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.


  1. Douglas Davidson says

    I am with you; I use “native speaker” as a term of ordinary language, to refer to one who learned a language from infancy. It does not imply any particular degree of fluency–witness the current president. More seriously, I know people who immigrated in early childhood to the United States, and now speak English significantly more fluently than they do their native language. However, the body of native speakers does form the natural benchmark for evaluating the fluency of non-native speakers.

  2. Agreed. I use the term “native speaker” to describe the primary language one learns in childhood, usually as a result of familial/cultural immersion (and my guess is that most readers will define it that way too). Fluency is something one acquires… or does not!

  3. I agree with you. If you’re six and you learn a new language, that’s nice, but you’re not a native speaker. Three is about my cutoff point.

  4. I have to disagree with you, and agree with your friend. My family is in a similar situation, with my parents speaking Tamil until they went to school, which was conducted in English. By the time they were teenagers they were speaking perfect English and spoke Tamil with marked English accents and questionable fluency. I consider them to be native English speakers in that English is basically their primary language now.
    I agree that there is a difference between fluency and being a native speaker, but if you learn the 2nd language early enough (I’d say before puberty), you can have the 2nd language become as “native” as the first language, and even displace the first language entirely, as with my family.

  5. I am not a professional linguist, but I think you’re both right. I want there to be a biographical component, but I don’t feel like 6 is too late for that to start, assuming that the person in question does end up totally fluent. (So, when is too late? I don’t know, maybe after the age of 12? That part of my definition is hazy, sorry.)

  6. I’m not a linguist.
    I agree with mishac.
    I spoke Ukrainian almost exclusively until age 4 or so. Then I started playing with neighborhood kids.
    Now I can no longer put together a simple sentence in Ukrainian, and my vocabulary is probably about 50 words (mainly because I made an effort to study it as a second language until I turned 14).
    One definition of native is your first language, and I can understand using the term that way. But I think to be useful in scientific study, “native” is synonymous with “primary” and one’s native language can certainly change over time. I have a friend who started out with Korean, grew up with Brazilian Portuguese and recently became an American. She considers English her native language now, except with mathematics, which she still does in Portuguese.

  7. dungbeattle says

    From a non macadamian. Native is my ,birth language, warts and all, be a native english speaker, tho most british now doth think i be a foreigner. my best boossom buddy[pal], was Flemish and is frightfully fluent. Native, to me indicates the language one is weened on. Fluency is the one is dunked and brainwashed in. Lord Willians a top advocate was weened on Welsh till 11 or so, then to overcome the louts from the other side of Offers dyke became so fluent in The language of the betters that he could wipe the floor of the courts and Parliament because he was fluent in English, but his native Language was Walian [Welsh] . See, I be native speaking British, but not too fluent. Enuff said.

  8. Don Draper says

    I agree with the notion attributed to the generative school – any language(s) “acquired” by the critical period count as native for you. For your question, I would consider your friend’s father a native English (and presumably Arabic) speaker. I’ve known many children of immigrants who arrived somewhere between birth and high school age, and it would be strange to consider them anything but native speakers. The best you can achieve without growing up with the language would be, to me, “native level fluency”. The word native itself seems to imply the biographical component.
    I’m not a linguist, though I did major in linguistics as an undergrad.

  9. I’m not sure. I had a friend who grew up in South Africa, started learning German, then used Afrikaans, then English. She claimed she wasn’t a native speaker of any language.
    I think that native speaker counts as learning from fairly early childhood and using enough that you don’t forget it. You can be fluent as a non-native speaker, but I’m not sure I’d call it native unless you started using it very young.

  10. Like “boo”, I lost the language that I used to speak up to age 4 or 5; German in my case. One German word I haven’t forgotten is Sprachgefühl (usually explained in English as “the instinctive or intuitive grasp of the natural idiom of a language”). It’s that feeling you have when you *know* that something is right according to the “set of linguistic and sociolinguistic expectations of a particular speech community”. To me, native speaker equivalence means that, apart from disfluency, you only make “native speaker mistakes.” You might say “I seen yuz when her and me were at the store yesterday,” but it would never occur to you to say “Why didn’t you caught the ball?”
    On the subject of age, my father’s first exposure to English was at age 16 but by the time I made his acquaintance many years later he was a native speaker.

  11. Hi Steve-
    in my circles, we use “native” to describe language acquired from infancy, and “near-native” for fluent speakers who acquired the language later in life. This does not apply well to bilinguals. Bilinguals who switched to another language in childhood are “heritage speakers” – there are gradations, but such speakers are usually able to understand and speak well (though their awareness of style may be limited); they usually don’t have reading or writing proficiency. As far as I know, there isn’t one answer as to whether the 2nd language of a bilingual child becomes his “native” language: it depends on age, education, cultural identity etc. I heard such speakers say “I am a bilingual speaker of X and Y”, “my native language is X, but I forgot it”, and also “my native language is English”.

  12. I go with a limited biographical definition — native speakers have learned during the youthful period of plasticity (up to 8? 10?) but not necessarily from infancy.
    Someone growing up speaking one language at home but a second language with kids in the neighborhood would be a native speaker of both languages. He might have certain deficiencies in both languages (perhaps only “kitchen language” in one, and big gaps in “kitchen language” in the other).
    You have cases of people who are “native speakers” of a language, but uneducated and illiterate in it (kitchen language only), who are highly educated in their other native language. Often the first native language atrophies entirely.
    Something not mentioned is the thickness of the learning of a language. A kid learning a second language in the neighborhood gets a tremendous flood of linguistic information in his everyday life. The contrast would be with someone with a high degree of learned fluency whose whose learning all took place in formal or school contexts. Someone like that might be quite fluent without native speaker ability, even if pronunciation and grammar were perfect, because of big gaps in the parts of the vocabulary which aren’t used formally.
    I was thinking about this yesterday watching the accursed Yankees beat my Twins. Among American males, my sportsfan index is probably no higher than 60-70 out of 100. Yet my English presupposes pretty close knowledge of basketball, football, baseball, and track and field — but not hockey or soccer. This includes fairly obscure rules like the infield fly rule in baseball or “in the grasp” (usually miscalled “in the grass”) in football. (Also obsolete terms like “palming the ball”, a foul which is never called any more). The metaphorical use of phrases like “full count”, “third and long”, or “slam dunk” to me would be part of native speaker fluency, granted that many native speakers who don’t care about this stuff are still native speakers.
    The point being that these are examples of the kinds of officially inessential information that really defines “thick” native speaker fluency. Stuff like this is also what makes novels so hard to read in the original, without a translator’s mediation, even for someone who has a pretty good basic command of the language. (The infinite nuances of the British class system are a comparable example, I think; when I read Austen in HS I totally missed the point because I didn’t understand any of the cues I was being given.)

  13. language spoken in country of my birth: X
    language spoken in country of childhood: O
    language spoken for the first 6 years of life: O
    languages spoken after the age of 6: X & O
    language of all my education: X
    languages of fluency: X & O
    primary language of communication: X
    “native” language: a meaningless question
    Meaningless because it works by suggestion, and it suggests things (perhaps an instinct and feel for the language of one’s infancy) that are simply not true of me. The first is that I am a “native” of somewhere, which presumes a purity of experience that’s simply non-existent in my case.
    It is an emotional designation of limited practical value, and would better replaced by “fluency” or “primary language”, with the proviso that “fluency” be stringently defined.

  14. American literature: Theodore Dreiser was a native speaker of German. Carl Sandburg was a native speaker of Swedish. Thorstein Veblen, Norwegian. There’s a certain crudeness to their writing. Jack Kerouac was a native speaker of New England French. The psychologist — philosopher George Herbert Mead learned French in the neighborhood and learned to read French from comic books.
    William Carlos Williams’ mother was Puerto
    Rican, IIRC, and Henry David Thoreau’s grandparents was Channel Islands French. I suspect some degree of bilingualism.

  15. I consider myself a language “fan,” not achieving the hobbyist or professional level. I consider “native speaker” to be one who speaks a particular language as their first-ever language (allowing for being native in more than one language if both are learned at the same time).
    I do like the idea of a “native proficiency” Turing test, but the sample size of the conversation needs to be sufficiently lengthy. I know a number of people who would test as native until a mass noun comes along, or who mix their gender pronouns when tired.

  16. I’m an applied linguistics grad student. I do agree that native speaker is regular language and not jargon. I think that it is a case of it depends with regards to infancy as has been demonstrated by some who forgot their first language after immigrating and starting to acquire thier second language around age 5 or 6 or 7.
    I remember reading something about a watershed age where knowledge that is not continually activated becomes lost forever. This watershed is crossed somewhere between ages 5 & 6 and consequently many kindergarten and grade one teachers have to deal with this issue. In many cases I have read reports of teachers consciously noticing studetns losing thier first language in a matter of months.
    In that case are these children not native speakers of any language? There are also issues to consider with regards to command of lexis, grammaticaliity, communicative competence, and pronunciation. What I have read is that each of these has a different age of acuistiion to be considered a native speaker. With command of pronunciation it is generally considered that acquisition of the second language must begin sometime around age 6 or 7 and I believe that for lexis it may be as late as 14 or 15.
    Unfortunately I do not have the studies in front of me and am recalling everything from memory. I do have a friend who emigrated from germany at the age of 11 whose command of English is as native as anyone I know. He has a high vocabulary and everything about him marks him as a native speaker except for his pronunciation -he has a slight accent which has not disappeared after more than 20 years in Canada. Is he a native speaker? it depends on who you ask – to me I would say yes.

  17. I am not a linguist.
    I agree with you. I learnt to speak Tamil and Marathi and some Hindi before I leart English, but (to my embarassment) I am more fluent in English today than in the other languages.
    However, I still consider Tamil to be my native tongue although I am not fluent in it, and indeed can neither read nor write in Tamil.

  18. Linguistics postgraduate. My use would be fluency acquired in the (early) critical period. Entails: Your grammatical judgements are intrinsic, not based on study, and you’re not aware of ever having not known the language fluently.

  19. Michael Farris says

    I’d say that “native speaker” is a useful though fuzzy category and that “fluency” (and levels of fluency) are heuristic concepts with a large inherent fuzzy component.
    My rough definition (very quick and sloppy, please poke holes in it) for “native speaker”
    hinges on fulfilling two criteria.
    1. informal acquisition (the language is acquired from family and/or age-peers and not
    primarily school)
    2. part of personal identity. Yes, another yet sloppy undefined term, for now I’ll just
    say personal identity as in ‘it’s part of who I am’ not ‘it’s something I’ve learned’.
    The term “Native speaker” is most useful for describing those, for whom there is no difference between native and primary or most fluent language. That is, those who grow up speaking the majority language of their society, obtain most of their education and conduct most of their life-business in that language.
    It’s going to be less useful in multi-lingual, very diglossic or post-colonial societies where the power of the colonial language has hindered the development of local languages (it should be noted that all three of these apply to most of India). In these circumstances, you’re going to have a lot more people in the gray areas that don’t fit easily into either folk categories or linguist-created slots. Immigrants (esp. children) are also often not going to fit into neat slots.

  20. Excellent comment, Michael — I think you’re right about usefulness depending on situations where most people “grow up speaking the majority language of their society, obtain most of their education and conduct most of their life-business in that language.” It clarifies why elck, for example, finds it a meaningless phrase — his situation was very different. Although I hadn’t thought it out to that extent, I think a vague awareness of that sort of distinction attracted me to Turner’s conclusion: “What we can do is define terms more precisely for the field of discourse in which we are working… Thus the native speaker of the grammarian would be different from the native speaker of the sociolinguist or the educationalist.”
    Zizka’s quite right about “thick” fluency (and about the accursed Yankees); it’s always slightly disconcerting when someone you’ve taken to be a native speaker reveals a thin spot.
    Renee says “in my circles, we use ‘native’ to describe language acquired from infancy,” and I think the very word “native” makes it hard for me to use it in any other way: it means ‘from birth,’ so how can you use it for something acquired at the age of six or eight or whatever? I know, I know, words mean whatever people use them to mean and etymology is not destiny; I’m just explaining part of my reaction to this controversy. (Russians talk about rodnoi yazyk, which has an even stronger connection to the ‘birth’ idea; I wonder if that makes it harder for Russians to extend the usage in this way.)

  21. One thing not mentioned here is the matter of race. I forget where they were done, but somebody at an American University did a study where they played the same tape to listeners and asked them to rate how well they understood what they heard. They also tested them on the factual content of what was spoken about. The same tape each time, but different photographs of the speaker. When the speaker was portrayed as someone non-white, the listeners not only rated the speaker as less understandable; but they also tested lower on the factual content of what was said! That is, they actually had less of an understanding of what was said simply because they thought the speaker was not a “native speaker”!
    The point being that language and biography may not be enough to define who is a “native speaker” since others may still mark you as not being a native speaker. Many Indians who are “native speakers” of English must put up with being told by Americans that they “speak such good English”!

  22. Michael Farris says

    “What we can do is define terms more precisely for the field of discourse in which we are working”
    In the interest of doing just that thing, I’ll propose a very unscientific taxonomy that’s bound to piss off many people.
    I’ll start with a basic tri-partite division:
    first : acquisition order (there can be more than one for those who grow up in multilingual environments)
    second : relative fluency rank (how fluent the speaker is in relation to other languages the person knows again for some people, some languages might be tied roughly speaking)
    third : absolute fluency rank (for the sake of argument, let’s have 5-0 with five representing native level fluency (benchmark being that of a monolingual of similar educational level) with 0 being roughly what boo remembers of Ukrainian (bits and pieces but nothing systematic or useful)
    So for me
    NAmerican English 1:1:5
    Polish 4:2:4
    German 3:4:3
    Spanish 2:3:3
    Problems jump out right away of course, I leave out languages that I never achieved anything that close to fluency in (Arabic, Hindi, Japanese for example). I’ll add a ~ after a number to indicate that one or more languages that the person doesn’t include in the list (mostly due to fragmentary acquisition)
    and there’s no distinction between formal and informal acquisition. FOr that I think we can substitue a four stage scale indicating the period of life when acquisition (as opposed to exposure) began:
    i – infancy
    c – childhood
    t – teenage years
    a – adulthood
    I’d then renumber at each level so that if acquisition of a person’s second language began at 16, then that would be 1t
    so that would be:
    NAmerican English 1i:1:5
    Spanish 1a:3:3
    German 2~a:4:3
    Polish 3~a:2:4
    Esperanto 4~a:4:3

  23. One of Trevor’s recent entries seems relevant (second half):

  24. Michael Farris says

    The phenomenon of people not recognizing language abilities of those who don’t look like the ‘canonic’ speaker is widely attested and works in all directions.
    Many years ago I took a field methods course and as my ‘outside’ language, I did Tamil.
    Once while I was meeting with my main consultant in his living room. I was reading out a text I had previously collected when his wife (who I’d also consulted, but who preferred to listen and occasionally contribute rather than traditional consultation) came in and said (rough quote):
    “When I don’t look at you, you sound just like you’re from Tamil Nadu!”
    I think that in the US context, when a South Asian hears the “speak such good English” remark it means “Why I can understand you!” (spoken Indian English can be a challenge for the uninitiated NAmerican) or, “Why, you don’t sound like Apu at all!”
    Never underestimate the power of TV stereotypes.

  25. I think that there are enormous differences between adults in capacity to learn new languages. I knew a guy once who spent ten years or more in the Middle East starting in his twenties, and came back fluent in Persian, Turkish, and Arabic. My Yemeni friends told me that he spoke Arabic with an accent, but not an American accent. He told me himself that he was able to pronoucne “Abu Dhabi” correctly, whereas many Arab native speakers can’t.
    His time in the Middle East was hashish-oriented, and I really believe that drug use helped him learn quicker. A big barrier to language learning is fear of “sounding funny” (e.g., the French “r” and umlauted-u sounded lewd to me in HS) and hasish — I’ve been told — can reduce that fear greatly.
    An American teenager I knew was also reported to have learned Spanish with a Guatamalan accent. He was very lively and curious, and also totally alienated from US HS culture and had only adult friends in the US.
    Both learned in very thick, total-immersion environments and spent long periods without contact with their native culture.

  26. RhiannonStone says

    I’m not a linguistic professional, but I’ve always considered someone a native speaker of a language if that’s the language they grew up speaking, the primary language they conversed in with their parents and relatives. In most cases, this would fit your definition, but in some cases, it would not–such as the case of my co-worker’s daughter, who was born and raised in the US but who has French parents. In their household, French is the primary language, although they converse in English as well, and she’s fully competent in both languages. I would consider her both a native English speaker and a native French speaker despite her country of birth.
    However, if I were to suddenly master Portuguese at the age of 23, no matter how fluent and competent I was, I would not call myself a native Portuguese speaker.

  27. “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.”
    If a speaker can be regarded as a native speaker, then they can similarly confer that regard to another, even though they themselves have a different social perspective: i.e. we can conceive of a situation of three people
    A, born and raised an English speaker
    B, born in France, but moved to England at a young age
    C, born in France, but very good at English
    where A thinks B is `native’, B thinks C is `native’, but A does not think C is `native’. The only conclusion is if the author believes in two levels of `native’ — “central” native, and native — where only the central natives can make this judgement. The bias towards the literal definition of _native_ (i.e. relating to birth) is still present in this definition, which renders the point a little redundant.
    My opinion is that “native” is orthogonal to fluency — I know several native speakers of English who are worse than foreign speakers, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not native!

  28. When I studied bilingualism, I came across this true story of an old man in Hadassa hospital. He was born in some shtetl in Poland, so his ‘native’ (in Steve’s sense) language was Yiddish. He was saved by Poles during the war and had to speak Polish only; he lived in Russia after the war, managed to escape to France and finally to Israel. He could speak all of his languages fluently, except for Yiddish, which he lost entirely – until he had a stroke. After the stroke he could only speak Yiddish.
    We have to distinguish monolingual from bilingual, and use some other words for bilinguals, because the processes are quite different. What if one parent speaks Russian to the child and the other parent speaks English only? The child grows up, fuzzily remembering two or three words of Russian – is Russian his native language then? I have such examples from ‘heritage’ kids who come to the department to study Russian. Well, some have to start from scratch, but if they persist, they can become fluent very quickly. Are they native speakers then? I’m afraid these definitions are quite meaningless for bilinguals, unless you’re attached to the word for reasons of identity and pride. This happens.
    As for Russians, the expression we use is ‘nositel’ yazyka’ (language carrier), which is much more neutral than ‘native speaker’.

  29. Back in the 19th century German was a very major language in use in New York; Theodore Kroeber, one of the founders of modern cultural anthropology, was a second generation American who grew up in a German speaking home in New York city and learned English in school. Read some of his papers on culture and you will know immediately he was a native German speaker.
    Oh, his daughter is Ursula Kroeber LeGuin.

  30. Michael Farris says

    To get back to the original question, where did your friend’s father go to these American schools? In America? Or where they schools run for diplomat and/or army kids?
    If it’s the former, I’d be inclined to think of him as native or as close to it as makes no difference (except to quarrelsome linguists), if it’s the latter, probably not as he probably wouldn’t have gotten age peer reinforcement and the special kind of linguistic and cultural knowledge that children give each other.

  31. I am a professional linguist. (Sorry, not pulling rank, just truth in labelling)
    I want to say that there are two meanings and you and your friend are using one each. The technical, descriptive, biographical sense is the one that shows up in the linguistic literature and that’s the one you (and for that matter, I) use.
    The non-technical sense points at the language(s) that one identifies with as one’s own, however acquired.
    In the prototype situation, the two senses overlap and the difference doesn’t arise. But given the vagaries of individual linguistic existence, it can happen that one’s milk language (let me suggest that term to mean the technical sense for preferrers of the non-technical sense) gets lost or damaged, and a different language is identified as “native”.
    One is reminded of “The man without a country”.
    Anyway, why worry about “right” and “wrong”? Isn’t linguistic discourse silly enough already without complicating it with moral claptrap?

  32. It’s a tough definition. I know many folks in east Europe who grow up simultaneously speaking two or more languages. Hungarians in Transylvania, for example. Some speak only Hungarian until school, some speak Romanian as well while aquiring first languages. In villages like Rasacruci in central Tranysylvania, all the villagers are fluent in Hungarian, Romanian, and Romani from childhood. All could be counted as native speakers,but most wouold simply state their nationality if asked “what are you a native speaker of.”
    I know a little Hasidic kid in Budapest, maybe 10 years old, who speaks Hungarian, Yiddish, and Hebrew depending on the conversation, and can speak fluent but not exactly native English as well. His father is a Hasid from Brooklyn. He’s definately a native speaker of Yiddish, he’s as native as it gets in Hebrew, and he has lived in Hungary his whole life so he qualifies as a native speaker of Magyar. His english comes from visiting and having family in Brooklyn, yet he isn’t fluent (yet…)
    My 11 year old son – in Budapest – is a native speaker of English – having learned it from me since birth – yet he makes mistakes and occaisionally stumbles on vocabulary items. He hasn’t picked up my New York accent,though.

  33. As I understand, in the Caucasus almost everyone has to be bilingual or trilingual, and not mostly because of the Russian influence. There are just too many small languages whose speakers would scarcely be viable at all if they weren’t multilingual.
    Elias Canetti tells stories about how Balkan natives take pleasure in gaining even a little skill in the various languages of the region, on the principle that you never know when one of them will come in useful.

  34. Anyway, why worry about “right” and “wrong”? Isn’t linguistic discourse silly enough already without complicating it with moral claptrap?
    Oh, absolutely. I wasn’t trying to decide what was “right,” just get a sense of how it’s actually used. Frankly, I’ve become even more interested in the concrete examples of multilingualism people are bringing up. Renee, that’s one of the most incredible stories I’ve heard — people are amazing, aren’t they? And zaelic’s little Hasidic kid certainly confounds the categories. I’ll continue using “native speaker” the way I always have, but I’m now much more aware of the complexities involved!

  35. I’m not a linguist by profession, though Knox College awarded me a B.A. in Modern Languages.
    Anyway, I would have to concur with you, in that a native speaker is one who has grown from infancy speaking the language as one of his or her childhood languages, though not necessarily “the first language.” It would have to be both a language one was raised speaking from childhood, and also one in which one maintained a degree of fluency sufficient to be able to maintain a fairly fluid and functional conversation.
    My mother taught me Spanish as a child, which I consider a close second though not a native language because I did not grow up speaking it in house nor school, but acquired it in an academic fashion from her, and only acquired fluency by great effort and trips to the mother country mostly dating from my twelfth year.
    She said, by the way, that in Mexico, one who forgot his or her Spanish and Mexican culture was called a “pocho,” whose derivation I do not know, but have at times wondered if it has to do with “poached eggs.” Those who forgot how to speak and comprehend Spanish were looked down upon.

  36. P.S. Therefore, I’d say your friend’s father, though not a native speaker of English, did become proficient and even fluent in English. He may have been a native speaker of Arabic, but if he forgot it, he would be, from a Mexican point of view, something of a “pocho.” By the way, if anyone has ever heard that use of the word “pocho” from Mexican Spanish, and can throw some light on its etymology, I would be grateful.

  37. Paula Helm Murray says

    The person who does J-List, Peter Payne
    (peter2003 at jlist dot com), does daily commentary on how it is that he, a “gaijin’ desired to learn Japanese and has now become a most fluent user. He does a daily newsletter on interesting facts about Japan and American culture.
    He has become so fluent in Japanese that he is no longer complimented on how good his Japanese is by the Japanese, a high compliment. He has also pointed out that he has realized that his persona changes depending on which language he is working in. He provides a lot of interesting observations about everyday life and its differences.
    I’m not part of his organization or anything else, though I’ve bought stuff from him. It’s just cool. I found it through The Onion.

  38. One other aspect of “native speaker,” that might have some bearing is the perception of the speaker as “owning” the language of his or her childhood. Although I was born in the US and gained what I consider to be a high degree of proficiency in it, the point that I was a child of a Mexican, or a foreigner, was constantly reinforced. I reflected on this as I read the other comments, and realized that I have never really regarded myself as a native speaker of English, either. For that matter, much of what is considered “native” to the land that is now Illinois, was cut down, ploughed under, killed, with the surviving human natives sent west across the Mississippi.
    My point now, I suppose being that the word “native” has too many connotations to be very useful in linguistics. But then, what do I know, I only translate for the courts and the police these days. Like one said above, not a “macadamian.”

  39. Posted by: Rich at October 10, 2004 12:28 PM
    “My opinion is that ‘native’ is orthogonal to fluency — I know several native speakers of English who are worse than foreign speakers, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not native!”
    My non-academic observation is that all people make grammatical errors when speaking, but that non-native–that is, non-initial-language–speakers make different errors from native speakers.

  40. From another non-academic: I think that the confusion over the term stems from natural variation in individual linguistic acquisition. Some people can acquire a second language at a young age, but never attain native-speaker status, whereas others can acquire native-speaker skills well into their teens.
    For a very stark example, witness Henry Kissinger and his older brother, whose name escapes me. Henry never lost his accent, whereas his older brother, whom I heard interviewed on the radio, spoke like a native New Yorker.

  41. My uncle was born to English parents on an isolated farm in South Africa. From birth he also lived among and played with children who spoke Zulu. At the age of six he attended an Afrikaans-speaking school. I’d say that since that was the language he used to communicate with his parents, his primary educators, he’s a native speaker of English, though he’s fluent in all three languages.

  42. This has been brought up before (great comment thread!) but I thought I’d give another example of same.
    My daughter is 9 months old. She will know Yiddish because that’s the language I will speak to her and make considerable effort to immerse her in (to whatever extent possible). Her mother also speaks some Yiddish to her.
    She will know English because her mother speaks mostly English to her, and because the language of the majority of her friends, relatives, and classmates, etc. will probably be English.
    For this story, then, the technical and non-technical senses of “native speaker” will not overlap. But in any case, there will probably be things she finds easier to express in Yiddish. In the “technical” sense, she’ll probably be a native speaker of Yiddish in some registers (or in some topics of conversation) and not in others. In the “non-technical” sense, well, who knows. That’s her look-out.

  43. Good on you for keeping Yiddish alive and well. And yes, a great comment thread!

  44. Many South Africans/Canadians/Americans etc etc are native speakers in two languages, since their parents spoke both languages to them from birth. I’d say they’re native speakers of both.
    I’ll keep quiet now.

  45. It seems to me that calling someone a “native speaker” can reasonably be interpreted as saying either that the person speaks “as a native” or “like a native.” The preposition’s absence creates the ambiguity.

  46. I think that some of the problems come from the idea that someone must be a native speaker of one and only one language. Some people are clearly native speakers of two or even more languages. And you have unfortunates who are permanently separated from their native language, but never really get comfortable with their new language or languages.

  47. Actually, I myself had the opportunity to be a native speakers of two languages, having been born in Japan and raised partly by Japanese speakers, so that I was bilingual at the age of four (or so I’m told). If we hadn’t then moved back to the States for several years, I might well have retained the Japanese.

  48. if the father now speaks fully idiomatic english without accent, then i’d call him a native speaker, because he learned the language from childhood. but if someone learns the same facility with english as an adult, i’d call that person not a native speaker, but amazingly fluent. i’ve met a few speakers of this sort, though i’ve never tried to trip them up with obscure idioms, slang, or tricky grammar.
    i suppose the discriminating criterion might be: does the person ever “puddle up” when he hears a sentimental song? that is to say, a native speaker gets the language’s emotional subtext more immediately, from hios childhood exposure.
    i’m not a linguist, though i’ve studied linguistics at the grad-school level (as my undergrad minor).

  49. If you’re bilingual, like I am, then your native language is the one you (most frequently) dream in.

  50. scarabaeus stercus says

    Mother tongue, native,fluent,and political tongue. ‘Tis the differences that set up the rules. So many exceptions. One can be born [nee /natus] in same local as one’s ancestors and whom have not budged one iota. Only to never learn the language of Mama or Papa because it is/was the safest course of action. Alternatively one can learn mums tongue and fail to assimilate the language of the overlords until the needs of progress deem it be so. Others will learn mothers version of communicating and pops version too and the prevailing political/military accepted lingo by the powers to be. The results can vary from fair to fluent in all versions.
    Now to be fluent, means to some, to be able to pass for native or local and to others it should mean perfection in total comprehension. [to moi, pass for a local yokel and have total comrehension.] Local /native in most languages means there are variations of expression that have limited physical land area where it is acceptable.
    A person can be raised with the local dialect, mixed with dialects from other localities from parents that are not native to the locality [official the same language is expressed], so one was not considered a native [speaker and of course not fluent]. That then creates furthur problems, if there is no family likenesses to the local inhabitants.
    There are others, that the language of law and order,fail to be accepted by the natives.[typical of the mountainous
    areas where inter relationships with ruling classes failed to be convincing]. To be non native native speaking, it doth appear that ones ear [lug] should have some musical appreciation.
    This be by one who lacks all credits in any lingua. I be no BS or LD. Ta ever so.

  51. Actually, I myself had the opportunity to be a native speaker of two languages, having learned to talk in Japan in a partly Japanese environment, so that I was fairly bilingual by the age of five when I attended Japanese kindergarten. If we hadn’t then moved back to the States, then continued education in English-medium schools, I might well have become a native speaker of both Japanese and English. (Thanks L. Hat, for saving me some typing.)
    On the age question, I learned some classroom French and German earlier, but then learned Romanian in the Army when I was 20, but never used it until I spent a Fulbright research year in Romania a dozen years later, sitting in on second-language classes (with Chinese and E. German classmates) and lectures on Romanian dialects, after which I was tolerably fluent. It remains my second best language (or best second language).

  52. vernacular says

    Native, as in “nativity”. A legion of polyglots doesn’t change the meaning of the phrase.
    A child born in France of a French mother and an English father, with a Swedish governess, who spent a half year with his Maltese grandmother at the age of two while his parents were in Tanganyika, and then moved en famille to America at four, and thus has no real sense of one single native tongue but a fluency in two or three, does not acquire nativity in any of them, except french.
    Like the baby under Solomon’s sword, it may be hard in some cases to find exactly where the line can be drawn accurately.
    “Like a native”. He speaks Portugese “like a native”.
    That someone can learn to speak a foreign language better than most of its native speakers – in the sense of erudite precision, depth of vocabulary, and poetic grace – does not devalue the “native” term in the phrase.
    Anymore than building a city on land that was previously only being used for seasonal hunting bestows autochthonal precedent on that city’s inhabitants.
    Natives are natives by birth, not proficiency.

  53. My parents are Serbian and Croatian. I was 2 years old when we moved to Canada. They knew no English, consequently, neither did I until I started school. Naturally I became fluent in English unter the instruction of my teachers and the examples of my classmates. In later years, whenever I recounted my origin story, I would often be told something like “Ah then, you’re not a native speaker.” I have always understood the term to to be intimately connected with biography, though I am not a linguist.

  54. I can’t accept vernacular’s statement privileging the birth mother, which has objectionable nativist implications. The case he gives depends entirely on how much time the mother spent with the child — some mothers have their kids raised by nursemaids.

  55. Dinesh, I dream in visual images mostly. When there is any communication involved, it’s by telepathical means, without help of any earthy language.

  56. Zizka-
    What I meant was the nativity, geographical and/or parental, not necessarily maternal, or paternal.
    Thus the Swedish nanny.
    It’s one more example of something amorphous being procrusteanated into an ill-fitting box.
    Thus the reference to the sword of Solomon.
    A loyalty to the words themselves. No disrespect to the many hardworking parental surrogates of the world, or the multitude of grafted and transplanted individuals whose mother tongues are not so much familial as local.
    native – c.1374, from O.Fr. natif (fem. native), from L. nativus “innate, produced by birth,” from natus, pp. of nasci, gnasci “be born”.

  57. A loyalty to the words themselves.
    Yeah, that’s how I feel too. Well put. (Though I suspect Zizka was exercising his perverse sense of humor rather than actually taking you to task.)

  58. I work as a language teacher, but my academic training is in sociology.
    To the unilingual speakers of highly modernized languages, the concept of a ‘native speaker’ understandably makes a lot of sense. Outside of this group, the idea has little meaning. In fact, I hope I can show that use of the term ‘native speaker’ is somewhat obsolete.
    Prior to the development of nation states and state schooling, most people were born into and lived their lives in communities where, as others have pointed out, it would make much more sense to talk about communities of linguistic competence, rather than native speakers of the same language. In a world filled with communities of people who share linguistic competence, it is easier to see that anyone and everyone is a native speaker of whatever language their linguistic community is competent in.
    The concept of the nation state made it apparent that citizens able to communicate and share ideas facilitated technical and scientific development, as well as political identification and unity. With the development of highly modernized languages, the idea of standardization assumed a central role. Within a system of state schools, highly standardized languages became state-sponsored, and it became the role of state schools to assure that as many citizens as possible were capable of communicating in that state-sponsored version of that language.
    It is no surprise then that the term ‘native speaker’ is a relatively new term. Linguist Vivian Cook dates the first use of the term back to around 1930. This would have been around the time that the delivery of standardized, state-sponsored languages through national school systems were become virtually universal in the industrial world.
    In the sense that the term was once debated widely by scientist (linguists), it is correct to say that ‘native speaker’ is a technical term. As a technical term, its use has changed as understanding of related phenomena have changed. To use the term in the fashion suggested above (in the sense that everyone is a native speaker of whatever language they speak) is to render the term virtually irrelevant. And this probably explains why you don’t see it used very much anymore in research on theoretical linguistics.
    While theoretical linguists may not have much use for the term, it continues to find widespread use among language teachers and the customers and students of language teachers. So widespread is its use in the language teaching industry that it has come to be legally defined in the employment acts of nations such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan that employ large numbers of foreign language teachers. And as the term has come to become standardized within legal codes of countries, it has come to mean less what linguists want it to mean and more what ordinary people want it to mean. This ordinary meaning of the ‘native speaker of a language’ has been defined in other comments as the speakers of that language who are identified as ‘native speakers’.
    With languages that are spoken largely within the boundaries of a single nation, the definition of a ‘native speaker’ is not really problematic; a ‘native speaker’ is a speaker of that variety of the language sponsored most completely by the state. A ‘native speaker’ of English is more difficult to define. There are perhaps millions of unilingual speakers of English who are not identified as ‘native speakers’ because they speak varieties of English not identified as ‘native’ English. Vast numbers of Indians no doubt fall in this category, but there are other less common varieties that also have this problem. The first time I heard a British South African speak English I did not recognize it as ‘native’ English. Interesting, this speaker told me that she was often mistaken for a ‘nonnative’ speaker of English by Americans unfamiliar with her accent. On the other hand, Afrikaner South Africans that I know who speak Afrikaans among themselves are very quickly identified as speakers of ‘native’ English.
    The point of this is that it doesn’t make much difference how one defines ‘native speaker’. It is simply not a very useful term. Some languages are so widely spoken that not every speaker is familiar with every variety. As a result, highly competent, uniligual speakers are not always identified as ‘native speakers’. The lack of utility of this term is increasingly finding its way into theoretical discussions leaving the real debate to applied linguists and language teachers. In fact, the term has become so un-useful for theoretical social sciences that, to return to our original question, if the writer of the letter adopts his definition and his friend John adopts anyone definition, it simply makes no difference.

  59. A few years ago I met a man from Kansas who started learning Chinese when he was in his early 20s, just because he thought it was a cool thing to do. He found a job where he could use it and increase his knowledge. He is now so fluent that scholars in China refer to him when they have questions about their own language and literature. (Speaks volumes about the cultural revolution.) Over the telephone, the Chinese cannot tell that he is not Chinese.
    The daughter of friends (the mother is US born with English as her first language, German as second, the father is Belgian raised on French and German equally and English thirdly) is a born in the US, US public school and college educated native English speaker. She applied for a job in Japan to teach English in a rural school. She was, at first, turned down because she had a Belgian passport and was thus considered “not a native speaker”. Ultimately, she was hired for the job, but it took a lot of convincing to prove she is, actually, a “native” speaker.
    Very interesting and informative thread!
    PS I dream in English and French (though I am not actually fluent anymore, in my dreams I am) and sometimes in languages I don’t know at all!

  60. native as in _innate?_
    *innate* language?? As in “the language one is predisposed to learn before birth?” (Not intended to mean “the language heard while gestating” but “the language installed somehow in one’s biochemistry.”)
    Is that really what’s meant?

  61. Well, no, it isn’t. But you knew that.

  62. I knew a Chinese woman once whose parents spoke two different dialects of Chinese. (“Dialect” realy = “language” when you’re talking about Chinese). The mother and father understood one another’s dialects and each spoke their native dialect at home. The neighborhood spoke a third dialect.
    The kids developed a unique hybrid mother-father dialect they used to talk to each other.
    (On the other hand, I’ve been telling this story for so long that I don’t know how true it is. I remember being told something like this about 20 years ago, though).

  63. I’ve been telling this story for so long that I don’t know how true it is.
    Yeah, I have stories like that too. I can’t wait to see my grandson roll his eyes as I try to pass them off on him…

  64. scarabaeus stercus says

    L.H. take a leaf from to-days Auntie B.[BBC comment on ] and linguists brain scans and expose your said GS to all the sounds possible. I am dissapointed that my Parents failed to expose me to the available Dutch,Flemish, French, German and Spanish, and mother tongue Welsh may be they realized thet my grey matter was limited to local dialect..

  65. hisashiburi, LH. I’m surprised that no one (I think) has invoked a knowledge of culture to define native speaker. Now, with English, if I knew about the Redskins and the Giants, but not about Arsenal, that would not disqualify me, but if I were a completely fluent speaker of Japanese, but didn’t know the first thing about Japanese food, I couldn’t claim to be a native speaker. With globalization, this point tends to disappear, but the ‘native’ suggests that someone is not simply fluent in the language, but someone who has a substantial knowledge of the background culture. A Turing test for native speaker ability would probably hinge on questions about Homer Simpson, or Coronation Street or something similar. The disjunct lies in the move from the descriptivists, who came from a linguistic anthropological tradition, to the followers of Chomsky. (I could grumble that this is a rhetorical trick, they wanted to claim they had answers to questions like ‘what is native fluency’ while discarding the bits they weren’t willing to explain) Tell your friend that if he wants an operational definition, tell him he should make up a new term. Call it F language ;^>

  66. Re the person who is a “native speaker” of English but counts in Portuguese …
    My father was a native French speaker who lived in an English-speaking country for 40 years, but still calculated mentally in French. I lived in France for 23 years but usually calculated in English.
    On that spare anecdotal evidence, I would suggest that you might define a “native speaker” by the langauge he/she mentally calculates in. It seems to me to be a very basic function.
    That said, my son, who had his primary school education in French but secondary in English, once told me that “I think in English but I dream in French” …

  67. I know of a Englishman who married a Greek girl, came to live in England and brought up an English-speaking family here. Every year he took her back to her family in Greece. She developed Alzheimer’s disease. For a few years after that he continued to take her back to Greece, but she became increasingly confused after each visit. Eventually, on her return from her last visit to Greece it appeared that she had forgotten how to speak English. She now speaks only Greek, her native language, and is unable to talk to either her husband or her children, who speak only English.
    The native tongue is that buried deepest in the memory bank.

  68. Apologize in advance for lowering the level of discussion here, but the above example (by Eliza) reminded me of famous Soviet TV series of the 70’s, “12 moments of spring”, fictional adventures of a Soviet spy Herr Schtirlitz(sp?) and his helpers in Hitler’s Germany.
    His “radistka”(radio-operator)Kate, get pregnant, and her husband (also a Russian spy) and Schtirlitz are worried she might unintentionally betray all by screaming in Russian during the labor. She assures them after living in Germany for many years she even thinks and dreams in German.
    Of course, she happens to loose concience when Allies’ planes bomb Berlin and when transported to Charite(sp?) screams “Mama!” in perfect “Ryasan'” dialect, which jeopardized whole operation.
    So I propose another criteria for assigning native language (alas, limited to child-bearing female segment of population) – in what language you scream when delivering a baby.

  69. I agree that the “native” component of “native speaker” does not refer to the degree of fluency. Considering that language dictates, to some extent, philosophy and ideology, native language shapes the perceptions and outlook of that person. Thus, it is important to understanding the person to know which language shaped their thought processes.
    I am equally fluent in English and Spanish, but English is my “native,” or primary language. Thus, for example, I do not have the linguistic/philosophic view that a single male in a group causes the group to become male. While I understand this particular concept (masculine / feminine groups) in terms of language, I do not ascribe (consciously or unconsciously) to the underlying ideology.

  70. A native speaker of language L is one who displays no foreign features (accent, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, phraseology)in language L. It follows that there are people who speak no language natively (more than you may think), and that there are people who have more than one native language.
    Ken (prof ling, emeritus)

  71. In Linguistics 101 I was taught that the break-off point was 12, not 3 years. Any language that you acquire (as opposed to “learn”) before the age of 12 may qualify as a native language.

  72. I have to disagree with Ken, our Prof. emeritus of linguistics:
    Accent is NOT a determining factor in “native competence”. One example is a group of native English speakers in Montréal who, for historical and geographical reasons, speak English with an Italian accent. Yet, they are native English speakers!
    So, once and for all, forget about accent. It has absolutely nothing to do with native competence.
    The reverse is also true: I once knew a Swedish girl whose (Canadian) accent was impeccable. Honestly, you would not have been able to tell her apart. But, when it came to grammar, syntax, idiomatic phrases, etc., she knew less than an intermediate (and mediocre) learner of English.

  73. Apologies for the inaccuracies in the paper. Heinrich/Weinreich was a simple slip (the quotation is also attributed to Fishman, BTW).
    Are you taking Hokkien to be the same as Min as a whole, Southern Min (Min Nan) or Amoy (Xiamen)? In the first case, I’d say fifty million speakers was a serious underestimate. The Taiwanese tend to use “Hokkien” as synomous with “Taiwanese” (i.e. the dialect of Xiamen spoken in Taiwan) and it was in this sense that I was using it here (if I’d meant Min, I would have written Min). I admit, however, that my terminology was flawed (it is confusing because ethnically “Hokkien”, although synomymous with “Fujian”, is often used to mean those Fujianese who settled Taiwan).

  74. Robin Turner says

    I checked on numbers of Min speakers, and 60 million worldwide looks like the maximum, so I suppose 50 million is not a “serious underestimate”. Nevertheless, counting all Min, or even all Min Nan speakers as Hokkien speakers is dubious. Mainland China has around 25 million Min Nan speakers, not all of whom would be classed as Hokkien.

  75. Fair enough, and yes, the nomenclature of Chinese languages/dialects is extremely confusing. I was reacting to what I inferred from your statement, which is that the form of Chinese spoken on Taiwan is hardly spoken on the mainland any more; if that’s not what you meant, I apologize. Thanks for taking the trouble to comment!

  76. I think the expression “native speaker” or “native language” has become arbitrary as almost all language signs, and so, it must be redefined, better saying, reconceptualized, although for many English common speakers, it must have sounded arbitrary from the first time they heard it because they ignore the Latin root of the word “native”.
    In fact this is a typical case of artitrariness caused by the passing of time. This expression was probably created before colonialism, wars, and the great immigration movements which changed so much the face of the world.
    Political or natural boundaries don’t mean much today.
    I think the criteria to judge what should be considered a native language/speaker have much more to do with semantics/pragmatics than with grammar/syntax. To be a native speaker of a language means to be part of the culture underlying that language. Culture and language cannot be dissociated. Only by having fully experienced (personal or inherited experience)the history, the anthropoly, and the institutions of a community can you say that you belong to it. Only then you can speak its language apropriately.

  77. I want to know about the culture of the native speaker of English particulary about the assumption,values, and behaviors. thank’ my friends.

  78. Wikipedia says Hubert Lyautey was the true originator of the dialect criterion, but gives no reason for preferring him to Max Weinreich, though Lyautey was forty years older.

  79. This is really interesting! I speak Irish, English and French fluently, German of an intermediate level and some Italian. In Ireland, there is a great gulf between ‘native speakers’ and learners of Irish, as the former have a ‘better’ accent and less anglicised turns of phrase. I think a handy description of very good non-native speakers (who have learned from informal situations) is a ‘natural speaker’. These people can invent new words when required (eg for new technology) and are at ease with speakers from various dialects.
    My French is grammatically better than my Irish, but given my cultural background and sense of identification with Irish, I would consider myself a native speaker of English, a natural speaker of Irish, and a highly fluent non-native speaker of French. Anyone else out there in a similar situation?!

  80. All I can say is, I envy you!

  81. I teach English as a second language in Puerto Rico. I’m currently doing graduate work. I do not, however, consider myself an expert on the subject of this discussion, since there are so many theories involved. I too consider a “native speaker” to be a person that has aquired a language during the critical age, where “exposure” instead of “learning”, is the key to language aquisition. In my opinion, one could have two native languages if exposed to both languages during the critical period. This is my case. I was exposed to both English and Spanish since childhood and aquired both languages equally well.
    Just my opinion folks.
    Anyway, I have found everyone’s comments to be very insightful. Great discussion!

  82. walter persaud says

    I’d like to suggest that the native speaker is a term that belongs to the struggle over who owns and controls English. It is a political term with no linguistic use and merits. For example, it functions as a device to exclude non-white from TEFL and gives distributes privileges to Whites on the basis of their supposed racial access to the English language. For those interested in this post-colonial perspectiove , pls see R. Singh ed. The Native Speaker: Multilingual Perspectives, esp. the essay by T. Kandiah ” A postcolonial Perspective on the native speaker” (1998)

  83. michael farris says

    Of course it has linguistic merit though I think of it as a fairly fuzzy category. But, someone who starts using a language at age 15 (or when they start school if it’s only used in the classroom and not on the playground) is going to use it very differently than someone who grew up speaking it.
    I don’t deny the political use to unpleasant ends (one of the reasons I don’t like English as an ‘international’ language) but that doesn’t undermine the basic linguistic validity (just as the existence of green doesn’t invalidate yellow or blue). I have a previous post on this same thread where I detail a little of what I think about it.
    My view is that all languages belong to all people but native speakers have special … privileges as to deciding certain questions about usage.

  84. I agree with Michael. The fact that ideas are put to unpleasant uses does not make them true or false.

  85. I agree with all of you. However, I consider myself as 100 percent bilingual. Meaning I have two mother tongues, born and raised with speaking, reading, and writing in two languages. I learned the two in school and I spoke the two at home and in society. So my question to you would be would you consider me as a person with native fluency in both?
    In my resume, I state that I am native fluent in two languages – meaning I have dual language competency. For I can be placed in any country, and I understand the people of that country regardless of the minor differences in words.
    I think English is english no matter where you speak it and Spanish is spanish no matter where you speak that so if you speak, read and write both with native fluency you will be able to interchangeable go from one language to another without much work. Even if you currently use one more than the other, you will not forget the basic syntax or grammar of the other.

  86. Yes, it sounds to me like you are a native speaker of both. Lucky you!

  87. Tatyana wrote:

    Apologize in advance for lowering the level of discussion here, but the above example (by Eliza) reminded me of famous Soviet TV series of the 70’s, “12 moments of spring”, fictional adventures of a Soviet spy Herr Schtirlitz(sp?) and his helpers in Hitler’s Germany.

    The correct number of moments is 17.

  88. christine jernigan says

    Did you mean, instead of “biographical” to say “geographical,” meaning that it pertains to a child being born in a country with the majority of speakers speaking that language? You write about this at the top of the page, about your friend, John. I’m just a little confused.

  89. I meant by “biography” the facts about people’s lives, including where they were born and grew up. The question is whether that should influence the use of the term “native speaker” or whether it should be simply a matter of command of the language.

  90. Devin Grammon and Anna Babel have a guest post at the Log on this topic; it made me roll my eyes, since it seems to me part of the current fashion of attributing absolutely everything prior to the current moment of wokeness to a toxic mixture of racism, colonialism, and imperialism, but people less prickly than I may find it useful. Here’s the conclusion, so you can decide if you want to read the whole thing:

    Ultimately, a closer examination reveals that the concept of the “native” speaker is tightly connected to discriminatory logics. Linguists and members of the public alike share a common-sense feeling for the concept of the “native speaker.” However, it is clear that this concept is historically situated in nationalist discourses and colonial regimes of languages, nations, and peoples, and is often used to exclude or to police the boundaries of speakerhood and, ultimately, personhood. The concept of the “native speaker” draws on deep-rooted assumptions regarding who is worthy of being a speaker and which languages are worthy of being recognized as such.

    For the record, I am against racism, colonialism, and imperialism and I am aware they have influenced huge swaths of human history (and may well do so until the extinction of the species). I do not, however, think there’s much point in automatically “canceling” everyone and everything that existed in the past because of those factors. I think “native speaker” should be judged on the basis of its usefulness or otherwise, not as yet another artifact of thoughtcrime.

  91. Bathrobe says

    I’ve commented waffled on there at some length. I wonder how some intellectuals can feel justified in making such uninformed, in fact, distorted and dishonest presentations of topics like this based on just a few narrowly-based papers that specifically set out to rewrite history in terms of a predetermined ideology.

  92. SFReader says

    I think every bilingual who learns a language before school (in kindergarten or even earlier) has to be counted as native speaker.

    I realize that this definition would put the number of English native speakers over a billion, but that’s the reality today.

  93. January First-of-May says

    I am not a professional linguist, but I think you’re both right. I want there to be a biographical component, but I don’t feel like 6 is too late for that to start, assuming that the person in question does end up totally fluent.

    This is essentially my opinion.

    From actual professional linguists, I’ve heard – not sure if that’s still considered true – that studies tell that languages learned after some critical cutoff point turn out non-native in very significant ways, and IIRC this point is actually very close to 6 years, so I can’t actually tell which side of it would 6 be on.
    From what I recall of the descriptions I’d probably put it at around 6 1/2 years. I suspect in practice it (slightly) varies between people and thus can’t be summarized with a single number like that.

    (In practice, I really want to exclude the case of my grandmother, who moved to Israel at age 49 knowing almost no Hebrew, and by now (three decades later) her Hebrew is so good that it’s intruding into her Russian.
    I have no idea if she’s actually near-native, though; not like I have a good way to check. I also have very little idea what is her original native language, if any; it could well have been Yiddish.)

    i suppose the discriminating criterion might be: does the person ever “puddle up” when he hears a sentimental song? that is to say, a native speaker gets the language’s emotional subtext more immediately, from hios childhood exposure.

    That’s actually a pretty terrible criterion, for two reasons: 1) the music can convey emotions as music, without necessarily involving any language connections, and 2) the tone of voice can even more easily (than the music) convey things like that. Of course actually understanding the lyrics helps, but even that much goes a long way from “native”.
    OTOH, there might be (and probably are) songs that talk about sad things without being outwardly sad. I suppose those cases might be closer.
    In retrospect maybe this should have talked about (written) poems, rather than actual songs; those would probably give a better comparison.

    As for Russians, the expression we use is ‘nositel’ yazyka’ (language carrier), which is much more neutral than ‘native speaker’.

    Indeed. It feels like a weird phrase, but at least it definitely doesn’t have any immediate connotations of “learned from birth”.
    (Learning from birth, or even infancy, is a tricky criterion in the first place; I believe I’ve previously mentioned the story of my cousin Nir enough times to not repeat it here. [Google unexpectedly finds only one instance.] TL/DR: his family wanted to raise him multilingual, but he didn’t speak any language for so long that they got tired and all switched to Hebrew.)

    It was, IIRC, Alexey Sosinsky who said that he sucks at foreign languages and only speaks his three native ones. I used to have a specific quote, but forgot where I found it.
    (IIRC, his family moved a lot during his childhood, so he might well have learned all three languages fairly early.)

    As for me, I still think my English probably sucks (does it? comments welcome, particularly if you find any mistakes), but I’ve recently been told that it’s (quoting from memory) “very good even for a native speaker”.
    I… don’t think I’m a native speaker of English. OTOH, between ages 4 and 8 I’ve had multiple 2-3 month trips to Israel, where 80% of the locals did not understand Russian, so if I wanted to get by I had to learn some English (and/or presumably Hebrew, but the English stuck better because I had more opportunities to read in it). So maybe I do qualify.
    Then again as of 2008 (age 16, well beyond any “critical” periods) my written English was still quite terrible (I keep parading around a comment I made on a Wikipedia talk page in January 2008, which is in absolutely terrible English… OTOH I definitely understood the page I was commenting on, so there’s that), and even to this day when I try to speak in English I do so quite haltingly (and probably with lots of errors).

  94. J.W. Brewer says

    Re the “emotional reaction to sentimental song” criterion, there’s a separate problem that that reflects childhood in a particular cultural milieu which may well not be fully co-extensive with the native speakers of the relevant language, especially (but not only) for someone who grew up in some sort of ethnocultural minority group that did not differ linguistically from the local dominant majority group.

  95. David Eddyshaw says

    I still think my English probably sucks

    January, if I didn’t know on language-external grounds, I would not have been able to tell from your writing that you were not a native speaker at all.

    (It make be different with your speaking: I have colleagues whose written English is essentially perfect, but who are never going to be taken for natives when speaking.)

  96. I don’t feel like 6 is too late for that to start, assuming that the person in question does end up totally fluent.

    By way of an example, Mila Kunis came to the US from Ukraine when she was 7, and I don’t detect any non-native features in her use of English. She still speaks Ukrainian with her parents, from what I gather.

  97. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I think every bilingual who learns a language before school (in kindergarten or even earlier) has to be counted as native speaker.

    I agree. My native language is clearly English, my wife’s is clearly Spanish, but our daughter’s? Who knows? It depends how you want to define it. She speaks English, Spanish and French effortlessly, and has been since before she started primary school.

  98. Trond Engen says

    Is this piece about linguistics at all, or about politicization of linguistics when linguistic criteria are used for allotting group membership or eligibility for a limited-entry status? “Native speaker” is an obviously useful concept in linguistics. It’s also a concept that can be qualified by linguists in all sort of useful ways. It’s highly problematic as a criterion for anything extra-linguistic.

  99. Grammon and Babel are partially right and partially wrong, though the proportions may be argued, to wit: some linguists undoubtedly and explicitly labeled some speakers’ speech as “purer” or “more authentic”, often on the basis of racist and other personal bias, for example presuming that a “pure-blood” is a better informant than a “mixed-blood”; that is not-enough-steps-removed from “primitive languages” and the like. More recently, as they say, L2 speakers were sometimes presumed to be less reliable speakers unless proven otherwise.

    I do question how much of their argument is applicable now, and how much of it is an outdated strawman. I don’t think any of this is new to anyone in the current mainstream of linguistic fieldwork, or has been for decades. Contact varieties have been considered as worthy of study as pre-contact varieties, without judgment, at least since, say, Lee’s 1987 study of Tiwi.

    Aside from that, Hat, I cringe whenever I hear “cancel culture” and “woke” used as you use them. First, because both have been and are used to indiscriminately browbeat people who are honestly trying to better the world (often successfully). Second, because what is derisively called “cancel culture” is and has been universal behavior—avoiding people or institutions whose actions bother you—and the term is used as if it involves some uniquely disagreeable behavior by certain groups of people. Thirdly, “woke” is, as I understand it, originally an AAVE term with some particular overtones and nuances I’m not familiar with, not having heard it used in that context. It has been co-opted—again, as a derisive term—by people who are very much reactionaries working against AA rights. I don’t like to see it appropriated, and especially not used to mock people who are seeking social justice, regardless of whether or not they are misguided.

  100. Aside from that, Hat, I cringe whenever I hear “cancel culture” and “woke” used as you use them.

    Cringe away; I have my reactions, you have yours. I thoroughly approve of people seeking social justice, but I don’t give them a free pass on their idiocies just because I agree with their goals, and progressives are just as liable to idiotic behavior as anyone else. They invented the terms “cancel” and “woke” and they have to live with them when they’re turned against them; if they weren’t trying to “cancel” people at the drop of an imagined slur, the issue wouldn’t arise. I have no patience for “no enemies on the left” attitudes (that’s how we got Lenin, because the Provisional Government didn’t want to attack fellow lefties), and I don’t give a damn if I’m attacking them for the same things those nasty conservatives attack them for. If they don’t want to be attacked, they should behave better.

  101. John Emerson says

    Whatever it originally meant, by now the phrase “cancel culture” means “anyone who criticizes a Republican or a conservative”. It’s the contemporary version of “politically correct”, which started off as the key word in an amusing satire on goody-goodies on campus, but quickly became a smear with about the same meaning as “cancel culture”.

  102. Actually, I didn’t use the phrase “cancel culture,” I talked about “canceling” people. This is something that lefties do quite indiscriminately. Some actor is found to have used a dubious phrase a decade ago? Don’t watch his movies! I’m all for canceling actual Nazis and evildoers; the problem is that there are relatively few of them, and an insatiable appetite for venting outrage.

  103. And before you tell me that lefties are a beleaguered minority: they’re less and less so as time goes on, and the idea of their coming to power in the US is far less risible than it was, say, a decade ago. And the Bolsheviks also started out as a beleaguered minority. No, I refuse to cut extreme ideologues any slack.

  104. David Eddyshaw says

    And before you tell me that lefties are a beleaguered minority: they’re less and less so as time goes on, and the idea of their coming to power in the US is far less risible than it was, say, a decade ago.

    From your mouth to God’s ears …

    Can’t say I see much sign of it, though. And here in the UK, the right is doing well in the polls to a degree which is frankly mysterious given their manifest corruption and incompetence.

  105. Hat, I’m not picking at your motive; I’ve been here long enough to know fully better than that. But as John Emerson said, “cancel” and “woke”, like “PC”, are now, unfortunately, the property of conservative reactionaries. My objection to “woke” goes further, because even when used by white leftists it tastes horribly of self-serving appropriation.

    I am a little sensitive about these issues, being exposed to Israeli right-wing voices, who rail about PC and cancelling, while seeing antisemitism everywhere. It’s gotten real old for me a real long time ago.

  106. I understand the objection, but conservative reactionaries are going to mock and vilify anything progressives do and say; there’s no point tiptoeing around convenient words that everyone understand in order not to give aid and comfort. If I said something tortured about demands to avoid the artistic productions of people who say problematic things, everybody would know I meant canceling, so what’s the point? The only “safe” course is to avoid objecting to anything progressives do or say to make sure of not giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and I refuse to play that game. If a movement can’t stand up to criticism, it’s not worth supporting.

  107. Whatever it originally meant, by now the phrase “cancel culture” means “anyone who criticizes a Republican or a conservative”.

    Hmm? Al Franken got ousted by what looked to me very much like ‘cancel culture’. My take was it was Democrats bending over backwards to be purer-than-pure.

    Anyhoo, Franken’s ‘crimes’ were more youthful indiscretion than (the alleged) trafficking 17-year-old prostitutes over State lines — which is actually a crime. Are you suggesting it is purely ‘wokeness’ to criticise that sort of behaviour?

    Would Republicans be keeping mum if it were a Democrat accused of similar?

  108. Just in time, John McWhorter on word appropriation.

  109. SFReader says

    Let’s improve the PC term word appropriation a tiny bit further.

    Language appropriation!

    African Americans appropriated English language!

    And the Irish too.

    In fact, instead of talking about language death we should call it what it is – all these tiny tribal groups are appropriating languages of their bigger neighbors. Hundreds of languages get appropriated every year!

    Let’s make them stop.

  110. African Americans appropriated English language!

    McWhorter considers ‘bro / bruh’ to be Black English. Abbreviation ‘bro’ attested from 1660’s, says etymonline; although it doesn’t say where/by who; and other sources disagree on the dating.

    I see no suggestion ‘bro’ is from any other source than English ‘brother’; but of course that was appropriated from proto-Germanic, which was appropriated from PIE, which came from …

    So wherever/however ‘native speaker’ originated, it’s now appropriated by linguisticians and means what it is used as meaning. Just as all sorts of technical terms in obscure disciplines have got divorced from their ‘everyday language’ origins.

  111. Just in time, John McWhorter on word appropriation.

    I don’t always agree with McWhorter, but he’s spot on in this case.

  112. “From what I recall of the descriptions I’d probably put it at around 6 1/2 years. I suspect in practice it (slightly) varies between people and thus can’t be summarized with a single number like that.”

    I hope it is not change in input associated with schooling? 🙂

  113. @D.O.: I certainly agree with John McWhorter on the broad questions about appropriation. However, I notice that he never discusses the interrelated issue of whether all the supposedly problematic words actually originated in the black community. I suspect that some if the usages at issue in the case he is talking about are merely perceived by certain boundary policers as originally or characteristically African American.

  114. David Eddyshaw says

    I find Lionel Shriver’s views on a number of things rebarbative, but I can’t find much to disagree with in

  115. AntC, Brett, this actually might be an interesting question. In some previous times, many innovations or perceived innovations in British English were ascribed to Americans. It is possible that the default thinking mode now is that Black speech is the most likely source of any random innovation in the youth speak. I agree that a cool headed research on the topic would be way more interesting than political hot takes whether one agrees with them or not.

  116. I find Lionel Shriver’s views on a number of things rebarbative, but I can’t find much to disagree with in [her provocative 2016 speech]

    I don’t know. She makes some good points, but she’s also given to cheap point-scoring (finding the silliest comments by people on the other side and treating them as representative), and there’s also what a MetaFilter commenter says:

    If you are a white author who has the one black character in your book being led around on a leash by white people, you better expect some pretty harsh criticism. If you can’t handle it, perhaps you might consider revising that particular plot point.

  117. I mean, I don’t get the sense she’s even taken the trouble to try and understand what cultural appropriation is and why people object to it; she’s just reflexively going “OMG, they’re trying to tell me what I can and can’t write about! Don’t they know I’m a writer?!?”

  118. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, I agree. I think her presentation tends to undermine her point. I’m also not a fan of people who keep banging on about how iconoclastic they are. Actual iconoclasts seem to feel less need to do this …

    I agree, too, with your point that she seems unaware that there actually even could be a problem with oppressor groups gleefully adopting (or simply imitating) the mores of the oppressed because they think it’s cute. In fact, the main reason to object to the ludicrous overextension of the concept of cultural appropriation is exactly that it distracts from the real issues that gave rise to the concept in the first place (while alienating potential supporters and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.) If there weren’t real issues at the back of it, it wouldn’t matter at all.

    OK, on reflection, I do find much to disagree with in the Shriver piece …

  119. oppressor groups gleefully adopting (or simply imitating) the mores of the oppressed because they think it’s cute — rightly or wrongly, that’s why I don’t like using woke. It’s not my word, and I can use some other words whose meaning I understand better instead, even if they are boring (I don’t know, “socially aware” or something).

    The McWhorter article strikes me as convenient nihilism—everything changes, everyone borrows everything, everyone dies eventually, shit happens. Other than that, I have not personally encountered the strawmen which he so deftly demolishes. In particular, I’ve never heard of anyone saying that no white person may use words borrowed from Black English.

  120. David Eddyshaw says

    McWhorter’s answer to his own first question strikes me as simply glib. Languages in close contact do not invariably pick up so much from one another (partly because “close contact” in practice can mean quite a lot of rather different things); and even when they do, the borrowed elements may still function as labelled by origin, so that far from being words just like any others, they are felt to be appropriate only to certain registers or indeed only in reference to things of the same ethnic or social origin as the words themselves.

    “Colleen”, for example, is probably a word known to the great majority of UK English speakers; but for a Brit to use it without any implication at all that anyone involved was Irish would be very odd. And if I were to use it in a neutral context when speaking with an Irishman, he would have every right to go for his shillelagh in reponse to being thus patronised.

    McWhorter seems to have a veritable gift for supporting valid conclusions with bad arguments.

  121. my English probably sucks (…) but I’ve recently been told that it’s (quoting from memory) “very good even for a native speaker”

    Me, I was first told this at the age of 16 when my English still quite obviously sucked. It seems obvious that a lot of people’s concept of “very good language” uses a measure of something that we could maybe call “eloquence” and not of what linguistics talks about as “nativeness”. The latter really hinges a lot more on features in the phonology ~ prosody ~ phraseology zone and not at all on the abilities to put together center embeddings or spout Latinate vocabulary. This feels like a concept that the LL article could have productively explored. For all my practice with written English since my preteens, I still don’t think I have a particularly stable English accent when speaking (and still probably maintain e.g. too much /ˈɪnɪʃəl/ stress).

    (But then again, a lot of people report accent instability even in an indisputably native language — and I could again perhaps volunteer for this too — which suggests that it might be also possible to draw a distinction between people who have a single native accent vs. people who have inherited multiple accents from the get-go.)

    does the person ever “puddle up” when he hears a sentimental song

    …ah yes, got it, clearly the real answer is that my actual native language is PPG.

  122. I don’t understand the “Colleen” example. If in EngEng Colleen means “an Irish girl” and someone uses it for some other type of girl than it is just a mistaken usage. Happens all the time. Anyway, indeed borrowing happens under all sorts of circumstances and new words have all sorts of shades of meaning and attachements yadda-yadda-blah, but that is exactly why “cultural appropriation” makes no sense. If someone objects to some usage on some seemingly valid grounds, just go ahead and object. The result almost certainly is going to be nil, but it’s not like most things said on internet will have lasting real life consequences. Don’t issue a blanket prohibition, it’s not only useless, but not even interesting.

    McWhorter is arguing with some unnaimed people on social media, which makes it impossible to check whether he represents their arguments correctly, but in any case, some unnamed people on social media doesn’t seem to be a worthy opponent.

    “If you are a white author who has the one black character in your book being led around on a leash by white people, you better expect some pretty harsh criticism. If you can’t handle it, perhaps you might consider revising that particular plot point.”

    I disagree. Shriver is handling it pretty matter-of-factly. The problem is that it is a very superficial criticism. And Shriver actually is speaking directly to the question of “revising […] particular plot point”. She doesn’t want to be forced to do it. To use a bit gratuitious comparison, Faddeev was told by Stalin (probably, personally, but I don’t want to check references) to increase the role of the Party in “The young guard”, which he did. It was also totally predictable and understandable. But at some point it just creates pablum of which we already have sufficient quanity.

  123. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think “colleen” does in fact mean “an Irish girl” in Brit; it would, for example, be possible* for an English author to put the word in the mouth of a stage Irishman as referring to a girl of any nationality. “Sure and that Meghan is a fine colleen, begorrah!” What would be peculiar would be to have no putatively Irish persons involved at all. The idea is that “colleen” just means “girl”, but is attributed to what the English suppose to be Hibernian English; by extension, an Englishman might (if he must) use it of an Irish girl, but somebody has to be Irish.

    McWhorter’s (presumably) valid point is that young white Americans are not in fact doing this when they use “bro” or “feels” or whatever, and that the accusation that this constitutes a sort of linguistic blackface is simply false. Though there is at least one other possibility: this is conscious mimicry, but not of the de haut en bas patronising sort, but emulation of coolness. (Potentially problematic even so, as stereotyping is still stereotyping when it’s of the “has natural rhythm” variety.)

    McWhorter basically seems to be simply asserting that what is going in here is effectively neutral dialect mixture, which none of this sort of sociological baggage at all. Americans will have a much better idea than me as to how realistic this is as an assessment; it seems a bit polyanna-ish to me, but I would be very happy to be told that I’m wrong. (And McWhorter is surely in a better position to judge than I am, at any rate.)

    *Possible, OK? I don’t say it’s desirable

  124. jack morava says

    I’ve come late to this thread, sorry. It may be off-topic, but a classic article by Leonard Bloomfield, : Literate and illiterate speech,

    from the journal American Speech, vol 2 (1927) may be relevant. It is perhaps more about the `language carrier’ as cited in Russian, than the `native speaker’. It is largely about speakers of Menomini, but it seems to me to be a masterpiece of English prose (and insightful thinking). I’ll just quote the closing para:

    The nearest approach to an explanation of “good and “bad” language seems to be this, then, that, by a cumulation of obvious superiorities, both of character and standing, as well as of language, some persons are felt to be better models of conduct and speech than others. Therefore, even in matters where the preference is not obvious, the forms which these same persons use are felt to have the better flavor. This may be a generally human state of affairs, true in every group and applicable to all languages, and the factor of Standard and Literary Language versus dialect may be a superadded secondary one.

    PS, IANALinguist, but I married one.

  125. About the native speaker. I think (but can’t be sure) there are:

    – a “native speaker” who speaks “mother tongue” and
    – a “native speaker” as opposed to “mother tongue” speaker.

    In the second sense MT is your L1 in presence of L2 which is the national language. MT is used this way in India, and “mother” explains everything. NS then can be someone who speaks this national L2 since childhood and one common example is an immigrant child. It was in this thread too. I do not know whether it is the idea of a languge “native to a land” (as in “natives are restless”) or its connection to “nat[ion{al}]]” that affected the meaning, but “mother tongue” is not used this way.

    – another “as opposed” comes from: “what is you MT?” (like: where are you from?), “Is X your MT?“, “are you a native speaker of X?” etc.
    It is the range [personal curiousity about a person’s background] – [personal curiousity about a person’s relations with a langauge] – [personal curiousity about a person’s proficiency in a langauge] – [technical proficiency question]. NS seems to cling to the right side of the range and again becomes opposed to MT. It is in this context January First-of-May’s figure “6 years” appears.

    I think, mostly the term is used and discussed by applied linguists. And what is wonderful: there is a huge body of literature in Englsih – even books solely dedicated to difficulties with defining the term – that could never be written in Russian, because Russian names are different.

  126. Note also how this NS as opposed to MT speaker is always a Frenchman who grew up in Germany but not a multilingual African villager.

  127. ” both of character and standing, as well as of language, some persons are felt to be better models of conduct and speech than others. ”

    By access to cool stuff (good jobs, but sometimes just cool stuff).

    oppressor groups gleefully adopting (or simply imitating) the mores of the oppressed because they think it’s cute.

    I think I do not like thinking in “groups”. If we are responsible enough to take the trouble to try and understand cultural appropriation, we of course can offer a better model of the society than whites [group] oppress blacks [group] with the test for group membership being a person’s skin colour.

  128. January First-of-May says

    The latter really hinges a lot more on features in the phonology ~ prosody ~ phraseology zone and not at all on the abilities to put together center embeddings or spout Latinate vocabulary.

    Note that (for the most part) all of the former are features of spoken rather than written language; as such, it’s probably a lot harder to get a good judgement of “feels native/does not feel native” from a written text. [Admittedly my 2008 mess was nowhere close.]

    (A judgement based on the posted written texts also can’t catch the times when I forgot a particular word and spend several minutes frantically googling for it. But I’m sure this can happen to native speakers too.
    In fact, occasionally I’ve had the opposite problem – I could think of the English word but not the Russian one.)

    …ah yes, got it, clearly the real answer is that my actual native language is PPG.

    …this being what, exactly? Google tells me that it’s “points per game”, which is familiar but doesn’t match the context, and provides a series of several dozen other less common options, of which at least at first glance none seemed obviously relevant.

    Note also how this NS as opposed to MT speaker is always a Frenchman who grew up in Germany but not a multilingual African villager.

    The same linguistics teacher from whom I had heard the 6 year figure – she’s an awesome lecturer, and seemingly a friendly person in general, though I gather she no longer teaches linguistics at my former department – had also mentioned that she knew a person with four such “native” languages: an African villager whose father spoke one language, mother spoke another, the main language of the area was neither of the two, and the fourth was the colonial language of the country (French, IIRC).

    (I wonder how many could Nir have acquired if the experiment didn’t end prematurely.)

  129. David Eddyshaw says

    an African villager whose father spoke one language, mother spoke another, the main language of the area was neither of the two, and the fourth was the colonial language

    Being able to speak four languages as well as a mother-tongue monoglot can is not an unusual accomplishment in the area I used to live in in Ghana, though most people have fewer languages, and a majority are monolingual even now. Not many people had parents with different mother tongues, but Bisa speakers could usually speak good Kusaal, people who’d been to school (including all my colleagues, of course) spoke very good English, anyone who’d spent any time in the south could cut it in Twi, and a lot of people spoke Hausa and/or Mooré, the local big lingua francas. It’s pretty much impossible to function as a professional driver round there without being able to speak Hausa (and ideally, to be able to do a plausible job of passing as a Muslim, unless of course, you actually are a Muslim.) On the other hand, practically nobody could speak French, and nobody could speak Bisa except for other Bisa; and actual ethnic Hausa people typically could only speak Hausa.

    The sort of Africans you meet in Europe or America are rarely typical (any more than the sort of Europeans you meet in Africa are typical, come to that.) They are richer, better educated and better connected than the norm: peasant farmers don’t get to study or work abroad much.

  130. SFReader says

    Remember a Russian study listing native speaker informants. Typical informant info went like this:

    “age 77, education 4 years of primary school, occupation reindeer herder, fluent in Even, Yakut and Russian”

    “age 58, education 8 years of secondary school, occupation hunter, fluent in Even, Yakut and Russian”

  131. [PPG] being what, exactly?

    A brand of synthesizer (“Palm Products GmbH”) in common use in music around my childhood, and which probably gets more of a sentimental reaction out of me that anything involving lyrics 🙂

  132. PPG. (Alas, “PPG VST plug-ins and iOS apps are no longer available for purchase. We will continue to provide downloads of your previous plugin purchases until end of 2021.”)

  133. Africa is a popular example of rural multilingualism (I have no idea what part of African rural population is multilingual: not all of course, but maybe not a negligibly small part either) and a space where langauges interact differently than in the reader’s city.

    I spoke only Russian as a child, adolescent and even in my 20s, and it is one model of a “native speaker”.

    India produces graduates of boarding schools whose L2 English is better than their L1 (and many more people who do not graduate from boarding schools:-)). Another model. They likely will refer to their L1 as “mother tongue”. They will hesitate to call themselves “native English speakers” but some will. Many Indians also will call themselves native speakers of Hindi when their “mother tongue” is something else.

    When a Russian says “native speaker”, she is hardly thinking about anythign like this.

    I guess this hypothetical African multilingual setting will produce more models of “a speech community”, “langauge”, “langauge contact/functional distribution” and “a speaker”.

  134. Even “L1” is not free from implications:

    – your langauges can be ordered chronologically in a natural way. E.g. you knew only one langauge as a baby.
    – your idiolect is representative of something that we call a “language”.*
    – maintained within a “speech community” you are a member of.

    Compared to definitions found in exact sciences, “L1” is already a notion full of hidden implications. NS provokes us to imply more:(

    *One relevant notion is “stabilized” (e.g. pidgin). By the way, my English has deteriorated since recently. I switched to thinking in it a large part of time, and it seems in my mind it has rearranged itself in a pidgin of my own. If I teach it to a child as his/her first langauge, strange things may happen to, say, tense in this child’s English. This language will be a different system, sharing with Enlgish tens of thousands elements arranged in a different way. It will be intelligible to a native speaker in the written form (just like Afrikaans is, likely, intelligible to Dutch speakers) but maybe not in its prosody.

  135. David Eddyshaw says

    I have no idea what part of African rural population is multilingual

    It greatly depends where exactly you are. Big place, Africa.
    It varies from nigh-on zero to practically 100%, and may be very different for different ethnic groups even within the same area. (Unsurprisingly, the smaller your own distinctive ethnic group’s language, the more likely you are to be good at other languages.) It quite often varies by sex, too.

    All this also applies to Europe, of course. But Africa has a lot more languages …

  136. drasvi: By the way, my English has deteriorated since recently.


  137. My English deteriorated noticeably when I was teaching it at Tamkang College in Taiwan, where I was surrounded by people who did not speak it natively.

  138. John Cowan says

    Is this piece about linguistics at all, or about politicization of linguistics when linguistic criteria are used for allotting group membership or eligibility for a limited-entry status?

    Around 1970 my mother told me that she had used native speaker in a faculty conversation (I don’t remember if it was a meeting or not) back when she was reinventing ESL[*] at CCNY. There was a somewhat inarticulate grumble from the chairman of the department of Romance languages (a native Spanish speaker), which eventually resolved to “It’s not nice to call people natives“. My mother conceded this and explained that native speaker was a technical term (I nodded), but the chairman remained unhappy.


    [*] There was at the time no language requirement for residents of NYC, so a huge number of people were admitted with insufficient English to take ordinary classes. At the time, ESL was a faction fight between the English Department, the Speech and Theatre Department, and a third that I can’t remember now.

    Trading on her connections as ex-Dean of Humanities, my mother was able to create a separate program, the special mark of which was the 12-hour-a-week English immersion class for absolute beginners, who took that and nothing else in their first semester. (Returning to the moribund Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages, where she had tenure, didn’t make much professional sense.)

    The test for distinguishing ESL from, ahem, native speakers, involved marking one of two drawings appropriate to a sentence spoken by the test administrator: I recall that one of them was “She is singing”, and the drawings were a woman on a stage belting it out and a woman on the deck of a ship that was going under. The tests were created by none other than Labov, from before he invented sociolinguistics, and it fell to me to call and ask him for permission to reproduce them on a mass scale. He laughed and said it was fine; I got the impression that he had forgotten all about them.

    So the program was a complete success, but the three departments resented how they had been deprived of their turf. The program was steadily eroded, beginning with the introductory course, and when my mother retired the whole thing was abolished and the faction fight resumed.

  139. I weep for humanity.

  140. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps the problem with the cranky Romance-languages chairman was that he was *not* a native speaker of English? Unless of course I’m being insufficiently cynical about the kookiness of academia (always a risk that cannot be ruled out), it seems to me that while there are plenty of contexts in which “native” can be thought to have vaguely offensive overtones, there are plenty of other contexts (especially when we’re talking about various NP’s including “native,” not just the word in isolation) where no one will react that way, and native speakers can generally tell the difference. E.g., the later-in-the-Seventies disco-era smash hit “Native New Yorker” did not AFAIK cause any actual New Yorkers to take offense at its wording.

    Treating a word that you’ve learned can be taboo or problematic in some contexts as if it is taboo or problematic in all contexts because you aren’t confident you can judge which contexts are and aren’t okay seems like a problem many ESL speakers might be faced with, and one can sympathize with them if they curtail their own use of the word, even when it would be benign, out of fear of getting it wrong. But turning their own understandable lack of feel for the nuances into a basis for peeving at others is less sympathetic.

  141. John Emerson says

    I always bring up Wixman’s “Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and processes in the north Caucasus” in this context. As I remember, there were 100+ languages spoken in Azerbaijan. Russian was the official language, and maybe Azeri Turkish had some special status then, but there were 100 other languages in the place from several unrelated language groups. I especially remember a couple points. One is that in a fair sized area, most people spoke one of several obscure , distantly related or unrelated Caucasian languages, but the lingua franca was Avar, which is slightly less obscure. Second, marriages were mostly contracted without much regard for language group, but interreligious marriages were regarded with suspicion.

  142. Trond Engen says

    Dagestan, you mean. The diversity spills over into Azerbaijjan, but probably not more than 20 languages in total.

  143. Trond Engen says

    On the topic of cultural appropriation, when cultural traits are copied, and copied with native[!] or near-native competence, and blended seemlessly with the receptor culture, it’s a sign that the donor culture has gained in prestige. There’s no way to equality within a shared society that doesn’t include the erosion of cultural shiboleths. We should celebrate the rare occasions where the prestige isn’t with the inherited power.

    In the Yanicki dissertation I still read, I just came to this passage, about situations where old distinctions break down and cultural markers start crossing between groups:

    Conversely, in scenarios where positive contact is actively sought, in-group distinctions should fade as events such as intermarriage and alliance erode the meaning and value of ethnic differences and as new, shared identities emerge. Some of these changes could occur swiftly: the contact hypothesis predicts positive interactions will beget an increased propensity to seek out more interactions, increasing both the frequency and quality of contact. In addition to opportunities for information exchange being highest in positive contact scenarios, the movement of people themselves can result in the local production of multiple styles, although differences between them may be indistinct. Ethnogenetic changes may be most pronounced on an intergenerational scale as children have opportunities to perfectly imitate teachers of multiple traditions. A sort of punctuated equilibrium may characterize such episodes of ethnogenesis as community members come to define the markers of their new, shared identity to distinguish the emergent in-group from yet other outsiders.

  144. Bathrobe says

    Many years ago I had a friend who did a thesis relating to Chinese. In the introduction, he expressed his gratitude to a Chinese speaker as a “native-speaker informant”. The said Chinese gentleman, a university lecturer, who I personally found to be loud-mouthed, waffly, and very Chinese in his outlook, took exception to the term “native speaker”. The offending phrase was changed to “Chinese-language informant”.

    Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the word “native” has its share of baggage in English, with a particular debt to missionary colonialism. I might have mentioned previously the case of a master of a residential college that I lived in while I was at university. The college was affiliated with the Methodist church and the master was actually a “Reverend”. I had to cringe one day when said master’s voice came over the PA system saying that there was a phone call for “one of the native boys in college”, meaning one of the African students.* Of course there is no way that an African student studying in Australia could even remotely be interpreted as a “native” of Australia, but in the language of Christian missionaries “native” had become a general term for “coloured people”.

    Incidentally, what does a Spanish speaker make of “the Nativity”?

    * There was a dedicated bank of phones for students to receive or make phone calls; people were paged over the PA if they had an incoming call.

  145. SFReader says

    Pre-revolutionary Russian had a word for “native” – ‘tuzemny, tuzemec’ with similar baggage and it was outright abolished after the Communist takeover.

    Now, the English term “native” in its current usage is translated as “korennoi” (literally ‘rooted’).

    Native American is “korennoi amerikanets” (literally ‘rooted American’).

  146. Some called Polynesians “Indians”, so why not.

  147. David Eddyshaw says

    Chinese-language informant

    Even this would be objected to nowadays by those anxious to show their sensitivity: language “informants” are out, and have to be replaced by language “consultants.”

    The solution is evidently to avoid attributing languages to people at all: in the future, languages will simply float free of all earthly attachments in a sinless realm of pure abstraction.

  148. As Renee said upthread, Russian found the solution for the problem. The correct term is language carrier. People just get infected with languages and carry them around. Field linguist is a sort of pathologist studying a new (or some new or unusual strains of an old) virus.

  149. Bathrobe says

    He might actually have used “consultant”, now that I think of it.

  150. SFReader says

    The problem with “language carrier” is that it sounds so awkward that many people prefer to translate “native speaker” as “nativny spiker”…

  151. David Eddyshaw says

    Language carrier

    “Language host.” Even better!

    The elegant “glossophor” unfortunately seems to be taken already:

    My extensive research on this topic led me to

    which unfortunately seems to be neither “fear of language” nor (yet more debilitatingly) “fear of tongues.”

  152. Trond Engen says

    Aren’t we all a division of mollusks having a radula?

  153. David Eddyshaw says

    In principle, yes. However …

  154. Glossophobia or speech anxiety is the fear of public speaking.

    What a stupid coinage. Surely a few minutes’ thought could have led to a less misleading term.

  155. Stu Clayton says

    Rhetoranisychia. Known in German simply as Lampenfieber. Stage fright.

  156. Whenever I see носитель in Russian, I think of Träger. I’d bet that носитель языка is a literal translation of Sprachträger.

  157. Almost certainly.

  158. Y wrote:
    “Some called Polynesians “Indians”, so why not.”

    That’s what we did!

    I went to an elementary school that was overwhelmingly Mexican/Mexican-American, full of kids from Spanish-speaking households, and my second-grade teacher did a unit on Hawaii (she visited there over the summer.) All of the kids called the native Hawaiians “indios” no matter how often our teacher corrected us. It made sense to us because these people had brown skin, long black hair and were native to the place, so of course they must be “indians”. It’s what we knew.

  159. J.W. Brewer says

    Sprachträger seems unlikely to find favor as a loanword in English, but perhaps a posh-sounding Latinate calque like “linguafer” could be marketed?

  160. David Eddyshaw says


    (Perhaps not.)

  161. linguafer
    Cicero would weep, probably.

  162. The possible cultural baggage of the word native was on when I read about this recent dustup over a description of subdisciplinary separation in medical practice as “tribalism.”

  163. David Eddyshaw says

    Sadly, their preferred replacement for “tribe”, “silo”, is offensive to ICBMs. You don’t want to offend ICBMs.

    Anglophone Christian missionary organisations seem to have currently settled on “people group”, which I find annoying for reasons I cannot readily explain. Still, it has the virtue that you would have to work really hard at being offended to be offended at being told you belonged to a people group.

    Tribadism is more interesting, anyhow.

  164. PlasticPaddy says

    People group is so human-centric! How do pets feel about their exclusion?

  165. David Eddyshaw says

    Good point. Damn, it’s hard to be sensitive!
    What would St Francis have said?

  166. jack morava says

    Re language carrier: I believe anthropologists sometimes speak of `knowledge carriers’ or bearers — of agricultural, astronomical, medical, musical … lore. Some people know more than others, sometimes their role in the society is official.

  167. I object strongly to being classified as part of a ‘people group.’ I am a unique individual, dammit, with DNA that is different from everyone else’s.

    NB If my people group includes Scarlett Johansson I may rethink my position.

  168. Anglophone Christian missionary organisations seem to have currently settled on “people group”, which I find annoying for reasons I cannot readily explain.

    I strongly share your hard-to-explain annoyance.

  169. The People Group would not be a band I’d want to listen to.

  170. J.W. Brewer says

    Down with!

    Maybe it’s just idiomatic in German, but on a compositional analysis I would think the focus of the Sprachträger concept would be on present level of fluency in language X not whether or not language X was the first language the particular person had learned as a toddler. Those two things overlap heavily but not perfectly, as discussed upthread, so it can be important to know which one you really mean when dealing with the minority of cases in which they don’t coincide.

    EDITED TO ADD: I guess maybe the question is whether e.g. Elias Canetti is a Sprachträger with respect to German?

  171. David L. Gold says

    Cicero would weep, probably.”

    If the suggested word were linguifer, Cicero would presumably just be puzzled. He would find it well formed but would probably take it in the sense of ‘having a tongue’.

    Linguifer exists in Modern Latin: zoologists use the word to describe tongued animals, as in Huntonia linguifer and Petalodus linguifer, and botanists, to describe flowers with tongue-like appendages, as in Pleurothallis linguifera, the collective name of several species of orchids.

    The word enjoys some use in linguistics too: a linguifer, also called a
    ferolect, is a lect that “takes” another lect from one place to another. The presence of speakers of Dutch in Japan, for example, resulted in the presence of Latin in that country because some of those speakers also knew the latter language.

    Christopher Joby uses linguifer in that sense in his book The Dutch Language in Japan (1600-1900): Cultural and Sociolinguistic Study of Dutch as a Contact Language in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan.

    It is clear from the discussion on this thread that no consensus has been reached on the definition of native language and bringing more people into the debate would probably not change the situation.

    That is nothing to rue. There being no Platonic ultimate reality, where the “real” meaning of the term will be found, let researchers use it as they see fit, as long as they define it.

  172. “Still, it has the virtue that you would have to work really hard at being offended to be offended at being told you belonged to a people group.”

    Many Russians say, they find “young man” (or also “man”, “woman” etc.) as an address irritating.
    And the reason why “woman” is annoying is somewhat different from why “young man” is so. The former sounds somewhat rude (even though there are not better options around), the latter is…. Oh. Like “people group”.

    You don’t even need to be addressed this way, the very idea is annoying.

  173. try “band”

  174. J.W. Brewer, Hans: Since in Latin “eagle-bearer” is AQUILIFER and not *AQUILAFER, I would imagine that a “language bearer” would be a “linguifer” rather than a *”linguafer”.

    Hans: Considering the number of words Cicero created/coined in Latin (Many of which, or their descendants/derivatives, are used daily by a sizeable fraction of the human race today), I suspect he would have thoroughly approved of the creation of a Latin equivalent of “Language carrier/Sprachträger”.

    David Eddyshaw, Hat: The expression “People group” rubs me the wrong way too: to my ear it sounds odd, and indeed sounds like an expression created by L2 anglophones whose command of English was in some ways deficient.

  175. Tribe is nothing. When I was in high or middle school we were taught about человеческое стадо (lit. human herd). Not being a “politically sensitive” person, I still thought it to be denigrating. Maybe because of bydlo (from Polish bydło = cattle, but the word apparently exists in English as well). Wiki links the English version article on the “human herd” to band, but acknowledges the former notion of horde, which already stinks a bit, though obviously not as much as herd. GT gives “human flock”, which is something entirely different.

    To be completely unoffensive, I suggest the word balkan as in Balkanization, for a siloed group of (mostly) WEIRD people on a war path (woops! sorry). It’s not like anyone cares about feelings of people from Balkans.

  176. J.W. Brewer says

    Clearly my high-school Latin did not extend to the proper morphophonemic rules for generating this sort of coinage cromulently. Without getting as recondite as Etienne’s example, I should have at least noticed that it’s (at least in English) aquifer rather than aquafer.

  177. Hans: Considering the number of words Cicero created/coined in Latin (Many of which, or their descendants/derivatives, are used daily by a sizeable fraction of the human race today), I suspect he would have thoroughly approved of the creation of a Latin equivalent of “Language carrier/Sprachträger
    Quite probably. I just assume that he would have preferred the correct formation – the one that you yourself and DLG mention. 🙂

  178. Trond Engen says

    Did Cicero create Latin vocabulary any more than Shakespeare created English?

  179. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes: he invented a fair bit of the Latin philosophical vocabulary. He himself actually discusses some of the issues involved in doing this in a way that avoided outright borrowing or bizarre un-Latin word-formation processes.

  180. Trond Engen says


  181. jack morava says

    Following up on the relation between Native Speaker as Sprachträger versus other sorts of anthropological knowledge bearers, and the nature of childhood language acquisition: the adaptive immunity system in vertebrates `creates immunological memory after an initial response to specific antigens and leads to an enhanced response to future encounters’ (… /wiki/Adaptive_immune_system). Similar models have been proposed for language acquisition: as an infant’s brain develops, neurons proposedly adapt to the stimuli they are exposed to. As the child matures, growth of new neurons slows, and language acquisition perhaps becomes more difficult. This suggests that language may be fundamentally different from other kinds of knowledge acquisition. However, one wonders about `music acquisition’?

  182. Trond Engen says

    Why should language be different? I wouldn’t be surprised if neurological adapations in early years set the range and the system of pretty much everthing the brain is going to interpret for the rest of its life.

    I’ve been told that we never can be fully adapted to other climates than those we experienced in early years. That sounds like a physiological effect, but it’s the wiring of the brain that says what’s normal and sound.

  183. John Cowan says

    Of the various groups living above 2500 meters, Tibetans and Ethiopians are far better adapted to the conditions there than their New World counterparts in the Andes, who have only been there for 11ky. Wikipedia.

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