My friend John and I are having a friendly disagreement, and I’m enlisting you all in its resolution. He was surprised to find that I defined “native speaker” as someone who learned a language from infancy; for him, it describes competence, not biography. I asked him how, then, he would distinguish “native” from “fluent”; he asked me how (without inquiring about biography) I would be able to tell whether someone was or was not a native speaker. He said it was a technical linguistic term and should have an operational definition (like me, he is a former linguistics grad student); I said it was an ordinary-language term and did in fact include the biographical component, whether he approved or not. He claimed that it was used his way in the linguistic literature; I pointed out that neither of us had been reading the linguistic literature for nigh on thirty years. I said I’d throw the question open to my readership, and he said he looked forward to the results. Rather than get tangled in detailed definitions, we agreed to use his father as a test case: he spoke only Arabic until he was six, then went to American schools and quickly became a fluent speaker, indistinguishable from someone who learned English from birth. So: is John’s father a native speaker of English? Comments, please. I am interested in everyone’s response, but please indicate if you are a professional linguist, since we want insight into the technical usage as well as the everyday one.
Although I want your first impression, in the extended entry I provide some food for thought and discussion.
There is an online piece directly addressing this issue, Who is a native speaker and what is it they speak? by Robin Turner, but he puts me off with his occasional sloppiness: “…Max Heinrich‘s oft-quoted (e.g. Chambers, 1995:214) tongue-in-cheek definition: ‘A language is a dialect with its own army and navy'” (it was Max Weinreich); “Hokkien and Cantonese, for example, are probably regarded as dialects of Chinese not because they are mutually intelligible (which they are to only a very limited degree), but because their speakers share a similar culture, and were for most of their history part of the same state (even though they are not now; Hokkien is largely spoken in Taiwan)” (utterly absurd: there are around 50 million speakers of Min (“Hokkien”) Chinese, less than a third of whom are in Taiwan). Nevertheless, he provides some useful discussion, and I’ll quote a fair amount:
One way to avoid the “native speaker” trap is to speak of “native speaker competence”. Natives of a community have native speaker competence, more or less by definition (Hymes, 1972c; Fishman, 1972a:49). On the other hand, non-natives may also acquire native, or near-native competence.
The first problem with the competence idea is the by now familiar one of circular definition. Native speaker competence can be broadly defined as the ability to conform to the set of linguistic and sociolinguistic expectations of a particular speech community. As we have seen, the notion of a speech community implies members by whose linguistic behaviour the community is defined, so unless we possess a definition of “native speaker” which is not related to competence, we are back where we started. If, on the other hand, we do possess such a definition, sociolinguistic competence is, to use Aristotelian terms, an accidental rather than an essential property of a native speaker…
A more promising approach comes, perhaps surprisingly, from the generative school. If we ignore communicative competence and concentrate on the narrower notion of linguistic competence proposed by Chomsky (1965, 1986), we can make use of the critical period hypothesis, first proposed by Lenneberg (1976). According to this view, the syntax of a language is acquired rapidly and effortlessly by young children, but not by adults; hence there is a “critical period” for language acquisition. A reasonable “rule of thumb” definition of “native speaker” might thus be someone who acquired the language during this critical period; a language acquired later would thus be a second, non-native language, irrespective of the ethnic or speech community the speaker is a nominal member of.
Here, however, he comes close to John’s approach:
For peripheral “native speakers” there appears to be a kind of Turing test in operation; if a “central” native speaker (i.e. close to the prototype) cannot tell the difference between the speech of that person and that of another “central” native speaker, that person may be regarded as a native speaker.
His conclusion makes sense to me, overly wordy though it is:
Having shown that terms such as “language” and “native speaker” are somewhat vague and fuzzy around the edges, the question arises of whether, as linguists, sociolinguists or language educators, we should abandon them and search for more precise terms. I would suggest that this is not only unnecessary, but also impracticable. Alternatives to “language” and “native speaker” such as “speech community” and “member of a speech community” are, as we have seen, equally problematic, since they take their terms of reference from the original offending concepts.
What we can do is define terms more precisely for the field of discourse in which we are working. There is nothing wrong in saying “For the purposes of this study I shall take the term ‘native speaker’ to mean X.” Thus the native speaker of the grammarian would be different from the native speaker of the sociolinguist or the educationalist. This could lead in each case to various prototypical criteria being elevated to the status of “essential properties”, in order to create a clearly-bounded and uniform set. In practice this is what all sciences do to an extent; what a botanist means by “fruit” is close to what the rest of mean by the word, but it is so defined that everything is either “fruit” or “not fruit”, and no “fruit” is more “fruity” than another. The question of what is really “fruit” does not arise, and should not arise with “native speaker” either.
There is a book on the subject, The Native Speaker: Multilingual Perspectives, edited by Rajendra Singh, which might be illuminating although it sounds terrifyingly jargon-filled:
In today’s multilingual world, an understanding of the notion “native speaker” has assumed immense importance for linguistic theorizing. The Native Speaker is a volume of original essays addressing this most fundamental of questions in the contemporary study of language. The distinguished contributors focus essentially on the origins of the concepts “native speaker” and also present psycho- and neurolinguistics perspectives in their assessment. Several empirically rich case studies form India, Singapore, and Africa are used to illustrate the structure of languages and the politics involved in the “nativization” and “othering” of varieties and dialects of speech. Social empowerment through language purity and linguistic corruption are related problematics which also receive attention. The emphasis is not merely on cognitive issues but on socio-historical ones as well. This volume will generate a serious debate regarding the origins and identity of the “native speaker.” Academics and practitioners of linguistics, sociolinguistics, sociology, and psycholinguistics will find this book of interest.
I’ll close with the words of the Father of American Linguistics, Leonard Bloomfield, from Chapter 3 of his great work Language (a good chunk of which I am thrilled to find online): “The first language a human being learns to speak is his native language; he is a native speaker of this language.” So in its classic period, linguistics used my definition (as does, for what it’s worth, the Wikipedia). But I await vox populi.