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Volume 7. Issue 2
The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?
Joseph J. Lee
About the author:
Joseph J. Lee taught ESOL for six years in South Korea before returning to the U.S. to do
graduate studies. He is currently in the M.A. English: TESOL program at San Francisco
In this more mobile and globalized world, the concept of what it means to be a native
speaker of a language is becoming ever more difficult to define, especially in regards to
English. In recent developments in second language acquisition and language teaching,
this concept has been the focus of attention for numerous scholars (e.g. Davies, 1991;
Medgyes, 1992; Phillipson, 1992) to get a better understanding of this concept, and,
perhaps, to reevaluate and revise the “native speaker model” in the field of language
teaching. In this article, the definition of the native speaker is explored based on the
works of various scholars who have investigated this concept. Based on the findings of
what it takes to be a native speaker, the issue of whether the native speaker model is the
appropriate model in language teaching is discussed.
The concept of the native speaker is one that is understood and self-explanatory until the
notion is explored or thought about (Ellis, 1993). There are those who would argue that it
is a unitary concept, hence the question of what it means to be a native speaker is
pointless as “everyone is a Native Speaker of the particular language states that the
person has “grown” in his/her mind/brain. In the real world, that is all there is to say”
(Chomsky, 1965, quoted in Paikeday, 1985, p. 58). However, the quest for a better
understanding of the concept of the native speaker, and, perhaps, reevaluation, is not
pointless and has been critically discussed by numerous scholars in recent times (e.g.,
Davies, 1991; Medgyes, 1992; Phillipson, 1992) in the field of language teaching. As the
English language and the mobility of the human race become more and more accessible,
the concept and perception of the native speaker is being challenged. In this paper, I
attempt to explore and systemize a more cohesive definition of the native speaker based
on the collective works of various scholars in the field of language teaching, particularly
English. The question of what the native speaker actually knows is, then, examined.
Based on the internalized knowledge that a native speaker has of his or her language, the
abilities of the native speaker is presented. Upon presenting the concept of the native
speaker, the issue of whether it is possible for a nonnative speaker to acquire membership
into the “native speakerdom” (Nayar, 1994) is addressed, briefly. At last, the question of
whether the native speaker is the appropriate model and goal of language learning and
teaching is discussed.
What is a Native Speaker?
Is there a systematic way of defining or characterizing what a native speaker is? Or is
this a question that is so circular that it needs no attention? In recent developments in the
field of language teaching, this question seems to be of particular importance and
necessity to resolve the issue of what a native speaker is, and whether he or she is the
goal that learners should strive to achieve. However, this puzzle seems to be elusive
since it is unclear as to what a native speaker is and knows based solely on being a native
speaker of a language (Davies, 1991; Myhill, 2003; Paikeday, 1985). In this section of
this paper, I will attempt to make some sense of this elusive enigma based on recent
investigations and studies by different scholars in the fields of Second Language
Acquisition and language teaching.
The first account of the use of the native speaker, according to Davies (1991), seems to
have been referenced by Bloomfield (1933) who states, “The first language a human
being learns to speak is his native language; he is a native speaker of this language” (p.
43). However, this definition seems to be too restricting. In fact, the first learned
language can be replaced by a language that is acquired later (although may not be
completely forgotten) through the more frequent and fluent use of the later-acquired
language where the first language is “no longer useful, no longer generative or creative
and therefore no longer ‘first’” (Davies, 1991, p. 16), as in the case of children who are
transplanted, either through migration or adoption, at an early age. In the field of
theoretical linguistics, the native speaker is the authority of the grammar of his or her
native language (Chomsky, 1965) who “knows what the language is […] and what the
language isn’t […]” (Davies, 1991, p. 1). According to this logic, a native speaker is an
individual who is infallible and has perfect command of his or her language. This may
not absolutely be the case, as Nayar (1994) argues that native speakers are not “ipso facto
knowledgeable, correct and infallible in their competence” (p. 4). He further contends
that the notion that the native speaker “has the power to err without a blemish in his
competence” based purely on the fact that the individual is perceived as a native speaker
needs to be challenged and reevaluated. So far, the two explanations presented by
Bloomfield and Chomsky do not adequately resolve this complex puzzle.
From an etymological perspective, the word “native” suggests that an individual is a
“[native speaker] of a language by virtue of place or country of birth” (Davies, 1991, p.
ix). This implies that the individual acquired the language from birth (Davies, 1991;
Paikeday, 1985; Phillipson, 1992). However, as stated above, this is inadequate in
determining whether an individual is a native speaker of a language, or not, due to the
fact that individuals can be resettled to other places in childhood, as in the case of
children who immigrate or are adopted in early childhood. Additionally, being born in a
place does not guarantee that the person will be a native speaker of the native area
because the language that the individual speaks at home may not coincide with the
language in the native area; and children who are adopted in early childhood may not
develop in the same linguistic environment of his or her birthplace.
Some may state that the only bona fide native speaker is a monolingual speaker of a
language; being a monoglot is the only attribute that absolutely guarantees membership
owing to the fact that the individual does not have any other language to be a native of.
However, this assumption is not completely factual, as many native speakers of a
language do, in fact, speak other languages besides their own; and monoglots may be the
exception rather than the norm (Maum, 2002). So, where does that leave us? Being a
monoglot (which is rare) and being born in a particular place does not adequately
facilitate the quest in defining the native speaker. To get a clearer picture of what a
native speaker is, I have isolated six defining features of a native speaker that numerous
scholars in the field of Second Language Acquisition and language teaching support and
1. The individual acquired the language in early childhood (Davies, 1991;
McArthur, 1992; Phillipson, 1992) and maintains the use of the language (Kubota,
2004; McArthur, 1992),
2. the individual has intuitive knowledge of the language (Davies, 1991; Stern,
3. the individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse (Davies, 1991;
Maum, 2002; Medgyes, 1992),
4. the individual is communicatively competent (Davies, 1991; Liu, 1999; Medgyes,
1992), able to communicate within different social settings (Stern, 1983),
5. the individual identifies with or is identified by a language community (Davies,
1991; Johnson & Johnson, 1998; Nayar, 1998)
6. the individual does not have a foreign accent (Coulmas, 1981; Medgyes, 1992;
Scovel, 1969, 1988).
Other features of the native speaker include race (Liu, 1999; Kubota, 2004); the capacity
to write creatively (Davies, 1991); knowledge to differentiate between their own speech
and the standard form of the language (Davies, 1991; Kubota, 2004); and the “capacity to
interpret and translate into the L1 of which s/he is a native speaker” (Davies, 1991, p.
149). These four other features that have been presented are debatable and dubious in
many ways. The race (or ethnicity) of an individual, I believe, is not a determining factor
since, as noted above, in the case of a child who is adopted by individuals who differ
from the child’s ethnic background can surely transplant him or her to a place where he
or she is not a native inhabitant of. Therefore, an ethnically Chinese child, at an early
age, can be adopted by a family who is not Chinese (and does not speak the child’s first
language) who relocates the child to another country where the local language is not the
child’s first language. The child will mature and develop, perhaps, being no longer a
native speaker Chinese, but rather his first language—Chinese—will most likely be
substituted with the language of his new environment. As a result, the later-acquired
language will, in all probability, become his native or first language. Furthermore, in
countries like the United States, individuals who are not ethnically of English decent do,
in fact, speak English as their first and native language, as in the many cases of
descendents of non-British immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for several
generations. Additionally, in China, although 91.8% of the people are of Han Chinese
background (CIA, 2003), not all 91.8% speak the same language. The people of China
who are ethnically Han Chinese speak languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and
others, although some may consider these dialects or variants of Mandarin.
Davies (1991) stated that a native speaker has the capacity to write creatively in his or her
language. This feature is not completely accurate. We can only suppose this feature to
be factual if we assume that all native speakers are highly proficient and creative in
writing in their languages through a great number of years of formal schooling, and, most
of all, from a talent for expressing themselves creatively in written language. We, also,
have to account for proficiency level differences among literate members of a language
community, not to mention those individuals who are not literate in their language.
Moreover, there are languages that are preliterate (Florez & Terrill, 2003) where there are
no written forms of the languages. Therefore, the notion that native speakers are creative
writers would only be accurate, if all languages have writing systems, and all native
speakers of those languages were highly proficient and creative individuals such as
writers and poets.
The last two features that Davies suggests of a native speaker are debatable as well.
Cook (1999) indicates that “many native speakers are unaware how their speech differs
from the status form, as shown, for example, in the growing use of nonstandard between
you and I for between you and me even in professional speakers such as news readers” (p.
186). Hence, the claim that native speakers can differentiate their speech and that of the
standard variety is not as obvious as Davies asserts. Moreover, Cook challenges Davies’
claim that native speakers have the capacity to interpret and translate from another
language to their own. This capacity, according to Cook, is only reserved for those
individuals who have a language other than the language that they are natives of, and not
necessarily by all of them.
Among the six essential features of the native speaker that have been laid out above, the
most incontrovertible factor in defining the native speaker is that the individual acquired
the language in childhood and sustains the use of the language. According to Cook
(1999), an individual is not a native speaker of a language unless the individual acquired
it in childhood. Furthermore, an individual who did not acquire the language in
childhood will most likely maintain a recognizable foreign accent in his or her speech
(Scovel, 1969, 1988). Therefore, all other features besides the one that I have mentioned
are secondary; a matter of competence and performance of the individual (that is, how
well the individual uses his or her language). The most poignant summation of what it
means to be a native speaker of a language is offered by Kourtizin (2000):
English is the language of my heart, the one in which I can easily express love for
my children; in which I know instinctively how to coo to a baby; in which I can
sing lullabies, tell stories, recite nursery rhymes, talk baby talk. In Japanese, there
is an artificiality about my love; I cannot express it naturally or easily. The
emotions I feel do not translate well into the Japanese language, and those which I
have seen expressed by Japanese mothers do not seem sufficiently intimate when
I mouth them (p. 324).
Keeping the above ideas about what it is to be a native speaker in mind, I will present the
knowledge and abilities that a native speaker of a language possesses.
What Does a Native Speaker Know?
In exploring the definition of a native speaker, the notion that a native speaker has
intuitive knowledge of the language he or she is a native speaker of, and has linguistic as
well as communicative competence (Hymes, 1971) have been offered. What does that
actually mean? What is it that a native speaker knows that a nonnative speaker does not
that distinguishes the two? In this section of this paper, I will present what the native
speaker actually knows and can perform that differentiates him or her from a nonnative
speaker. Based on findings and studies by scholars in the fields of Linguistics, Applied
Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and English Language Teaching, the
knowledge of a native speaker has been cataloged. Native speakers have internalized
1. appropriate use of idiomatic expressions (Coulmas, 1981; Medgyes, 1992, 1994;
2. correctness of language form (Coulmas, 1981; Davies, 1991; Phillipson, 1996),
3. natural pronunciation (Coulmas, 1981; Medgyes, 1992, 1994),
4. cultural context (Medgyes, 1992, 1994; Phillipson, 1996) including “response
cries” (Goffman, 1978, cited in Coulmas, 1981), swear words, and interjections,
5. above average sized vocabulary, collocations and other phraseological items
(Coulmas, 1981; Medgyes, 1992, 1994),
6. metaphors (Coulmas, 1981),
7. frozen syntax, such as binomials or bi-verbials (Coulmas, 1981),
8. nonverbal cultural features (Coulmas, 1981; Davies, 1991).
Additionally, native speakers of a language have pragmatic and strategic competence of
their language. They are able to attend to pragmatic conventions of the language, to not
only accomplish communication goals but pay heed to interpersonal relationships with
other interlocutors simultaneously, depending on different sociocultural contexts (Kasper,
1997). They have the internalized strategic competence to use different verbal and
nonverbal communication skills to repair breakdowns in conversational exchanges
(Canale & Swain, 1980). Native speakers avoid avoidance (Davies, 1991); that is, they
shun from giving up on comprehension or production. However, avoidance is a strategy
commonly found in communication acts of nonnative speakers. With the automatized
knowledge that native speakers have, what is it that they are able to perform? Native
speakers possess the ability to manifest and perform:
1. spontaneous, fluent discourse (Davies, 1991; Maum, 2002; Medgyes, 1992),
2. circumlocutions (Davies, 1991; Halliday, 1978),
3. hesitations (Brown, 2001; Davies, 1991; Halliday, 1978),
4. predictions of what the interlocutor will say (Davies, 1991; Halliday, 1978),
5. clarifications of message through repetition in other forms (Davies, 1991;
Medgyes, 1992, 1994).
Additionally, native speakers have other verbal as well as nonverbal communication
skills that enable them to communicate effortlessly, in most instances, with other
participants in communication exchanges, within appropriate sociocultural contexts.
The question as to whether a nonnative speaker can become a native speaker has been a
concern in the field of language teaching. Based on what has been presented, we can
conclude that it is impossible for any learner of a language, after the critical period
(Scovel, 1988), to become a native speaker unless he or she is born again. It is
impossible due to the fact that in order to be considered a native speaker of a language, an
individual must satisfy the one most salient criterion—acquire the language in early
childhood and maintain the use of that language. If a nonnative speaker cannot become a
native speaker based on this one definitive element, then can a nonnative speaker, after
the critical period, attain all of the other elements discussed above? According to
Phillipson (1996), a nonnative speaker, through effective training, can acquire most of the
other elements that define the concept of a native speaker. However, Medgyes (1992)
points out that many aspects of linguistic competence do pose tremendous challenges for
nonnative speakers. Among the aspects of linguistic competence, accent seems to be a
hurdle that is most difficult, if not impossible, to overcome (Scovel, 1969, 1988).
Coulmas (1981) asserts that the ability to produce natural pronunciation and perfect
grammar are other areas of linguistic competence which are extremely difficult for
nonnative speakers. Furthermore, target cultural competence (Liang, 2003) seems to
pose another challenge as the exposure to this element is not substantial for nonnative
speakers. However, as mentioned above, most of the elements that a native speaker
knows and can perform can, through effective learning and teaching principles and
approaches, be learned and acquired by nonnative speakers except, perhaps, accent.
Therefore, instead of focusing on the elements that is out of the control of language
learners and language teachers, such as the definitive element of what a native speaker is
and accent, teachers as well as learners should focus on the elements that are achievable.
If the native speaker model is not achievable in language learning, perhaps, it should be
reevaluated and revised to set forth models that are achievable by learners. Perhaps, it is
time to shift our focus from ‘who you are’ to ‘what you know’ (Rampton, 1990).
Alternative terms can be employed, instead, in the field of language teaching (Cook,
1999). Such alternative terms have been explored by Paikeday (1985) who suggest
“proficient user of the language;” Rampton (1990) proposes “language expert;” Cook
(1991) puts forward “multicompetent speaker;” and I offer “competent language user
(CLU).” The purpose of using alternative terms in place of the native speaker is to shift
not only the attention away from ‘who you are,’ but to focus the attention on what we are
actually attempting to accomplish in language teaching—communicative competence.
We should attempt to set the goals for our learners to more attainable goals; not goals
which are nearly impossible, if the most irrefutable definition of a native speaker is that
he or she acquired the language in childhood and continues to use it. Now, should the
label ‘native speaker’ be removed from our mental as well as written lexicon for good?
No, the label will not and should not go away (Cook, 1999). However, as stated above, it
is time to revisit this label and, perhaps, use alternative terms in the field of language
teaching to eliminate the native speaker-nonnative speaker dichotomy which perpetuates
exclusion, rather than inclusion of all individuals who are users of a language; to permit
all users access into the membership of “competent language userdom.” Additionally, by
introducing and maintaining alternative labels in the field of language teaching, we, as
educators, are setting a goal for the learners—to become a competent language user of
the target language—that is achievable. After all, as Davies (1996) aptly inquires, what
is it that we are trying to achieve in language teaching, the native speaker or proficiency?
The author would like to express his sincerest appreciation to Dr. Thomas Scovel at San
Francisco State University for his invaluable insights, guidance, and comments.
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