“Native and Non-Native Language Speaker” Labels: A Flawed Dichotomy
Disclaimer: The use of the terms Native Speaker and Non Native Speaker is broad and one on which there is ample research. This post is very personal (not academic) and does not cite research because it is meant to show my current thoughts and reflection on the matter. I do plan on conducting research on this issue and writing an academic piece in the future, but I wanted to publish this reflection on my blog now for anyone who might be interested in my view on the labels currently used to categorize English language speakers.
I am not trying to be politically correct here, but continuous use of the words “native speaker” by professionals in our field needs to stop. We have got to find a more accurate and inclusive way to refer to English language speakers because the native speaker (NS) and non-native speaker (NNS) dichotomy is flawed, and in my view, a disservice to everyone involved in English language learning and teaching.
First of all, why do people often use the labels “native speaker” or “non-native speaker?” I’ve listed some of the common reasons that come to my mind. Feel free to add others in the comment section if you’d like.
- To identify English language speakers who are proficient in their language use.
- To signal correctness over language use, e.g., identifying accurate language use on whether a “native speaker” would say/pronounce/use X language item in X way.
- To clarify when someone has acquired English as an additional language.
So why do I believe these terms should not be used?
One does not need to be a native speaker to be a highly proficient English language user. English is a lingua franca, and the majority of English speakers in the world did not learn English as their first language. In fact, so-called native speakers comprise the minority of English language users around the world. If we want models of proficient speakers, we do not need to consider nationality or language learned at birth –both factors which do not guarantee proficiency anyhow. My own identity as an English speaker can serve as an example here. English and Italian were my first languages. When I was six years old, I spoke both as fluently as any child would. However, I left the US at a young age and did not get a chance to use English often. When I came back to the US at seventeen, I had to take ESL classes and certainly did not fit in the “native speaker” category. Am I a native speaker now? Does it even matter? Personally, I prefer the term multilingual. Calling anyone a non-native speaker signals a lack of something. There is this otherness implied that does not sit well with me. Why define someone’s language skills by what they are not, especially when even being a native speaker can represent so many different language uses?
This brings me to the second point. While often people want to know how a native speaker would say something –assuming this would be the correct language use- many people who learned English as their first language might use varieties of English that are not acceptable in different contexts. Think of regional differences in the way English is used. That inside sensor telling someone that an expression or way to use language “just sounds right” only goes so far if we have a global perspective in mind.
Finally, some may say that the point in using these terms is to clarify when someone learned English later on in life as opposed to learning the language as a child. But I’d like to ask you, why should that matter?
Truly knowing a language involves much more than merely learning how to speak, read or write as a child. As an English teacher, knowing the language involves awareness about the way we acquire language; this is what helps us make better decisions when we plan our lessons. Our passports, skin color, or how we learned the language as children does not have an impact on how well our students learn; however, you would be forgiven for not thinking this if you took a look at ads looking for unqualified English teachers from certain nationalities. This is where inequity and exclusion are most blatant when it comes to the use of NS and NNS labels in our field.
Each time we equate the terms native speaker with proficient speaker in an academic setting, we are doing a disservice to English language learners and the many proficient English language teachers who at one point were English language learners themselves.
When I attend an event for English teachers and I continuously hear the presenter referring to NS grammar use vs. ESL grammar use, I have to wonder where I fit in the conversation. What about English teachers who learned English as adults? Where is their “grammar use” represented in this dichotomy?
When students are told they should interview native speakers to practice English or visit a native speaker tutor, there is an implicit message conveyed that proficient non-native speakers will not be as helpful. That is simply incorrect. In fact, a person who speaks English as an additional language might be a great model of a successful language learner for students.
I am aware that these terms will be around for a while. However, I think it is our job to stop using them, to call out discriminatory job ads, and to ask colleagues and others in our field to reconsider their use of these terms. There are so many alternatives, e.g., proficient English language speaker, bilingual, multilingual speaker. How about embracing one that is more accurate and inclusive?
If you are interested in learning more about this subject, I highly recommend checking out TEFL Equity Advocates. On their site, you can find a collection of anti-discriminatory statements shared by both governmental organizations and prominent professional groups in our field.