Saturday, 18 October 2014

Native multilinguals

Some of my language teaching students sometimes express out loud their heartfelt desire to become native speakers. I was quite baffled the first time I heard this: we’re all native speakers, surely, and we can’t become natives, if we take the word “native” to mean what I supposed it is meant to mean, ‘from birth’. But does it? It turned out that my students’ previous teacher training had included the mantra that “native” means ‘flawless’ in this collocation, and flawless, whatever we take this word to mean, is certainly something that all of us can at least aspire to become.

This latter meaning of the word “native” has in fact been made quite explicit in the literature about “second” (or “foreign”) languages – with my profuse apologies for the scare quotes that will crop up all over this post: I’ve no idea what the scared words might mean, in this literature. This meaning explains, for example, why some of us think it a worthwhile endeavour to compare school language learners to “native speakers”, for purposes of language quality assessment. But there is a snag: if learning languages from birth entails flawless use of those languages, how come multilinguals across the board, including simultaneous multilinguals who learn more than one language from Day One, go on being compared to “native speakers”?

The thing is that “native speaker” has yet a third meaning, ‘monolingual’, this time a covert one, which nevertheless heeds the overt, systematic practice of comparing any multilinguals to monolinguals. This meaning explains, for example, the virtual absence of acknowledgement that multilinguals can be “native” users of their languages. If we accept that multilingual proficiency should be assessed through comparison with “native” proficiency, then we’re saying that multilinguals and natives are two distinct kinds of language users, since we can’t compare a thing to itself.

But there is another snag. If multilinguals aren’t native users of their languages, then they must be “non-native”, by the logic of the assumedly useful labels which populate research on language uses. However, they aren’t, because multilinguals get compared to non-natives, too. In addition, simultaneous multilinguals can’t be “non-native”, if their languages are there for them from Day One, which is one of the meanings of “native”. Multilinguals, in sum, appear to inhabit a Linguistic No Man’s Land.

“Day One”, unfortunately, may not be what clinches the issue either. If the language(s) in which we’re brought up from birth happen to be imported languages, then those languages aren’t “ours”. And if we learn a new language in early childhood, though not exactly from Day One, how many days should we count to count as a native user of it? Can I, for example, claim French as native language, having lived with it from just before age 3? Or was I then already way past my native learning prime, as I must have been when I learned my other languages several years later? If you’re interested in the mysteries of “critical periods” which snipe at “native” language learning abilities, Carmen Muñoz and David Singleton’s state of the art discussion, A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment, is a must-read.

Scare-quoted terminological acrobatics about multilingualism would be hilarious, of course, if it didn’t appear in “serious” research, thereby proving that we’ve no idea what we’re talking about. Have a look in my article First language acquisition and teaching, to see what I mean. The muddle got compounded when researchers developed a preference for labelling the languages of a multilingual by means of numbers, possibly on the belief that identifying things by numbers makes them look scientifically unquestionable. There’s always some “L1” lurking in there somewhere, which means that there must be rankings of L2, ... Ln, where the numbers apparently serve the purpose of showing that languages either politely follow one another or should do so.

But what do these numbers mean when, say, simultaneous multilinguals learn one or more new languages in school? Not much, it seems, because we prefer to stick to labels rather than acknowledge their undefinable uselessness. Since “L1” represents an inherently singular concept (in more than one sense of “singular”), the logic of cardinal and ordinal numbering requires that L1 = “first language”, whereby everyone must have a single “first” language, endowed with rights of primogeniture associated with other firstborns. If there’s no single chronological first language, no problem: we just assign one to children, for reasons of administrative expediency, and call it their “mother tongue”. Finally, by the logic that first = “best”, we end up talking about “dominant” and “balanced” languages, and about all the other hopeless labels which do no more than betray our hopeless beliefs that multilinguals are, in fact, funny monolinguals.

This state of affairs may well explain why multilingualism goes on being blamed for anything that deviates from monolingualism, to which I’ll return some other day. Meanwhile, the next post, a guest post, goes back to where this post started, to report vivid encounters with “nativeness” from a language teacher who’s also had plenty of reasons to wonder about the meaning of this word.

© MCF 2014 

Next post: =Guest post= Nativeness: The curse and blessings of genes, geography and cadence, by Ng Wan Qing Jessie. Saturday 15th November 2014.


  1. Very interesting post.

    You can, of course, compare a thing to itself, as in A=A. But I do agree that the set theory that is used by investigators of L1 and L2 is a bit jumbled, as one can in fact be a native speaker of more than one language, and a multilingual speaker can be a native speaker of at least one language, though often more than one. I have, however, met some multilinguals who have native proficiency in none of the languages they speak. That can happen, though it is rare.

    Being indistinguishable from a native speaker by most other native speakers is a good test for native speaker ability. Never mind that some machine might be able to point out deviations so minute that a human would never notice.

  2. Aya: interesting what you say about the multilinguals you’ve met who have no native proficiency in any of their languages. Would the same be true of (some) monolinguals, I wonder, depending on what we mean by “native proficiency”? The whole issue is indeed *very* jumbled up, as you say, starting with absent, blurry, misleading definitions of the terms we use to talk about it.

    About equality signs: what strikes me here, as I say in the post, is that there’s always some B being compared to a “default” A. I would definitely agree that gathering data from equals, among multilinguals, is what can provide insight about what being multilingual is.

    Many thanks for your thoughts!




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