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Who Is A Native Speaker? | A Guide to the Native Speakerism Debate

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Teach English Online

One of the most controversial topics in language teaching and learning communities is "native speakerism". There is a lack of consensus as to how to properly define this phenomenon, but generally speaking it refers to the widespread belief that native speakers of a language are inherently more capable of teaching that language than non-native speakers of that language, regardless of professional qualifications, experience, past results, or scientific studies.

In this article we will discuss opposing viewpoints on this topic and attempt to present the reasoning of both sides in an objective manner.


Disagreements between proponents of native speakerism and critics of native speakerism tend to center on several main points of contention:

And most importantly:


How do we define "native speaker"?

Proponents of native speakerism typically claim that defining the term "native speaker" is simple. For example, an English native speaker is a person whose first language is English, who has spoken English all their life, and who comes from an English-speaking country.

Critics of native speakerism typically claim that the term "native speaker" itself is flawed because the term oversimplifies our complex, modern societies in which language users come from a large variety of backgrounds and this oversimplification adversely impacts many teachers and students.

While simplification, generalization, and the use of stereotypes makes it easier for us to comprehend and remember large amounts of information, it also causes nuances, intricacies, and details to be overlooked or sometimes even forgotten. On the other hand, time spent fleshing out details and particularities often leads to main points or important ideas being overlooked because they are not presented in a prominent way that makes them stand out among the exceptions. As with anything in life, there must be balance.


First language as native

A person's "first language" is usually one of the factors considered when determining whether or not an individual is a native speaker of a language.

Generally, if the individual only learned and spoke English as a child, and did not learn or speak other languages, then that individual is a native speaker of English because English is that person's first language and all other languages learned later in life are second languages or foreign languages.

However, today's global community sees an increasing number of children raised in bilingual, trilingual, and multilingual households and families, causing them to have more than one first language. When a child is raised in a monolingual environment it is easy for us to categorize them as a native speaker of the one and only language they've grown up with. But children raised in multilingual environments do not fit neatly into these categories.

Some fans of native speakerism take the position that each person can have only one first language and that even children raised in a multilingual environment will have one dominant language, which the child uses more than other languages, and that is their first language.

Alternatively, many of those who oppose native speakerism take the position that a person can have more than one first language, especially those who have been raised in a multilingual environment, and reject the idea that one language will always be dominant. This is typically linked to the view that different languages are different tools and are meant to be utilized in different situations.

Possibly the most difficult situation to address is when a person has been raised in one language context and then moves to or is transplanted into a different language context later. When this occurs in adulthood the individual's first language(s) is/are most often firmly established, as they have been using that/those language(s) almost exclusively for a large portion of their life. Furthermore, basic knowledge and skills have been developed using that/those language(s) as a foundation.

When it occurs in childhood, especially in early childhood, the impact it has on the individual's development tends to be greater and many other factors can play important roles. Without considering other factors, it is nearly impossible to determine if any particular child's choice or use of language will reflect their past language context or their new language context.

Therefore, while in many cases it is relatively easy to identify an individual's first language, it is quite difficult to identify the first language of individuals from mixed language or multilingual environments and contexts, a contingent that is rapidly increasing in size.


How long does it take to become a native?

Another matter of dispute relates to those who transition into a language context and master the skills necessary to be considered a native speaker of that language. Typically this occurs when someone immigrates to a country where the language is considered dominant, learns to communicate in the language at a high social level, and also assimilates into the dominant culture of that society. Of course, this does not take place overnight.

Those who support native speakerism tend to be split on this topic. Some of them claim that a non-native can never become a native, without exception. Others claim that a non-native can become a native if they properly assimilate into the society by choosing to give up their non-native identity and by "thinking like a local" in the new society. Still others claim that in order for a non-native to become a native they must lose their foreign accent.

Those who are against native speakerism tend to attack the very premise of this question by claiming that it is wrong for anyone to attempt to become a native, which usually relates to their disagreement with the use of the term "native speaker" in the first place. Instead, they put a larger focus on fluency and effectiveness of language use, claiming that the true goal of language instruction and language learning should be high social functionality and communicative ability for language users.

Clearly there isn't one specific period of time that can be generalized to all learners of a language that guarantees they will become a native speaker. If someone moves to another country, learns the language, and lives there for fifty years, conventional wisdom tells us that they should have gradually become more competent and more effective in that country's language. However, reality regularly demonstrates that more factors influence an individual's language abilities and communication skills and that it is absolutely possible for someone to move to a country, learn little to none of the language, live there for fifty years and never gain native-like fluency.

Most of our examples have focused on language learners who move to a country where a different language is spoken and are forced to cope with a variety of circumstances as a result. Yet, there is another group of learners who are able to quickly improve their language competency, including social knowledge and communication skills related to that language, without traveling anywhere. Some use television programs, while others use podcasts. Regardless of the method, some people are able to gain a surprising level of fluency and language ability without leaving their home city.

Another example of such a situation is when a person moves abroad and marries or otherwise spends a huge amount of time with someone in that foreign country. Their spouse has direct access to a "native" source of the language and culture without ever needing to travel abroad and may eventually develop quite a high level of competency in that language.

There are many ways that an individual may arrive at language fluency, communicative ability, and other skills that are generally associated with "nativeness". We still lack clear, measurable defining characteristics that allow us to state with certainty that someone has transitioned from non-native to native and we lack science-based research that proves whether or not this is even possible in the first place. To make matters worse, the top experts in our industry have yet to reach a consensus on what it actually means to be "native".

English-speaking countries

When defining someone as either a native or non-native speaker of English, it is typical to ask which country they are from. Most people would assume that someone from China is not a native speaker of English and someone from Australia is a native English speaker. But there are many different people with many different backgrounds in every country around the globe, which makes it hard to say definitively that being from one country or another automatically makes someone a native or not.

To further illustrate this point, let's look at a couple of examples:

  1. A seven-year-old girl who was born in the United States to Spanish-speaking parents, lives in a Spanish-speaking community where restaurants, shops, and even schools use Spanish exclusively, and started learning English at the age of six. She has a U.S. passport and U.S. citizenship.
  2. A twenty-five-year-old man who was born in Singapore to parents from the U.K. who speak English as their first language and some Chinese, due to their time living in and doing business in Singapore, and who has not been to the U.K. or any other English-speaking country since he was four years old. At home he spoke English exclusively, but he attended many mixed English and Chinese schools and spoke Chinese with many of his friends while growing up. He has dual citizenship.

Technically, the girl is from an English-speaking country and the man is not. But does that matter if the girl cannot speak English fluently and the man has always spoken English? Does the country they are from dictate their "nativeness"? Does the country their parents are from dictate their "nativeness"?

To make matters worse, there's a lot of confusion as to which countries "native speakers" come from and which countries are "English-speaking countries". A recent debacle in China highlighted this confusion when they restricted teachers coming from South Africa to China to work as native English teachers on the grounds that they were not really natives, while simultaneously permitting Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Italians, and other "white" "non-natives" to fill positions as native English teachers.

And, yes, you read that correctly. Race continues to be a factor in the native speakerism debate where many companies and governments consider "whites" to be "more native" than "non-whites". The topic of racial and other forms of discrimination within this industry could fill libraries of books and is worth addressing as a separate issue and this ninety-three-minute presentation on discrimination in the ESL industry is a good place to start: 

There are some individuals who believe that only people from England are native English speakers, as surely English is the language of England. Those who believe in this strict interpretation of "native English" would therefore denounce North American English and Australian English and claim that speakers of these dialects are not native speakers. However, the most traditional supporters of native speakerism generally view the list of English-speaking countries in the world as such:

  • The United Kingdom (and some would say only England, due to Scotland's history of using Scottish Gaelic and Wales's history of using Welsh)
  • The United States
  • Australia

Most fans of native speakerism also include:

  • Canada (which also has French-speaking territories)
  • Ireland (which has a history of using Gaelic)
  • New Zealand (which has a history of using Maori)
  • South Africa (which has a history of using Afrikaans)

And those who believe in native speakerism, but apply the term more broadly, tend to think in terms of "majority native English speaking countries", which also includes:

  • Belize
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • St Lucia
  • St Kitts and Nevis
  • Barbados
  • St Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Jamaica
  • Guyana
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Dominica
  • Grenada
  • The Bahamas

These lists of so-called English-speaking countries become even more confusing when we look at which countries technically have English as an official or primary language and when we look at countries by their English-speaking population.

But none of this matters if we take a position that flat out opposes native speakerism and rejects the term in its entirety. The problem with this position is that, while the term "native speaker" itself may carry biases and discriminatory undertones, learners, parents or learners, companies, and other organizations still need a simple way to understand a person's spoken language competency and there aren't may good alternatives out there. Sure, there are English language proficiency tests and exams that provide scores and those can be indicators of an individual's abilities and skills. But there is a real, tangible difference between "book fluency" and "street fluency" when it comes to language use and most people don't trust exam results to accurately make that distinction.


How do we measure the results students get when studying a foreign language?

Regardless of the terminology, scientific research should be able to prove if so-called "native speakers" are more effective as teachers of their first language than "non-native speakers" who teach it. Such research should be objective, use control groups, and be replicated in many countries and across cultures.

However, conducting proper scientific studies in the field of English as a second or foreign language proves problematic for several reasons:

  • It is difficult to find homogenous groups of teachers and students.
  • Both teachers and students have varying skill levels that are clearly influenced by more than just classroom contact hours.
  • Most students and teachers rely on level systems, such as the CEFR, and exams, such as the IELTS and TOEFL, that are inherently biased towards native speakerism.

Finding homogenous groups of teachers and students

The difficulty with researching teachers' effectiveness, in terms of classroom instruction, is that most organization work with a wide variety of teachers. The same is true about geographic location. Within a given population of teachers who are instructing students in the same city or company we tend to find a mix of teachers who vary significantly in their:

  • Experience
  • Qualifications
  • Nationality / country of origin
  • Methodology / approach
  • Professionalism
  • Compensation

Non-natives are likely to have more experience than natives for a few reasons. First of all, there are large numbers of natives who take English teaching jobs for a short period of time and then move to another profession. Natives are more likely to teach English as a side job, temporary work, or work-and-travel type of activity because most companies and organizations abroad that hire teachers of English as a foreign language are proponents of native speakerism and it is built in to their business model.

To make matters worse, TEFL certificates are not controlled by a central body and oftentimes are not worth the paper they are printed on. They give off the false impression to schools and other educational organizations looking to hire teachers that unqualified individuals are able to perform the work of a qualified teacher. The same impression negatively impacts teachers who believe they have received meaningful qualifications, only to learn that unqualified individuals have been awarded the same certificate.

And while non-natives are more likely to have completed a four-year university degree in English language pedagogy, natives are likely to be compensated two, three, or four times higher for the same work, in spite of their experience, qualifications, professionalism, methodology, or lack thereof.

Natives are more likely to have been trained in only one methodology, or sometimes they haven't been trained in any methodology, whereas non-natives are more likely to have been trained in two or more different teaching methodologies. However, proponents of native speakerism usually dismiss this fact by stating that when students communicate with native speakers more they become more fluent. Thus, the only methodology worth learning and implementing is the communicative approach, even if it's delivery often reduces it to merely having a chat with a teacher.

The communicative approach or communicative method is itself a problem for the industry because, while almost everyone agrees that communication in the target language is useful, beneficial, and effective, speaking with someone ad nauseam does not produce the transfer of knowledge that structure sessions do. Furthermore, it promotes negative practices and creates a facade of simplicity.

One such practice is the complete elimination of L1 (the student's first language) in classroom settings as a way to immerse them into the target language. Another instance is when zero-level and beginner students are pressured to study with natives because they believe, or they are convinced, that studying with a non-native will lead to them developing an accent.

By defining teachers according to their experience, qualifications, country of origin, methodology, professionalism, and compensation, we develop a much different picture of the English language teaching industry. Studies which define them according to only one category, nativeness, are unlikely to produce significant results that can be replicated internationally and cross-culturally.

Are learning and teaching innate skills that some people have and some people don't?

Another argument is that different students have different skills and therefore it is impossible to test the effectiveness of a methodology or any systematic approach because the results will inevitably vary. While most people would not go to such extremes, some variations of this argument have become commonplace and tend to lead to either the separation of students into smaller subcategories based on their perceived or measured abilities or the development of curricula that teach to the average of a range of students' abilities.

Although teaching to smaller groups may seem to be a win-win situations for both teachers and students, since teachers are able to focus their energy and efforts on getting results for particular students and those students, in turn, receive more attention and dedication from their teacher, this usually increases the expenses of the organization providing teaching services and makes their business model less desirable (it's harder to attract funding).

Teaching to the average of all students, by creating "standards", is a strategy that has been widely implemented in a variety of settings and school systems, but generally leads to the same conclusion: less talented students don't get the additional attention they need in order to meet the standards, while more talented students aren't challenged enough and end up plateauing or getting bored.

Both strategies involve separating students into groups based on their abilities and herein lies the problem. In theory people want everyone to be treated as equals, but in practice no one person is ever one hundred percent equal to another person. When we start to identify the strengths and weaknesses of particular individual students and use those differences to split them into groups, there will always be a perception of inequality. We strive for perfection, knowing that perfection is unattainable.

Standardized tests and exams most clearly exemplify this issue, as some students have so-called test-taking skills and others do not. Some students naturally excel at the spoken production of language, while others are more inhibited and require more time and practice in order to reach the same level of fluency. Some students can read forty pages in a one-hour time span, while others struggle to read three pages.

And the same goes for teachers. Different teachers are naturally equipped with different skillsets and some are better than others are particular activities. Additionally, some methodologies lend themselves more easily to certain personality or character types. Logically, extroverts tend to find the communicative approach quite easy, especially when activities are open-ended, while introverts tend to prefer structured activities with clear beginnings, ends, and objective results, rather than subjective interpretations and discussions.

It certainly seems that an effective approach to language learning and teaching should get results for students when implemented according to its structured methodology. But this grossly overgeneralizes the abilities of both teachers and students and places too much faith in the approach itself.

Another viewpoint is that the majority of approaches and methodologies for teaching and learning languages that exist today are quite static, meaning that they take a one-size-fits-all stance and they aren't adjusted for students and teachers with different skillsets and abilities. Perhaps we will see a rise in dynamic approaches to language instruction in the near future, which will inevitably give rise to its own array of issues.

Level systems and exams

The prevailing level system of our modern era is the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), which breaks individuals' language abilities into three level groups:

  • A - Basic user
  • B - Independent user
  • C - Proficient user

and six levels:

  • A1 - Breakthrough / beginner
  • A2 - Waystage / elementary
  • B1 - Threshold / intermediate
  • B2 - Vantage / upper-intermediate
  • C1 - Effective operational proficiency / advanced
  • C2 - Mastery / proficiency

This level system is probably the most widely-accepted of all systems and it can conveniently be applied to many different languages because it does not focus on the particularities of one language, but instead focuses on the individual's functional use of the language.

Critics of this system typically attack its generality, especially in the A2, B1, and B2 levels because students' abilities greatly vary and even the more specific definitions or defining factors provided within the CEFR are difficult to apply to particular instances of language use. Furthermore, most international standardized tests and exams do not use the CEFR system and students and teacher alike are left trying to convert between different level systems, which puts too much emphasis on the determination of which arbitrary label applies to which students and causes unneeded stress for those trying to improve their level of language competency.

Most language instruction book series and independent language schools use a contemporary level system far more general than the CEFR, but with more levels:

  • 0-level
  • Beginner
  • False beginner
  • Elementary
  • Pre-Intermediate
  • Intermediate
  • Upper-Intermediate
  • Advanced
  • Proficiency

Due to a lack of standardization, these terms tend to refer to very different things for different organizations and groups of people. A sad reality is that it is commonplace for a student to be given the label "Beginner" when starting a language program at one school, study for several months, then be given the label "Upper-Intermediate" or "Advanced", only to then switch schools and be give the label "Elementary".

This leaves students feeling that they really do not understand how level systems work and it facilitates native speakerism because it promotes the idea that only natives (or those with a near-native level) can differentiate between levels of language competency. There is no objective source of truth for determining individuals' level of language abilities and even the terms used to describe such levels are interpreted and applied incongruously among practitioners.

Exams like the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) further compound this problem by introducing their own scoring systems that do not easily correlate with the CEFR. On the other hand, the companies that sell and administer these international exams understand the importance of scientifically-backed research in proving that their scores actually correlate to real-world results. This research-focused approach to language levels is a step in the right direction.

ETS, the company behind the TOEFL, has invested in research on understanding teaching quality, statistic and psychometrics, automated scoring and natural language processing, as well as other topics, while the British Council, IDP, and Cambridge Assessment English, the companies behind the IELTS, have invested in research on the impact of IELTS on English language teachers in Central Vietnam, an eye-tracking study related to the cognitive processes of taking IELTS Academic Writing Task 1, the language needs of international nurses, and much more.

These companies are clearly leading the way with research to support their claims. While it is clear that their research is meant to provide evidence of their products' effectiveness and utility, in order to make it more marketable and improve their bottom line, they have generated a push in the direction of a fact-based understanding of which teachers are truly bringing about results.

More clearly defined systems of levels and exam results are crucial if we want to change how teachers and students think about native and non-native teachers because students frame their perceptions of their own abilities in terms of the CEFR, TOEFL, IELTS, and other exam scoring and level systems. The scores and labels they are tagged with end up being the measurement by which they assess their own success or failure with the language.


What role does accent play in fluency?

In many parts of the globe the word "accent" carries a negative connotation that, for some, means a speaker who has an accent is uneducated or does not know or understand the language well. They believe that when a person knows a language they speak without an accent. For them having an accent is equal to a lack of understanding.

We can say, "He spoke with a Boston accent." This doesn't mean that the speaker was uneducated and it doesn't mean that the speaker has a poor command of the English language. So why do some people believe that having an accent is a negative trait?

One frequently cited point is that countries which have been isolated or closed off in the past tend to place a greater emphasis on the ability to speak without an accent, i.e. Russia, China. It is possible that an almost nationalistic attitude toward accents has developed in most countries throughout the world, which favors one or two centrally-dominated accents over provincial accents and undoubtedly favors local accents over foreign ones.

Centrally-dominated accents can be characterized as those which are supported by established regimes in government and academia through their portrayal in media. In the U.K. many consider the Brummie and Scouse accents to be revolting, while Received Pronunciation (RP) is considered educated and graceful. Newsreaders in the U.S. are encouraged to master speaking with a non-regional accent, as this video demonstrates.

There are also some who believe that it's impossible to change or get rid of your accent because an accent merely reveals your background and where you come from. Those who subscribe to this version tend to believe that your accent is formed in childhood, as you develop basic language skills, and cannot be significantly altered at later stages in life.

Alternatively, others claim that accents constantly change as language users adapt to different language contexts and environments. This interpretation rejects the idea that speaking with an accent is somehow linked to a person's level of education or underlying knowledge of the language. After all, there are many language users who speak with thick accents, but excellent grammar and large vocabularies.

Merriam-Webster defines accent as "a distinctive manner of expression", which is quite vague. Doctors and lawyers both have what could be called a distinctive manner of expression. Those with different styles of communication could also be labeled with accents by this definition. But what's more important than how we define an accent is the role we believe accents play in language fluency.

Accent as identity

We can see that accents tend to be "passed" on to younger generations, members of particular subculture groups, and, generally, to those who are impressionable. This is a very important aspect of accents because it involves the choice of the individual to a certain extent. Of course, one could argue that this choice takes place on a subconscious level and, therefore, is less of a choice and more of an impression. But in some circumstances the choice to speak with a specific accent or pronunciation variation is a blatantly conscious one.

Children and teenagers tend to be highly impressionable and repeat the words, phrases, sounds, and actions of those around them, especially those with whom they personally identify. This is triggered almost exclusively by their subconscious. But some older children and teenagers make the express, conscious decision to alter their way of speaking when transplanted into a language environment where the new pronunciation and jargon are commonplace, acceptable, and even preferred.

When faced with two options, either identify as a non-conforming outsider or assimilate by adapting to new norms, there are clear incentives in favor of assimilation. Some might even say that this type of linguistic and cultural assimilation is an innate drive in humans that reflects adaptation theory and survival of the fittest. This not only impacts language users who find themselves immersed in new accents and dialects of their own first language, but also language learners who try to match the theoretical language knowledge they've acquired with the practical realities of whichever language environment they find themselves in.

As language users naturally want to believe that they are competent, intelligent, and precise when expressing themselves to others, and they want others to view them as such, they develop a sense of identity surrounding their own accent and how others perceive it.

It is common for a person to take on character traits, as well as linguistic traits, when learning a second or foreign language that significantly differ from the traits they express when using their first language. Physically, vocal cords tend to be strained and produce higher-pitched sounds when a speaker is nervous or lacks confidence, which happens quite often when a speaker is still developing language competency.

With more practice language users eventually come to a very important crossroads: to commit to an accent by producing sounds that are more widely accepted by other speakers of that language in an effort to blend in; or to place less importance on producing sounds that are typical of that language and willfully take on the qualities of an outsider who will easily be identified as such.

In other words, they are faced with a choice to remain a non-native or to strive for nativeness.

This is where opinions vary, as some people absolutely reject the premise that a person can become a native speaker of a second or foreign language and others claim that it is possible. If nativeness is off-limits for those who have not been born into native language contexts, it means that students' attempts to reach native-level fluency is futile, which supports the position of native speakerism. But if nativeness is achievable by non-natives, then the fluency and superiority of so-called native speakers can be challenged, which counters the position of native speakerism.


Which qualities best demonstrate teachers' abilities to get results for their students if being a native speaker is not one of those qualities?

In lieu of nativeness, those who reject native speakerism tend to point out that there are other characteristics that are more important in determining the quality and effectiveness of a language teacher. Generally speaking, such arguments tend to highlight teaching performance over the teacher's command of the language. In other words, a good teacher does not necessarily have to speak without mistakes or without an accent, but instead has to get results for their students.

This is difficult for some to accept because many believe that a teacher's command of the language and effectiveness in teaching the language are inextricably linked. If a teacher makes mistakes in the target language, then students are bound to repeat those mistakes. This is most clearly evident with tests and quizzes that teach students to respond using unnatural phrasing or collocations and can even lead to learners admonishing so-called native speakers for not following the rules they have been taught.


Is it possible to sway the opinions of both teachers and students away from traditional native speakerism, in order to change perceptions within the industry?

While there are many varying opinions on the topic of native speakerism, very few critics have offered a clear strategy as to overcome native speakerism and change perceptions with the industry.