Who is a “native speaker” of English?




Close your eyes and picture a “native speaker” of English. Who did you picture? What did they look like? Where were they from? What did their accent sound like?

We use the terms “native” and “non-native” speakers all the time. However, the line between these two terms can be quite blurry. In his book, The Non-Native Teacher (1994), Medgyes summarizes the seven most common definitions of a “native speaker” of English. After, he questions each one. Here are the seven definitions:

A “native speaker” of English…

  1. was born in an English-speaking country; and/or
  2. acquired English during childhood in an English speaking family or environment
  3. speaks English as his/her first language
  4. has a native-like command of English
  5. has the capacity to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse in English
  6. uses the English language creatively
  7. has reliable intuitions to distinguish right and wrong forms in English

Living in a city like Miami, in which the majority of speakers speak a language other than English at home (Spanish, Haitian Creole, etc.), the distinction between “native” and “non-native” isn’t always clear. There are many cases of children who move to Miami at a young age and attend most of their school in English. These speakers may not meet the first three definitions; yet many meet the last four definitions. Can they be considered “native speakers”?

It’s important to reflect on these questions because the label of “native speaker” carries so much weight. Several hiring websites require a “neutral American or British accent”; many students report a preference for native speakers; and “non-native” teachers have even been fired on the basis of their accent. (see resources)

  1. 1.I picture someone as a native speaker who acquired language in their childhood and has reliable intuitions to find out what’s wrong and what’s right without actually knowing the rules. Of course they will be fluent and will be able to use language creatively and can have discussions on any topic freely. You may or may not be born in native country but if you move to an English speaking country in your childhood you’ll be considered a native speaker. It’s not necessary that your first should be English to call yourself a native speaker, your first language can be Hindi, German or whatever your parents speak but if you were brought up in a native English country you’ll be considered native.

    2. Definitely not, your first language and dominant language can be different on the basis of your location.
    If you’re native speaker and you live in your country then it’s same for you.
    But if your native language is French and you move to the US then your dominant language will be different.

  2. Great points, Ashwini! With kids, I think the language of the education system makes a big difference. Here in Miami, there are a lot of children who speak Spanish, Haitian Creole, etc. at home; but after a few years in the school system, they become English-dominant. (There are bilingual schools that can help children acquire both languages at the same time, though!)
    Yup — first and dominant language aren’t always the same for everyone.

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