ENGLISH LESSON

Who is a “native speaker” of English?

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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)

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