native speaker

9 Cringeworthy issues of a controversial and loathsome concept in applied linguistics and language education: the Native Speaker (Issue 1 and 9 can be highly thought-provoking)

native speaker

This article presents key issues related to the NATIVE SPEAKER that pervade applied linguistics and language education. Read on to find out more.

Table of Contents

As language educators, we are all familiar with the concept of the “NATIVE SPEAKER”. It’s a term that has been widely used in the field of applied linguistics and language education for decades, and yet it remains one of the most controversial and loathsome concepts. Like a stubborn glue stick, it continues to linger in the cultural imagination of the masses, often being reinforced by language schools, employers, and even parents.

Before I begin the discussion of the NATIVE SPEAKER, I must highlight that this is also dedicated as a tribute to the late Professor Alan Davies, a renowned applied linguist who taught at the University of Edinburgh for over 40 years. Professor Davies has been prolific in his research work and has produced publications covering a wide range of issues in applied linguistics, such as language testing for specific purposes and populations, language testing ethics and policy, second language acquisition, sociolinguistics and dialects, the native speaker, and general language teaching and learning.

This article is very much inspired by his book “The Native Speaker: Myth and Reality”. In this book, Professor Davies provides a very thorough and comprehensive discussion about the concept of the native speaker, the issues surrounding the employment of the concept in practice, and the implications in applied linguistics and language education.

In this article, I present the issues related to NATIVE SPEAKER based on the key arguments brought up by Professor Davies with further expansions by numerous scholars in the field. So, buckle up and get ready to challenge your assumptions about the NATIVE SPEAKER concept, where we will explore nine cringeworthy issues that highlight its limitations, biases, and implications for language teaching and learning.

What is a NATIVE SPEAKER? Who exactly is a NATIVE SPEAKER?

Let’s start by defining what we mean by the term “NATIVE SPEAKER”. At its core, the NATIVE SPEAKER of a particular language is typically considered to be someone who has acquired that language naturally, from birth, through immersion in the culture and society where the language is spoken. In other words, this person has acquired the language without the help of formal instruction or language classes.

To be a NATIVE SPEAKER of a language is to be a member of a particular speech community with its cultural and linguistic characteristics. This means that this person is part of a communicative network that has transcended generations and the person is bestowed with certain unique cultural DNA not easily acquired by outsiders, if not completely impossible. This also implies that the NATIVE SPEAKER has a superior understanding and deep appreciation of the particular language’s nuances, cultural references, and the historical psyche.

In addition, a NATIVE SPEAKER is generally assumed to be highly proficient in the particular language and possesses an intuitive sense of the language’s grammar (e.g. able to make accurate judgements reliably on the structures of that language). This means that this person can express himself/herself more effectively and accurately in this native language and make evaluation about the language use than someone who is a NON-NATIVE SPEAKER.

To a certain extent, NATIVE SPEAKERs of a particular language are deemed the exclusive custodians and stakeholders of that language. In that sense, they have the natural authority to make decisions about the language, including representing to the world of outsiders (i.e. NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs of this particular language) what this language is or is not. They are responsible for its vitality and maintenance, and they shape how the language develops over time and space.

And so, in this section, we have seen the most common characteristics that are ascribed to a NATIVE SPEAKER:

  • Born into the speech community using the particular language
  • Acquire the particular language without formal instruction
  • Possess the unique linguistic and cultural DNA of the speech community
  • Highly proficient in the particular language
  • Have an intuitive sense of the language’s grammar which is reliable and accurate
  • Owns the natural authority to represent the particular language and make decisions about it

We will see later that these characteristics are at best vague and problematic, especially in the context of applied linguistics and language education.

“The concept of a native speaker seems clear enough, doesn’t it? It is surely a common sense idea, referring to people who have a special control over a language, insider knowledge about ‘their’ language. They are the models we appeal to for the ‘truth’ about the language, they know what the language is (‘Yes, you can say that’) and what the language isn’t (‘No, that’s not English, Japanese, Swahili . . .’). They are the stakeholders of the language, they control its maintenance and shape its direction.”

Davies, 2003

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Issue 1: A NATIVE SPEAKER is bestowed with many privileges from which NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs are excluded.

Photo from Envato Elements / A native speaker has privileges that non-native speakers do not have.

Assuming that the definition of a NATIVE SPEAKER is valid and scientific, following the definition is a world of entitled benefits that NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs are denied of. Yes, a NATIVE SPEAKER is bestowed with privileges that may not be immediately perceived by native speakers themselves and these privileges can define trajectories in life. In a nutshell, the concept of a “NATIVE SPEAKER” can be both subjective and exclusionary.

What then are the privileges that come with the status of a NATIVE SPEAKER that appears out of reach to NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs? Below lists 3 major groups of privileges (which can be further unpacked), as presented in research and by NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs:

SOCIAL STATUS: The NATIVE SPEAKER is considered a prerogative member of the speech community using his/her particular language and receives recognition with whatever that may entail. He/she is regarded as a representative of his/her particular language and is recognised as the key bearer of the intricacies of the language. His/her judgements about the language are more valued than the NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs, even when he/she cannot articulate the exact descriptions or the justification supporting the judgements. In a professional environment, the NATIVE SPEAKER of the administrative language (or the business language) is deemed more intelligent or credible.

ACCEPTANCE: The NATIVE SPEAKER is often accepted without question in speech communities that supposedly share the same language. They are not subjected to the same scrutiny or scepticism that NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs face. NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs, on the other hand, are constantly under pressure to prove their language skills and authenticity (e.g. international certification tests). For example, they can be constantly challenged to achieve a state of no-foreign accent in the pronunciation of the particular language, though a foreign accent is sometimes highly subjective.

PROFESSIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: The NATIVE SPEAKER has a clear advantage in the job market for language-centric professions (e.g. dictionary editing, language textbook writers, language teaching). They are often preferred, if not exclusively demanded, over NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs for these roles due to their perceived expertise. NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs are often seen as less qualified, even if they have the same level of language proficiency as a native speaker or even if they have other rigorous qualifications (e.g. degree or diploma in language teaching). In some cases, such as those operating in journalism or international business, employers may view native speakers as more credible or capable of navigating cultural nuances, which can lead to a wider range of professional opportunities.

If the identification of a NATIVE SPEAKER is purely educational and scientific, we are probably more indifferent than we are now. However, we all know that the NATIVE SPEAKER concept is essentially an exclusionary one, providing access to many privileges from which NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs are excluded. These privileges stem from the deeply entrenched belief that a NATIVE SPEAKER is assumed to possess certain characteristics uniquely that NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs are supposed to lack. Such a belief can be largely flawed, and we will discuss that under the following issues.

Issue 2: A NATIVE SPEAKER is identified mainly by virtue of birth origin and is assumed to be similar to the other NATIVE SPEAKERs of the same language.

birth origin, homogeneity
Image generated by ArtSmart / Mushrooms with similar origin and homogeneity – Are native speakers similar?

One of the most important defining characteristics of the NATIVE SPEAKER is related to birth origin – a specific geographical location, such as a country, a city, or a village. Within academia, critics of the concept tend to emphasise this aspect of the definition. Scholars in applied linguistics and language education who wish to engage the concept in a felicitous way take caution to highlight other characteristics to further nuance the concept. Nevertheless, at its core, the term “NATIVE SPEAKER” as coined fundamentally refers to a speaker that is native to a language without taking too much reference to actual linguistic abilities or experiences.

Unsurprisingly, this definition fails to take into account the immense diversity of language learning experiences among individuals who are born in the same place. Even individuals born into the same family – siblings – may not acquire the language in similar ways or to the same degree.

Let’s stretch it further into the space of a country. Consider, for example, the case of someone who was born in the USA (and is a rightful citizen of the USA) but grew up in a neighbourhood where minority languages are more frequently spoken instead of English. Are they thus a NATIVE SPEAKER of English simply by virtue of being born in the USA? Tricky.

Apart from this, one of the biggest problems with the concept is the view of language as a fixed entity that is acquired in the early years of life and remains the same afterwards. This overlooks the fact that individual language change can happen over the span of a lifetime (e.g. language dominance can actually be shifted at any stage of life – think about immigrants that stayed elsewhere without changing citizenship at a young age).

The reality is that language acquisition/learning and language change are incredibly complex processes that cannot be reduced to a simple equation where the birth origin is definitely associated with all other characteristics that are presented earlier (e.g. language abilities, cultural capacity).

Yet, we see something like the below as part of the UK university admission criteria pertaining to English Language requirements:

“If you are a national of a UKVI-recognised Majority English Speaking Country, you do not need to prove your English language ability for the purposes of applying for a Student Visa. You may also be exempt if you have an academic qualification equivalent to a UK Bachelor’s degree from one of these countries (not distance learning).” (University of Westminster))

The countries named here are “Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Ireland, Jamaica, New Zealand, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, USA and UK.”

Of course, we can argue that the applicant in question must have acquired an educational qualification in the country in particular and has to provide evidence of that as part of admission, thereby allowing the valid inference that he/she is proficient in the language, or at least proficient to the extent that he/she is eligible for university admission.

Yet, if we studied the second statement a bit closer “You may also be exempt if you have an academic qualification equivalent to a UK Bachelor’s degree from one of these countries”, we realise it is also not a given even if you have pursued your degree there as an international student – you are only eligible to the extent of “may be exempt”. It sends the implicit message that birth origin triumphs over others for the English Language requirement. Unless we can make the assertion that all individuals from the country who have graduated from high school are comparable in proficiency in the English Language, this exemption privilege is itself questionable.

Unsurprisingly, considering how the NATIVE SPEAKER construct creates discrimination against NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs, such an approach to definition appears very flawed. It creates an innate sense of superiority around the NATIVE SPEAKER since one’s birth origin is not malleable (e.g. unlike language skills).

Furthermore, there are countless examples of individuals who were not born in a particular country but who have lived there for many years and acquired near-native proficiency in the language. There are also individuals, even if small in proportion, who have also managed to acquire near-native proficiency by learning the language as a foreign language mainly through formal instruction within their home countries. However, they will never be accorded the NATIVE SPEAKER status by this definition.

Ultimately, the part where a NATIVE SPEAKER is fundamentally identified based on birth origin is very much an invalid assertion to be useful in language education. It fails to acknowledge the full range of language learning experiences and the ongoing process of language change. It institutionalises a privilege that is largely racist in reality and strips away the other more important characteristics from the situations where we want to engage the use of the NATIVE SPEAKER concept.

Issue 3: A NATIVE SPEAKER is assumed to be a proficient user of the language who can represent the ultimate standards of the language.

Olympic gold medal
Photo from Envato Elements / An olympic gold medal for language – only reserved for native speakers?

Now, we may be starting to see the unscientific and invalid privileges bestowed to a NATIVE SPEAKER after making salient the layer of birth origin and homogeneity as its assumptions. The crux of the issue is that the ideological and conceptual use of a NATIVE SPEAKER is premised upon the existence of others who are the NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs. This presupposed divide between “native” and “non-native” speakers founded on contentious principles creates unnecessary costs to both NATIVE SPEAKERs and NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs.

For instance, the NATIVE SPEAKER of a language is traditionally assumed to be the gold standard in terms of language proficiency, usage, and knowledge of grammar. After all, they are the ones who grew up with the language, passed it on to the next generation, and seemingly have a deep understanding of its intricacies and nuances. Unfortunately, this assumption is not always accurate if we control for a lot of other factors in comparison. There will be cases where a so-called native speaker may not have the same level of language proficiency as an expert NON-NATIVE SPEAKER.

Firstly, language proficiency is not an absolute measure. It can be relative and context-specific (I know this warrants another article to unpack). If we look up frameworks that adopt a proficiency-oriented approach (e.g Common European Framework Reference for Languages), we will understand that language proficiency can be specified in different language skills (e.g. Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing, Mediating) and across use domains (e.g. transactional, professional).

In that sense, what may be considered proficient use of a language in one context may not necessarily be proficient use in another context. A NATIVE SPEAKER who has not gone through any academic training may not be able to read professional texts as well as a NON-NATIVE SPEAKER who has used the same language as part of academic training. We also will not be amazed to know that a NON-NATIVE SPEAKER who is at least bilingual will be capable to do mediation (as defined in CEFR as translation and interpretation) while a monolingual NATIVE SPEAKER can hardly manage one. As such, to presume that a NATIVE SPEAKER definitely represents the ultimate attainment of a particular language can be far from the truth.

Secondly, being a NATIVE SPEAKER of a language does not automatically guarantee linguistic expertise. I know this somewhat repeats the earlier point, but I need to highlight that the heterogeneity of NATIVE SPEAKERs does present varying levels of language use even when we confine them to the same domain. Not all NATIVE SPEAKERs have the same level of education or sufficient exposure to different registers of the language. Due to different life circumstances, some NATIVE SPEAKERs can also have limited vocabulary, grammar, or cultural knowledge of the language (e.g. lack of access to proper education).

The assumption that NATIVE SPEAKERs are the only ones who can represent the peak standards of a language can lead to linguistic discrimination. It somewhat creates a hierarchy of language users where the most privileged ones are the NATIVE SPEAKERs at the top and the NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs who may have equal or even greater expertise in the language are unfortunately relatively marginalised.

How does this relate to language education? One issue will be on employment and credibility of language educators which I will touch on later. Here, we can talk about a class of multilingual students. When a student makes an evaluation of a particular language, how will we assess that evaluation if that student is a NATIVE SPEAKER of that language vis-à-vis another student who is not?

That happens in my own classroom once. A so-called NON-NATIVE SPEAKER was presenting a view about an L2 (i.e. A Chinese language variety known as Hokkien) that she was learning but was dismissed by another so-called NATIVE SPEAKER (Pardon the “so-called”, as we will realise later in Issue 9 that identifying individuals who are NATIVE SPEAKERs in reality is also debatable). The NATIVE SPEAKER student offered a number of examples to dispute the point made by the NON-NATIVE SPEAKER but could not explain the nuances of those examples – it was all about intuition. I was very impressed by the NON-NATIVE SPEAKER though, as she stood firm by expounding her argument with her own set of examples with some linguistic nuances. That outsider’s view, I thought, was her secret source of insight which the NATIVE SPEAKER could have lacked.

To be fair, I am hardly in a position to judge who has produced the better argument. However, being an educator, I prefer to approach arguments with evidence and sound reasoning, which the NON-NATIVE SPEAKER has exhibited more than the NATIVE SPEAKER in this case. The words of authority in language, to me, do not belong to a so-called NATIVE SPEAKER, but to anyone (including so-called NATIVE SPEAKERs themselves) who can present evidence with sound reasoning. To me, and to all language educators, this is something that we should take note of and mitigate this bias towards NATIVE SPEAKER if we do have it.

Now, I am not disputing the possibility that a so-called NATIVE SPEAKER can represent the gold standard of a particular language – there are numerous examples of that. I am also not denouncing the value of intuition – which can lead to creative breakthroughs. What I am emphasising here is that the assumption that a NATIVE SPEAKER is definitely a proficient user of a particular language does not hold true in all circumstances. We need to know that as language educators so that we can be more cognisant of our approach to interacting with our colleagues and students. We should abide by the principles of scientific reasoning, and not just plainly on intuition when it comes to such topics.

Issue 4: A NATIVE SPEAKER is believed to be capable of making reliable and accurate judgements about the language by intuition.

accurate and reliable judgements
Photo from Envato Elements / Can a native speaker definitely make reliable and accurate judgements about the language?

Since we sort of mentioned intuition in our last issue, this next controversial issue comes in naturally. One of the most pervasive myths in applied linguistics and language education is that a NATIVE SPEAKER of a particular language has an innate sense of what is grammatically correct and what is not in that language and that they are the most reliable judges of the appropriateness of language use.

In fact, the adoption of the NATIVE SPEAKER’s sensing to construct a model of linguistic competence or what we know to be a grammar of a language is an approach advocated by Noam Chomsky – who is called the “father of modern linguistics” by some. The NATIVE SPEAKER’s “linguistic intuition” (Chomsky, 1965) is the key to building a theory of language (i.e. grammar).

If we have a clear picture of who or what a NATIVE SPEAKER is, this can at least be regarded scientific. Taking the famous example from Karl Popper where he proposed the criterion of “falsifiability” as an important hallmark of the scientific method, the statement that “all swans are white” can be falsified by a single observation of a black swan in reality. That holds if the actual black swan that is “observed” is indeed a swan, with all the necessary biological architecture and properties.

However, we have difficulty deciding who is a NATIVE SPEAKER of a language, practically because we already faced many difficulties in demarcating “languages” in general, and distinguishing between language and varieties/dialects. For instance, who is a NATIVE SPEAKER of English? Can he/she be the British staying in London from the UK? Or the Scottish who stays in Aberdeen from Scotland? Or the Indian who stays in New Delhi from India? Or the Singaporean who has never left Singapore?

NATIVE SPEAKER-ness is not an easy property to tease out, especially for languages that are widely used and ill-defined. We may not easily realise this issue, unless we have an example such as a research project seeking participants who are NATIVE SPEAKERs:

“We are recruiting 40 native speakers of English for an experimental study. In the study, you are expected to make an evaluation of sentences and decide whether the sentences are grammatical in English.”

Who are eligible to join this experiment? Do the citizens from the UKVI-recognised Majority English Speaking Country auto-qualify? What if this experiment is conducted in Australia or the USA? Can a Singaporean, Indian, or Nigerian sign up for the experiment?

Well, in actual practice, any of us who identify ourselves as NATIVE SPEAKERs can sign up for the study. The researcher, may of course, also upon his/her discretion exclude some participants (e.g. the Singaporean, the Indian, the Nigerian) by discrediting their NATIVE SPEAKER-ness (well I personally know examples of that).

We have already talked about the flawed assumption of the homogeneity of NATIVE SPEAKERs. And yet, we may be generalising theories of linguistics based on a very selected group of NATIVE SPEAKERs. For empirical methods that exercise extensive rigour to at least tease out nuances with strict quantitative approaches or adopt the use of comprehensive triangulation methods, we can at least conclude that the findings can be somewhat reliable and justified. However, there are linguists who build theories of the particular language based on data from his/her idiolect, justified purely because he/she is a NATIVE SPEAKER of that particular language.

Now, the issue in this section is not to refute the value of intuition in research if it was rigorously applied. The issue in this section is the biased assumption that a NATIVE SPEAKER is taken as a know-it-all when it comes to making judgements about a particular language, so much so that the weight given to those as evidence may be too extravagant. It is even more unsettling when we do not even have a good definition of who exactly fits a NATIVE SPEAKER.

In addition, language is not a construct in a system of static determinism. Language is subject to change and can be highly variable in use across individuals and contexts. A language view assumes that certain forms are correct, always so, and certain forms incorrect, again always so, is at best ill-informed.

Here, I remind us of the example which I raised earlier about my students wrestling over their opinions on Hokkien (I know it is anecdotal, so you can take it with a pinch of salt). As language educators, when we review “scientific facts” about the target language we are teaching, we may just want to be a bit more mindful of the way the evidence is justified. When we facilitate discussions about the language in class, we may also want to suspend the inclination that the NATIVE SPEAKERs hold the gospel truth, especially when the justification is purely based on intuition.

Issue 5: A NATIVE SPEAKER model is the target learning model for language acquisition/learning.

target learning model
Photo from Envato Elements / The native speaker a target model of language learning?

At first look, this sounds reasonable. Isn’t the ultimate goal of learning a language, especially for L2 learners, to become like a NATIVE SPEAKER? Terms like native-like attainment, near-nativeness, and near-native proficiency speak much about the aspirations of many language learners. There are even research studies that examine learners who have managed to pose off to be indistinguishable from NATIVE SPEAKERs in speech production.

We have understood earlier that the NATIVE SPEAKER model has long been the gold standard for language learning. The fundamental assumption is that learners should strive to achieve a level of proficiency that is comparable to that of a native speaker, with a focus on perfect grammar, pronunciation, and usage. However, this assumption is misguided in that it presents a narrow and homogenised view of language learning, and fails to take into account the many different motivations for learning a language.

Language learners come from diverse backgrounds and have different goals and needs. Some might be learning an L2 as a lingua franca or an international language (e.g. English Language in the context of Singapore) where the main purpose is to communicate and connect with people with different L1s that are not English. In such a case, understanding varying patterns of English Language use in those contexts is more applicable than becoming a NATIVE SPEAKER of that language. For one, using English like a British and operating in an environment like Singapore can still be completely irrelevant – as exaggerated in this podcast published in Singapore 2006.

Furthermore, who is the NATIVE SPEAKER to be emulated, say for English? American or British? Canadian or Australian? It can be awkward to ascribe the ownership of the language to any particular country or place and uphold the speech community of that area as the target model for learning. This is even more peculiar if the learners are not aiming to integrate into those communities in the first place (e.g. they may just want to use it as an international language, or be in places like Singapore which also use English as the main administrative language).

In any case, for a scholar who may just be interested in being able to read in a particular language, achieving native-like proficiency in listening and speaking may not be a priority. That can refer to me – I learn Japanese to read some of the interesting tales of warlords from the Warring States period (or Sengoku Period). Speaking like a NATIVE SPEAKER was not necessary, though I do have some working proficiency enough for me to travel at ease within Japan.

For many learners, the goal of language learning may not be in achieving native-like proficiency, but rather to develop functional language skills that allow them to communicate effectively in a range of contexts. In this sense, the NATIVE SPEAKER model assumes that there is a single, homogenous standard of language use that learners should strive to emulate, regardless of their own background or cultural identity. That blinds us, the language educators, from providing the interim models that may be more useful for our learners. What is seen as an interim from the beginning learner of the particular language may actually be the ultimate target that the learner wishes to attain at the onset.

Research in language learning has also converged on findings that native-like attainment is rare for L2 learners. Of course, that is not to say we lower a learning bar just because it is unattainable by many. However, setting an unrealistic target for the majority of learners should also be raised for questioning, especially on its relevance in the guidance of goal setting for these learners. As such, frameworks like CEFR provide better reference points where we can decide our personal ultimate attainment target which need not be a NATIVE SPEAKER.

One last contention with a NATIVE SPEAKER model may also push us, the language educators, to reflect upon our own approach to framing students’ progress. The Can-Do statements in frameworks like CEFR present language learning milestones more positively, where every level shows descriptors of what a learner can do at each stage. Engagement of a NATIVE SPEAKER model, however, inevitably frames language learning as a journey of deficits. To what extent is a learner different from a NATIVE SPEAKER? What are the gaps? What are the learners NOT ABLE to do? Viewing language learning from a deficit perspective can be potentially harmful and disempowering. We are here to nurture “successful L2 learners, not imitation NATIVE SPEAKERs” (Cook, 2016).

Challenging the assumption that the NATIVE SPEAKER model is the target language learning model requires a more inclusive and diverse approach to language education. This means valuing and respecting the diversity of learners in terms of motivation and needs, and recognising that there are many different ways to use language effectively. It also means acknowledging that the NATIVE SPEAKER model is not the only or even the most relevant model for many learners.

Issue 6: A NATIVE SPEAKER is generally inferred to be a qualified language teacher and is the most ideal for L2 learners.

experience matters
Photo from Envato Elements / The native speaker is the qualified and most ideal language teacher?

I have halted earlier to relate to this issue which is a logical implication when we adopt the beliefs that the NATIVE SPEAKER is “assumed to be a proficient user of the language who can represent the ultimate standards of the language”, “believed to capable of making reliable and accurate judgements about the language by intuition”, and “the target learning model for language acquisition/learning”. By means of inference, a NATIVE SPEAKER sounds like the exemplary language teacher.

Corresponding with the increasing demand for L2 education, especially with English as the target language, there is also an escalating demand for language teachers. In relation, debates remain on the relevance and merits of NATIVE SPEAKERs as language teachers in contrast to their non-native counterparts.

NATIVE SPEAKER teachers are usually favoured for their perceived authenticity and legitimacy in representing the language taught (i.e. the issues as raised earlier). Even in Singapore, a country that has used English as the main administrative language since 1965, the ideology that NATIVE SPEAKER teachers can teach the language better somewhat pervades the politicians and literati in the 1980s to 2000s. Thankfully things have changed, and we are a more enlightened lot today.

Yet, today, when I traverse between networking groups which facilitate language exchange between language learners, the request for a NATIVE SPEAKER of a particular language is still dominant. Language learners also hold on to the belief that a NATIVE SPEAKER makes the better language exchange partner for the authentic experience.

When it comes to formal recruitment, with more awareness of inclusivity, outright requests for NATIVE SPEAKER teachers or refusals of NON-NATIVE SPEAKER teachers may be relatively smaller in numbers but can still be frequently called out by fellow educators or other professionals who care.

So, the crux is still the issue itself: Do NATIVE SPEAKER teachers make better language teachers? We have debunked the earlier issues that a NATIVE SPEAKER may not always appear to have all the assumed advantages that we think they have, even though they are usually privileged just by the mere ascription of birth origin and preconception of homogeneity.

Furthermore, independent of the teaching subject, teaching is a profession by itself. In countries where teachers receive high quality trainings (pre-service and in-service) such as Finland and Singapore, a trained teacher can make a whole mile of difference in knowing how to plan lessons, curate lesson materials, enact lessons, engage students, make valid and reliable assessments and provides all the necessary support to ensure success in learning, in contrast to an untrained teacher. Pre-service training as a teacher can result in a professional accredited undergraduate degree or a postgraduate diploma. Contextualising that for language teaching, how does a NATIVE SPEAKER suddenly become more qualified to teach just because of birth origin?

Furthermore, in an apple-by-apple comparison (e.g. trained NATIVE SPEAKER teacher vs trained NON-NATIVE SPEAKER teacher), NON-NATIVE SPEAKER teachers can have a comparative advantage in understanding the learning needs and challenges of the students, especially if they share similar linguistic backgrounds and cultures (e.g. same L1, comparable challenges in growing up). In addition, NON-NATIVE SPEAKER teachers can also be indistinguishable from NATIVE SPEAKER teachers in terms of language proficiency or actual language use.

This issue of privileging NATIVE SPEAKERs over NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs limits the possibility of a more diverse language teaching landscape. The importance of language education and its impact on the growth of knowledge and understanding of different cultures and societies should not be undermined. Language education should be open to all regardless of their birth origin.

Personally, I also think we should take this a step further. Recruitment, as far as possible, should be a synthesis of expertise demonstration, potential assessment, and disposition evaluation. An addition of a contractual probation period will also be good to mitigate unseen biases in an interview process. From there, regardless of whether one is a NATIVE SPEAKER or a NON-NATIVE SPEAKER, the ones who are able to demonstrate their capability as a language educator over time matter more. Sometimes, the best fit will always be a group of diverse teachers.

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Issue 7: A NATIVE SPEAKER is usually taken to be monolingual rather than bilingual/multilingual.

monolingual vs bilingual and multilingual
Image generated by ArtSmart / The abstraction of monolingual vs multilingual

One of the most overlooked issues pertaining to the engagement of a NATIVE SPEAKER concept is that it is conceived mainly based on monolingual norms. In a traditional understanding of language acquisition, a family functions using only one language (as if a language is an easily defined entity). The young child receives consistent input in this language and grows up as a native of speaking that language. Somehow, that language is also the dominant language in the society in which the child resides. With education, this child builds on the use of the language in more profound ways and grows into the NATIVE SPEAKER as we know it, with all the attached assumptions we have raised earlier.

Things get a little bit thorny when it comes to bilinguals/multilinguals. The child now receives input from more than one language, sometimes to varying degrees. Usually, one of those languages is a dominant language in society. At other times, none of those languages are frequently used in society, meaning that the child learns the dominant language (e.g. English) in education – but still as a child. Assuming that this child is a national of and resides in one UKVI-recognised Majority English Speaking Country, what language(s) is he/she a NATIVE SPEAKER of?

This is an issue that even Noam Chomsky avoids discussing too much when he conceived how the science of language study should be conducted. The variability of language exposure and experience in a bilingual/multilingual child seems to invalidate the assumptions what a NATIVE SPEAKER might possess. Furthermore, it is a widely held observation that bilinguals/multilinguals hardly achieve the same level of proficiency in the different language(s) they have in their repertoire. Are they still granted the prestigious membership of NATIVE SPEAKER in all those languages?

That seems to be the case, that bilinguals/multilinguals were not typically considered THE NATIVE SPEAKER of any particular language when we actually use the term NATIVE SPEAKER. It is only in recent years that bilingualism/multilingualism is framed more as a resource and privilege, instead of the stigmatised status it received in the 50s – 90s. Back then, bilingualism/multilingualism is more of a problem as adults or children who are bilinguals/multilinguals demonstrated varying degrees of deficit in their languages – yes, the unsatisfying frame of deficit which I have raised earlier. Bilinguals/Multilinguals typically do not behave or perform to the level of monolingual NATIVE SPEAKERs.

Over the years, scholars have made remarkable efforts to demonstrate language change that can come along with languages in contact, whether as a society or within language individuals. When a person becomes bilingual/multilingual, it is no longer (it never was anyway) just simply a case of two monolinguals in one, but a completely transformed being with restructured grammars in different languages as well as an evolved brain that represents the world differently.

With globalisation and increased mobility of people, speech communities are less isolated than before, so much so that bilingualism/multilingualism is more of the norm rather than the exception, albeit to differing extents. How does the NATIVE SPEAKER fall in place with our current norms? Can a NATIVE SPEAKER be a bilingual/multilingual and still be endowed with the same privileged assumptions as before? This validity is definitely been called to question, and we will discuss the alternatives later.

Issue 8: A NATIVE SPEAKER holds the exclusive membership to the community of presumed stakeholders of the language.

membership to a speech community
Photo from Unlimphotos / The native speaker with the exclusive membership to a speech community

If bilingualism/multilingualism opened up a can of worms for the NATIVE SPEAKER concept, the following may even pose more contention. We know that to be a NATIVE SPEAKER of a particular language is to claim membership to the speech community of that language. This membership can be associated with a lot of perks, subject to the prestige of the language in a given context.

This membership is important when the individuals in question care a lot about the language and are regarded as the authorised “custodians and stakeholders of that language”. The ways they represent the language are then recognised as THE language. For instance, only the linguistic phenomena associated with the NATIVE SPEAKERs are recognised as part of any language change that is recognised by linguists, broad academia, and professionals.

For a language with many varieties/dialects, not all who speak the language can claim membership if they are not using the STANDARD variety. No one will usually dispute that a British can be recognised as a NATIVE SPEAKER of English. But who is that British? Can he/she be the British staying in Newcastle? York? Edinburgh? Dublin? Assuming he/she is from London, can he/she be using what is known to be Cockney English?

We have also mentioned the existence of the UKVI-recognised Majority English Speaking Country quite a number of times. For English, membership is also not accorded to countries like Singapore even when all the students who have undergone public education and graduated successfully from a pre-university institution will have attained a level of English proficiency that is adequate for university admission. This also extends to all Hong Kong-ers and Indians who might have attained expert levels of language through an English-medium education as such an exemption privilege is also not granted.

So, will there be people who can hardly claim membership to any language? We have presented that possible complication with bilinguals/multilinguals. A NATIVE SPEAKER concept excludes all these individuals, who might already be the norm more than the exception, from possible membership with any language. Even when the bilingual/multilingual in question demonstrates all the good values of an upright human and has dedicated his/her life to learning languages with exceptional attainment to a level that any other language user will recognise as expert, he/she may also not be considered a member of that community – definitely not a NATIVE SPEAKER.

The belief that NATIVE SPEAKERs hold exclusive authority over a language can also be problematic in terms of language policy and planning. Language policies (or more specifically the language management aspect of language policy) that prioritise the interests of NATIVE SPEAKERs over those of NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs can result in unfair discrimination and exclusion – we have seen that with professional opportunities in language education. Such an approach limits the diversity of perspectives that are available, drowning the voices of a group – the NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs – that can be affected by policies related to a particular language. The needs and reality of the entire community can only be reflected by including the voices of both NATIVE and NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs.

Issue 9: A NATIVE SPEAKER is inevitably an idealised construct built for linguistic imperialism which potentially disregards varieties of a language.

Photo from Envato Elements / Imperialism through the native speaker concept

Thus far, we have illustrated and discussed the issues of the use of the NATIVE SPEAKER concept, which brings us to ponder: which group benefits most from this concept? Who benefits most from the privileges we raised in issue 1?

Let’s think a bit further. Will a speaker of the Hanis language be bestowed with those privileges we mentioned: having a high social status, being widely accepted as authority, and being presented with loads of professional opportunities? Probably not. The same goes for any NATIVE SPEAKER of an endangered language.

The privileges of a particular language are derived from the social, economic, and political capital that comes with it. As such, only NATIVE SPEAKERs of widely spoken international languages such as English, Mandarin, Spanish, German, and French stand to gain from the concept of the NATIVE SPEAKER. Membership in speech communities related to these languages will then provide automatic access to those privileges we mentioned earlier, just simply because the language is in demand. People want to learn them as L2 to get access to opportunities related to that (e.g. education, jobs, migration).

That is also the reason why I raised the example of English quite frequently. I concede that it is an easy target for critics of the NATIVE SPEAKER since it is one of the most international languages and the privileges that come with it are immense. Indeed, the issue of NATIVE SPEAKER teachers and NON-NATIVE SPEAKER teachers is widely discussed in the realm of the teaching of English as an L2.

Membership in English comes with many entrenched privileges – institutionalised further with international test organisations (e.g. IELTS, TOEFL). While NATIVE SPEAKERs of English gain access to educational institutions and job markets by virtue of birth origin, NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs have to prove their capabilities through international certification. Even an outstanding student with stellar Singapore-Cambridge ‘A’ level results where most of the subjects are tested in English may be coerced to provide evidence of English ability through an international test like IELTS to be able to be considered for universities in the UK for selected programmes.

Yet, as spoken earlier, we do not find the varieties of English, even the other varieties in the UK and USA, as represented in international tests. While we experience much variation in  accents across different regions with the UK and USA, our focus in getting past certification is by listening to Received Pronunciation or General American – the standard varieties of English that have the highest prestige and power. After clearing these certification tests, we hardly encounter speakers with such pronunciation in real life – right in the UK and USA!

And so, our discussion culminates in this last issue: the concept of NATIVE SPEAKER is not really based on reality, but more of an idealised construct of what an ideal speaker of the particular language might look like – as espoused by Noam Chomsky in 1965. The idealised NATIVE SPEAKER of a particular language is a highly educated monolingual who is capable of using the language for all purposes, including those within highly specialised academic subjects. He/she is not affected by all other sociolinguistic factors (e.g. languages in contact) that may have an effect on language use.

This idealised construct is hardly practical since it only represents a small group of NATIVE SPEAKERs which therefore cannot represent the variation of language use in the actual community. To many of us, it is generally political and racist, where it appears to mainly advance the interests of the nations (or specific regions) that benefit from such models. Little real-life speakers born into the particular language can fit perfectly in the model of a NATIVE SPEAKER, and yet this model does really make loads of difference to many lives of NATIVE SPEAKERs and NON-NATIVE SPEAKERs. This is also the reason why the late Professor Davies calls it both a myth and a reality.

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Is the NATIVE SPEAKER concept still valid? What are other alternatives?

I have, of course, been very upfront since I coined the title of this article that I am largely dissatisfied with the NATIVE SPEAKER concept mainly due to its ambiguity and somewhat invalidity and the privileges it attaches based on these problematic assumptions. However, we still need an alternative model to fill the void if we abandon the NATIVE SPEAKER concept. It is not simply a case of renouncement and things can move on as usual.

Despite its drawbacks, the NATIVE SPEAKER model has been a ubiquitous construct that is widely adopted within applied linguistics and language education as standard benchmarks for that particular language. These benchmarks or norms have been the established premise (e.g. a threshold) in certain fields of research, such as the Critical Period Hypothesis, Language Attrition, Fossilisation, etc. They have also been the ultimate target for language learning, despite all the interim targets in between. In the absence of such a model, how should such studies progress, and what should be the pinnacle of language learning?

Professor Alan Davies (2003) did make a proposal at the end of his book, by redefining what a “NATIVE SPEAKER” model entails. In his own words: “In addition to the mythic or idealised definition of NATIVE SPEAKER, that product of the homogenised, error-free linguistic Eden, there are different flesh-and-blood or reality definitions. They include:

  • NATIVE SPEAKER by birth (that is by early childhood exposure);
  • NATIVE SPEAKER (or native speaker-like) by being an exceptional learner;
  • NATIVE SPEAKER through education using the target-language medium (the lingua franca case);
  • NATIVE SPEAKER by virtue of being a native user (the post-colonial case); and
  • NATIVE SPEAKER through long residence in the adopted country.

The first definition is what we are familiar with, and its issues as discussed throughout this article. The other definitions seek to address what the first definition lacks and bridge the gaps between the invalid assumptions and the desired states that we look forward to. Should such a semantic meaning be ingrained over time, then the revolutionised “NATIVE SPEAKER” might also be appropriate.

Re-defining a term that has been used so widely with other senses can be a journey to Mars and back. That is why other scholars have provided other proposals instead. Dewaele, Bak & Ortega (2022) advocate the use of L1/Lx (x as the sequential number) to depict the live persons or the models instead of NATIVE or NON-NATIVE, stripping away the racist connotation that comes with these terms.

For language education, scholars such as Vivian Cook (1999) proposed the concept of a multicompetence to replace the NATIVE SPEAKER model to illustrate the language change that can occur in L2 learners. The merit of this model is that the focus is more on the change and growth of the learners, and not on the gap between the learners and an idealised construct.

In recent years, more and more scholars have tried to challenge the models with more innovative frameworks – that go all the way to even question the architecture of languages and language acquisition. Translanguaging is one line of research that does just this, and is definitely worth our attention.

Notwithstanding such, we have yet to witness radical breakthroughs within institutions with the administrative, political, economic, and social power to effect deep systemic changes. In simpler words, such alternative models have yet to see widespread implementation in our public and institutional policies. We can still be optimistic though because there is progress in the academic development of the concept accompanied by other frameworks like CEFR that bridges all the other gaps. Let’s look forward to a future where the issues mentioned in this article become obsolete and the development of an updated concept in place of the current NATIVE SPEAKER to guide research and practice within applied linguistics and language education.


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