Wednesday 27 April 2011

The natives and the speakers

Let me start with the good news. We are, all of us without exception, native speakers. This may come as a surprise to those of us who have had close encounters with the second/foreign language world, but is nonetheless true. It means that we are all competent users of language – more or less competent, of course, depending on all sorts of individual and social factors that make us clumsy or proficient in whatever we do.

Now the bad news. We are, all of us who use second/foreign languages, failed native speakers of them, which is the meaning of the more politically correct label “non-native speakers”. This is because non-native productions are routinely compared to native models, for purposes of quality control, and native speakers of someone else’s non-native language are never more or less competent users of this language. They are competent, period: they have no accent, which means they have a good accent, and they probably have no grammar and no vocabulary either, because their grammar and their vocabulary are quite good too.

Now the obvious news. None of us second/foreign language users can ever become native speakers of those languages, for two reasons: because the word native in “native speaker” means ‘born into’; and because our mothers might balk at the prospect of giving birth to us all over again in a language that they don’t speak. Second/foreign language theory and practice nonetheless appear to entertain the hope that we somehow can. Using native models and assessment methods draws on the assumption that learning a language means learning to impersonate someone, instead of learning to use their language.

Now the funny news. The term “native speaker” means ‘monolingual’: all the native speakers to whom second/foreign language learners have been compared since it became standard practice to do so are monolinguals. Given that language learners are becoming multilingual – those who already aren’t, that is – such comparisons reflect the belief that ideal users of language are monolingual (rings a bell?). Indeed, multilinguals who become multilinguals from birth are not native speakers of their languages, because multilinguals across the board are also routinely compared to native speakers, and you can’t compare a thing to itself. Even funnier, multilinguals are not non-native speakers either, because they are also compared to non-natives. Makes one wonder what multilinguals are.

And now, the extremely funny news. Even those of us who do become indistinguishable from native speakers, including where native speakers themselves can’t tell the difference, fail to reach native proficiency: we have near-native-like proficiency instead (I’m not joking, seriously!). This is because we human beings, for all our native competence, are apparently fallible in our judgements about our languages. We don’t notice what we don’t care about, whereas the machines that we build to make our judgements for us do: the proof is in reported examples of millisecond differences in, for example, the amount of puffed air that emanates from native and non-native vocal tracts pronouncing the sounds at the beginning of English words like pan, tan and can (this is the “aspiration of voiceless plosives”, in the insider lingo).

Near-native-like users of languages could well make ideal candidates to international espionage agencies – barring suspicion that the enemy might also have access to millisecond-detectors, of course. As it is, they and other non-natives already have enough trouble at the job market: for language teaching posts, for example, it has been debated whether native speakers with no teacher training whatsoever shouldn’t be preferred to non-natives with full teaching credentials. I’m not joking here either.

The bottom line is that if you’re looking for differences, you’ll find them: milliseconds are popular in other research comparing multilinguals to monolinguals, but the relevance of such findings to everyday communication, to language teaching methodologies, or to clinical diagnoses is by no means clear. To me, inventing the word-play of expressions akin to “near-native-like” on the strength of such features simply self-fulfils the belief that native speakers have exclusive rights to competence in their languages, and the related curse of the Big Bad Funny-lingual.

Setting up goals, and educational goals to boot, that forever elude common mortals brings to mind the “___ jokes”, those jokes that are largely the same in different parts of the world, but are only funny when the blank fills with nationality words that the jokers think it’s funny to joke about – telling a Finn, say, how many Portuguese it takes to screw in a light bulb is not very funny. One of these jokes suggested the following parallel to me: an outsider (= the aspiring language user) asks a local (= the native language user) for directions to a place (= native proficiency). The local thinks a while and replies: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” It is the same no-can-do mindset that, faced with can-dos, changes gear to call them “gifted learners”. This is yet another ill-defined player in second/foreign language scenarios, to which I will return some other day.

Thomas Paul Bonfiglio’s book, Mother tongues and nations. The invention of the native speaker, explains that native speaker originated as a time-and-space-bound construct. The unquestioned relevance that it came to gain in second/foreign language settings across the board may well need some re-thinking, not least in view of the confusing meanings that associate with it, as noted above. The presumed, assumed, implicit and implied “definitions”, if any, of other terms that we find in similar settings, such as mother tongue, or first language, might also benefit from a thorough spring cleaning.

I believe that all this vagueness stems from the artificiality of attempting to classify users of language not by their uses of their languages, which naturally form a cline, but by their all-or-none birth rights to (one of) them. Next time, I’ll talk some more about natives, and about non-natives too. Specifically, about why wishing someone a Happy Birfday, for example, which we hear from native and non-native speakers alike, may somehow sound less damnable coming from the former than from the latter.

© MCF 2011

Next post: (Non-)native common ground. Wednesday 4th May 2011.


  1. I wonder if any of these myths have anything to do with the concept of innate Universal Grammar? After all, if there's a black box in your brain, and learning your native language is a matter of finding the right settings for the black box, surely you've only got one black box, so you can only learn one native language. Pity the poor child presented with two languages, hopelessly struggling to work out the settings for one black box!

  2. I’m quite sure you’re right, Pete. Universal Grammars (there have been several, innately new roughly every decade or so) were devised by monolingual English speakers. So pity also those of us who are native multilinguals, use more than two languages, learn languages unrelated to English, and so on, in that case?

    Or we can look at real-life language data, of course, and pity instead those of us who believe that human beings work like last century’s CPUs :-)

    Thank you for pointing this out!


  3. That is an interesting article. Here is an in-depth analysis on the subject in case you are interested:

  4. Thank you, Tim!
    Here’s the hyperlink to your article, which didn’t come through in your comment:
    Is a Native-like Accent in a Foreign Language Achievable? Examining Neurological, Sociological, Psychological, and Attitudinal Factors

    Your article is very relevant to this blog post and to many of my takes on further language learning. I particularly liked your review of the literature on “alleged” age/biological ‘contraints’ (pp. 62ff.) defeating language learners, one of my own pet peeves, and your discussion that “accent is a choice” (pp. 73ff.), with which I fully agree.

    I’ve checked your Google+ page, too, and I’m very glad to learn about your research. Thanks again!



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