learners’ interlanguage and progress to the ‘native speaker’. Unless you assume that all ‘native speakers’ have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to (and unless you assume that we know exactly who a ‘native speaker’ is), you can’t really do much SLA research.
      I do find it a bit strange, though, that in SLA the ‘native speaker’ is treated as the ultimate language learning goal (even though that ‘native speaker’ never learned their L1), but at the same time you fiercely defend the proposition that this goal can never be achieved.
      And as you point out, the ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers, is really the Chomskean NS, the idealised speaker-hearer. Have you read Evans’ “The language myth. Why language is not an instinct”? Very good book. Quite an eye-opener. Chomsky’s ideas have dominated linguistics for such a long time that it’s quite difficult to hear any voices of dissent, even though there are many. So a very refreshing take.
      Thanks for commenting!

      1. Thanks, Marek. Yes, I have read Evans. I’d also recommend Christiansen & Chater (2016) ‘Creating Language: Integrating Acquisition, evolution and processing’, which offers a coherent and research-informed riposte to what they call ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy’, i.e. ‘not only that linguistics has been separated from the other language sciences but also that the study of processing, acquisition and evolution have become separated from one another’.

        Also worth looking at is Diane Larsen-Freeman’s chapter in Han & Tarone (2014) ‘Interlanguage: 40 years later’, in which she quotes Heidi Byrnes (2014) to the effect:

        ‘In what has been called the “bilingual turn” in language studies, authors find fault with (1) the undue weight being given to an accident of birth and a concomitant denial of the effects of history, culture and societal use; (2) the undisputed authority and legitimacy in representing and arbitrating standards of form and use enjoyed by native speakers; and (3) the troubling disregard of current social, political and cultural realities of multilingualism and ever-changing forms of hybridity between multiple languages as learners adopt and adapt various identities in diverse circumstances of life’.

        ‘The undue weight being given to an accident of birth’ would seem to be part and parcel of ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy’.

        1. Thanks for the recommendations. They sound very interesting.
          Couldn’t agree more with Freeman. Similar criticisms have been expressed by several other authors over the years. I’m just not sure how many of those who should be listening to these criticisms are actually listening. For example, in one of the two posts on the native speaker, Geoff dismissed the need for a multilingual turn in SLA out of hand.

    2. Has anyone ever suggested that ‘non-language specific learning capacities’ are not implicated in language acquisition’? The suggestion that language acquisition is unaffected by our general understanding of the world that we use language to talk about is, on the face of it, so obviously absurd that the principle of charity, I think, compels us to avoid imputing it to any writer who does not categorically and unambiguously state that that is what s/he means. Certainly, I am unaware of anything in the writings of either Noam Chomsky or Geoff Jordan that would imply that they hold this view.

      1. Hi Patrick, sorry, only just seen this comment. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t suggesting that Chomsky-ites reject any role for non-language specific learning capacities, only that they also hypothesize genetically-endowed language-specific faculties, what has been variously labelled UG or LAD, something that Tomasello and company so no need for.

  9. I don’t think you have to prescribe to or believe in “innateness” to understand the fact that there is a clear distinction between NS and NNS of a language. It’s a fact of linguistics. That it is given undue weight in terms of student learning is also unfortunately true.

    Exposure to a language at a young age (not just “born into this” or of birth – that’s a red herring) is the key criteria. I don’t espouse to Chomskyian black box, LAD theory. I think it is absurd. But I do think most sensible people do understand that phonologically (and that is key and stands outside “generally learning theory” I’d recommend reading some of Patricia Kuhl’s research regarding infant learning), there is a critical period of development where language is acquired “naturally” and which we understand as “native”.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for commenting.
      As far as I understand the critical period (pls correct me if I’m wrong – I haven’t read extensively on the topic), there are different critical periods for different aspects of the language. And it’s difficult to find a clear cut point in time after which more acquisition won’t happen. Perhaps the clearest one is pronunciation, but then you will always find a few exceptional adult learners who acquire native-like pronunciation past the critical period.
      Whatever the case may be, my main argument in this post was that we need to look beyond psycholinguistics and use evidence and findings from more sociolinguistic studies to fully understand the phenomenon. In other words, while there might be linguistic differences between the two groups, the ones of power, prejudice and politics are often much more important.

      1. Hi again, Marek. Here, I think, you could make a stronger argument for your main thesis than you do. I used to teach Greek youngsters. Some of them would ask me how they could pronounce English like a ‘native-speaker’. I had to reply that there is, indeed, in that sense, no ‘native speaker’ to sound like. You’d have to specify, at the very least, which region of which English speaking country and which social class within that region was the native speaker whom you wished to sound like. To regard someone who speaks English with, say, a Greek accent, as not having native-like pronunciation but someone from the Appalachian mountains, or any other region of the English speaking world, as having native, or native-like, pronunciation, is indeed to introduce an arbitrary distinction between ‘native’ and ‘non-native’, unless, that is, features of pronunciation can be found that are common to ‘native speakers’ (defined in some way) which are not present in the speech of ‘non-native’ speakers.

  10. Hi Marek –
    I’m obviously a bit late to the party here, so apologies for that.
    I’m in broad agreement with the way you frame the concept of ‘native speakerness’ and ‘non-native speakerness’.
    I’m also a keen advocate of an idea I first grasped from Hoey, which is that all of our Englishes are different. 100% of the English you used in this beautifully written piece is also part of my own English, but it won’t all be a part of the English of every single person born in the UK. In the same way, the detritus of 70s and 80s advertising slogans (Splash it all over, For mash get smash, go to work on an egg, etc.) are part of my own English,. but many younger (and possibly older) ‘native speakers’ won’t get those references, etc.
    However, where I’m struggling is how all the above ties in with the recent discussion we had on social media where you claimed to be a speaker of ELF and said that coursebooks of English privileged what you called native-speaker models of speech. This position seems totally incompatible with the post above. Either native-speaker English exists or it doesn’t. You surely can’t see yourself both as a speaker of ELF, whatever that may or mat not mean, AND as someone whose English differs in no obvious way from that of a ‘native’.

    1. Hi Hugh,
      Never too late! Great to have you 🙂
      I definitely agree that you can’t really neatly package a language, as it’s constantly changing and evolving. And I think ELF, or EIL, or however else we want to call it, is just one more manifestation of how English is changing.
      I don’t think you can be a speaker of ELF in the sense that you’re a speaker of a particular variety of British English. I understand it more as a linguistic phenomenon, a way of using the language, and also a shift in perspective on teaching and learning English. So for example, when it comes to teaching pronunciation, conformity with standard British or general American English is largely irrelevant. In fact, certain features we pay a lot of attention to in class, for example connected speech or weak forms, actually reduce intelligibility in international contexts. Others, such as word stress, seem to be inconsequential. Taking these research findings into account, as teachers we might need to rethink which aspects of pronunciation we prioritise in class, for example.
      On course books, I have little more to add than what I mentioned in the FB chat. I agree with you that the language presented in course books is to a large extent quite different from the English that a native speaker might use in real life (I hope I’m not imagining it that you said something along those lines). However, if you look at the global course books, overall they do emphasise a standard ‘native speaker’ form of the language, usually with a focus either on British or American English. This is definitely changing, but there’s a definite need in my opinion for course books that feature a wider variety and models of Englishes, especially as far as ‘non-native speaker ones are concerned.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂
      And see you soon in Brno!

      1. Hi again Marek –
        Glad to see you’ve pulled back from some of the more outlandish claims about ELF, but still not quite sure how you can reconcile some of the beliefs expressed in your response above with the ideas in the post here.

        If what you’re saying is that languages change, and that part of the way that English changes is as a result of its use around the world, then that’s simply stating the obvious.

        If, though, you’re still saying that ELF is somehow “a way of using the language” then are you not somehow claiming that ‘non-natives’ use language differently to ‘natives’? And what are these different ways of using the language that non-ELF users somehow can’t do? Or is anyone who uses English as a lingua franca in any context by definition somehow included under this vast ELF umbrella? It’s all very confusing (or confused!) and I;’m not sure the casual reader will be any closer to understand what ELF is or isn’t from these comments. Is it not just time to put the whole sorry flawed concept out to pasture and move on?

        The rest of your argument about classroom practice and coursebooks seems, as far as I can tell, to be mainly based on concerns about pronunciation models and teaching. Is that correct?

        1. Hi Hugh,
          Which outlandish claims about ELF do you mean?
          So in this post I’ve argued that when defining who a native speaker is, we need to go beyond a narrow SLA definition focused on proficiency. There are many non-native speakers who are so highly proficient that they’re virtually indistinguishable from native speakers. However, there are also many non-native speakers who are clearly distinguishable from native speakers in terms of their language use, pronunciation and overall proficiency. And I’d say that many non-native speakers to a lesser or greater extent use English differently from a native speaker (not worse, mind you – differently). For example, research on corpus has shown that they drop the third person s, or that they don’t make a distinction between who and which. That’s not to say that all non-native speakers will use English in this way; just as you can’t really say that all native speakers or even all native speakers from a particular country will use English in the same way.
          In terms of defining ELF, to me it’s simply a contact language between two or more people who usually don’t share another common language and use English to communicate. This might involve only non-native speakers, but there could also be native speakers present, but just by sheer numbers, they’re likely to be in a minority. You might want to look at it in terms of a paradigm shift from EFL and ESL (or any other foreign language pedagogy), where the language is typically learned to interact with native speakers.
          As far as classroom practice and course books go, pronunciation is definitely an important implication of ELF research. I’d also say there are important implications for listening – e.g. exposing our students to a variety of English users from around the world. Another implication is to help students develop intercultural communicative skills.

          1. So just to check I’ve got it now . . . there’s no definitive difference between ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives’. Except when there is. And then that difference, which may include things like not using a third person -s isn’t ‘worse’ than ‘native-speaker English’, it’s simply a manifestation of ELF. So ‘non-natives’ who can and do use things like third-person -s aren’t ‘better’ speakers of English than these other ‘non-natives’. They’re just different. In a similar way to the way that I myself am different to them. And when I speak to a perfectly fluent and competent ‘non-native’ like you I’m using ELF because you don’t identify as ‘native’, but if I was to write this comment to, say, Gavin Dudeney, that wouldn’t be ELF because English isn’t a lingua franca for the two of us. Have I got it yet?

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