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.

References:

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.

Brutt-Griffler, J., & Samimy, K. K. (2001). Transcending the nativeness paradigm. World Englishes, 20(1), 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-971X.00199

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.

Davies, A. (2003). The native speaker: myth and reality (2nd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Davies, A. (2012). Native Speaker. In The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0855/abstract

Davies, A. (2013). Native Speakers and Native Users: Loss and Gain. Cambridge University Press.

Faez, F. (2011). Reconceptualizing the Native/Nonnative Speaker Dichotomy. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 10(4), 231–249.

Han, Z. (2004). To be a native speaker means not to be a nonnative speaker (Book Review). Second Language Research, 20(2), 166–187.

Hulstijn, J. H. (2015). Language proficiency in native and non-native speakers: theory and research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Hyltenstaam, K. and N. Abrahamsson. (2003). Maturational constraints in SLA. In C. J. Doughty and M. H. Long (Eds.), The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp.539-588). Oxford: Blackwell.

Inbar-Lourie, O. (2005). Mind the Gap: Self and Perceived Native Speaker Identities of EFL Teachers. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 265–281). New York: Springer US. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/0-387-24565-0_14

Javier, E. (2016). “Almost” native speakers: the experiences of Visible Ethnic-Minority Native English-Speaking Teachers. In F. Copland, S. Garton, & S. Mann (Eds.), LETs and NESTs: Voices, Views and Vignettes. (pp. 227–239). London: British Council.

Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (2016). The non-native English speaker teachers in TESOL movement. ELT Journal, 70(2), 180–189. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccv076

Kubota, R., & Fujimoto, D. (2013). Racialized Native Speakers: Voices of Japanese American English Language Professionals. In S. Houghton & D. J. Rivers (Eds.), Native-speakerism in Japan. Intergroup dynamics in foreign language education (pp. 196–206). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2016). The Decolonial Option in English Teaching: Can the Subaltern Act? TESOL Quarterly, 50(1), 66–85. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.202

Rampton, M. B. H. (1990). Displacing the “native speaker”: expertise, affiliation, and inheritance. ELT Journal, 44(2), 97–101. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/44.2.97

Romney, M. (2010). The Color of English. In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST Lens: Non Native English Speakers in TESOL (pp. 18–34). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Paikeday, T. M. (1985a). May I Kill the Native Speaker? TESOL Quarterly, 19(2), 390–395. https://doi.org/10.2307/3586840

Paikeday, T. M. (1985b). The Native Speaker Is Dead! An Informal Discussion of a Linguistic Myth with Noam Chomsky and Other Linguists, Philosophers, Psychologists, and Lexicographers. Toronto: Paikeday Pub. Inc.

Selvi, A. F. (2014). Myths and Misconceptions about Nonnative English Speakers in the TESOL (NNEST) Movement. TESOL Journal, 5(3), 573–611.

Selvi, A. F. (2016). Native or non-native English-speaking professionals in ELT: “That is the question!” or “Is that the question?” In F. Copland, S. Garton, & S. Mann (Eds.), LETs and NESTs: Voices, Views and Vignettes. (pp. 51–67). London: British Council.

Sorace, A. (2003). ‘Near-nativeness’. In The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition , ed. C. J. Doughty and M. H. Long. Oxford: Blackwell. 130-151.