Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Myth of the Native Speaker

In the last few days, I've seen a lot of discussion of international speculative fiction, where to find it, who writes it, etc. See Charles Tan here, Nick Mamatas here, for example. Although I started composing this post before that discussion got fully launched, I think it is relevant to that discussion, because it addresses the discrimination and injustice that surrounds the concept of native speakers, both in verbal speech contexts, teaching contexts, and in sf/f writing. And who knows? You might even find some situations here to give you worldbuilding or story inspiration while we're at it.

I'm sure you know the term "native speaker." Someone who speaks a language natively is someone who's grown up in a place where a particular language is spoken and thus has learned it when they were first learning language. I'm a native speaker of English, for example. I have friends who are native speakers of many languages: Urdu, Japanese, French, Spanish... the list goes on. Your book might contain native speakers of these world languages, or one (or more) of your own making.

For a person learning a foreign language, the idea of a native speaker takes on additional importance. The native speaker is the goal. "Nativelike" language use is defined as the pinnacle of success. Along with this comes the idea that you need to have a native speaker as a teacher, because otherwise how will you hear the language you're learning as it's really spoken in its country of origin? Indeed, if you learned it from someone who was once a student like you, wouldn't that be learning it halfway? Or would it?

Be careful. The biggest myth about native speakers of any language is that they are infallible.

Native speakers aren't infallible - just look around the writing boards and you'll be able to watch native speakers of English agonize over what a pain in the neck spelling is, or grammar. They'll argue on and on about one usage or another. (They're entitled to - which is something I'll come back to later.)

I remember when I was learning French. It was a second language for me, though I was still a toddler when I started learning it. I put a lot of effort into my learning. I wanted to be good at it, to speak with native speakers - an admirable goal that really is much of what language learning is all about. One day I got a letter from a pen pal in France, and it had spelling errors in it. I couldn't believe my eyes. Wow, people in France might not always spell French correctly? Well, when you think about it, of course it makes sense. People make spelling errors all the time, native language or no.

If you think about the concept of native-speakerhood from the point of view of language variability (and also world languages), you could argue that there is no one single English that everyone learns. The English one learns depends on what varieties of English one is exposed to. Does that include a particular dialect? Does it also include the standardized English of the news, and of the schools? What about engineering or medical terminology? What about literature? And - let's push that one a little further - what about science fiction and fantasy literature? Each of these sources is going to provide different kinds, complexities, and flavors of English.

The plot thickens when we take the myth of native speaker infallibility and turn it around. The faulty assumption of native speaker infallibility implies an equally faulty assumption of non-native speaker fallibility. This second myth is so powerful that it is used to invalidate the language use of learners all over the world.

Here's a relatively harmless example. When I was living in Japan I could never tell jokes. Things like puns sprang out at me but if I ever tried to use them for humor, people wouldn't laugh. They wouldn't even look confused and fail to get it. They would say, "No, no, no, you have it all wrong," and launch into a language lesson. I was making the joke precisely because I had already learned that lesson. But because I was a non-native speaker, the automatic conclusion was that it wasn't a joke at all, but a mistake.

Here's a subtle example that I think you might recognize, if you're a highly proficient second or third (etc.) language speaker. I have trouble getting my French friends to correct my usage because they understand me. If you accept effective communication as sufficient for a non-native speaker, you're not likely to help someone tune their language to become more accurate and articulate.

And here's an example that made me so angry that I didn't like myself. I started studying Japanese as my major in college, and then spent two years living in Japan studying it intensively. So when I came back to the US, I looked for Japanese teaching jobs. I taught first- and second-year Japanese at a California high school for one year and helped lead a trip to Japan with the school baseball team. The following year I moved to another school where I taught Japanese to 6-8th graders. At each of these schools I was the sole teacher of Japanese and in complete charge of my curriculum and activities, testing, etc. Then, after I began my Ph.D. program to study Education (and the teaching of Japanese in particular), I taught Japanese for one semester as part of a team run by native-speaking teachers of Japanese. Everything changed. We team-taught the classes so no single teacher saw any one class more than twice a week. For non-natives, that was once a week. For at least the first four weeks of class, I and the other non-native teachers weren't allowed to correct our students' homework without having our own work checked by the native teachers, regardless of our previous experience. Not once in the course of that semester were we given responsibility to correct testing material without supervision. It was not a situation I felt I could continue in beyond the end of that semester.

In my dissertation I learned some interesting things when I compared native and non-native teachers. The teachers I studied were of Japanese, but I'm sure much of this would also apply to English. When it comes to pragmatics - the subtleties of representing social identity and politeness behavior - we aren't typically conscious of what we do. If someone describes a situation to you and asks you what you'd say, you won't typically say what you would say, but what you believe you should say - and those aren't always the same thing. I think you can see the difficulty for teaching contexts. Non-native teachers, however, are more conscious of what they do, which makes them a great resource for teaching students in this area which is so critical for social and linguistic success. My conclusion was (in quick simplified summary version) that teamwork between native and non-native speakers is ideal for learning.

This all leads me to the following conclusion: both non-native and native speaker perspectives on language have value. This isn't just true for language teaching, but for writing as well.

Non-native speakers of English writing in English will do interesting things with the language, because they don't have the same underlying experience of language sources that a native speaking writer has had. Trouble may of course arise, as when an expression is ambiguous and the writer isn't fully aware of that ambiguity. But the alternate language background makes it easier to avoid falling into cliché, and can bring a freshness to writing style the likes of which you won't see in the writing of a native speaker (who, when avoiding cliché, will achieve freshness of a different variety).

Yet these writers can still fall into the trap of the assumption of fallibility. My friend Aliette de Bodard, has a debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, that has just come out from Angry Robot books. One reviewer claimed that the qualities of her writing that he disliked could be explained by the fact that English was not her native language - and while most other reviewers praise her work enthusiastically, you can imagine that Aliette was highly insulted by this. It piqued my own indignation to such an extent that I began writing this post. Her science fiction and fantasy writing grow directly out of a long history of reading sf/f in English - a natural source for the wonderful English she uses, which is then augmented in flavor and originality both by her own creativity and her unique perspective on the English language. She is also very articulate in discussing her own cross-cultural and cross-linguistic experiences with writing, so go take a look at some of her thoughts, here.

Aliette is not alone. Indeed, she's following in some very famous footsteps. History is full of works - classics in fact - written in English by non-native speakers. One of the most famous is Lolita, written in English by the Russian Vladimir Nabokov. [Reviewed here (1958).] And then there's Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad, a native speaker of Polish (here's another article about him).

I can't say that I haven't unconsciously fallen into the trap of not "getting" a non-native speaker's jokes. But after having worn the shoes of a non-native speaker, and experienced some of the consequences, I know I always try to question my own unconscious assumptions about language use and proficiency.

I hope you also find this post has given you some interesting things to think about.


  1. I remember working on an oral history project with non-native speakers of English where the interviewer was a native English speaker who also spoke their first language. He still found most of them wanting to do them in English!

    I suppose if he'd translated them all, they'd all have been in something like 'his' voice, and how do you translate/invent different colloquial voices for fifteen different real people...? Whereas in the end they all came off the page in a way I don't think a translation ever would.

  2. Great points. I think native speakers are great for practicing conversation, but they aren't necessarily the best teachers.

    I remember being in my Italian 101 class, and the teacher, who is Italian, was trying to explain verbs that required the pronomi oggetto indiretto. It didn't work too well. And it wasn't helped by his grasp of English. That's another thing to consider. If your teacher does not speak english well...

    I also encountered the "I understood you" example in that class. The teacher would not correct clearly wrong responses, because he understood the student.

  3. I've actually spent some time thinking about this, by way of reflecting on my own grasp - or lack thereof - of the English language. I do a lot of things wrong. I use words incorrectly, make up neologisms, coin phrases, use too many dashes and semicolons - and probably not correctly, and am often overly parenthetical. Certainly I have counterparts in other languages!

    My worst experiences learning languages have been with native speakers, though I don't want to conclude that this always has to be the case. The value of native speakers comes from their "built-in" grasp of pronunciation, culture, and cultural idioms. But that they know a language doesn't mean they know *about* a language or understand the learning process for say, a native English speaker. The teachers I had were most unsympathetic in this regard, as though they just couldn't understand why it was difficult for somebody else to learn - becuase they couldn't possibly understand.

    One of the most praised Spanish books I've come across recently is called "Breaking Out of Beginners Spanish" and is written by a non-native. People tend to feel that this guy "gets it" when he addresses common obstacles for english speakers learning spanish. How could a native speaker possibly understand why having two different words for "To be" is difficult?

    -Dave K

  4. Hampshireflyer,

    There's a whole world of research out there on the perceived value of different languages, and how people feel motivated to use one or the other. I don't think that having the same person translate them would necessarily mean they had the same voice. A good translator can make sure elements of voice are reflected in the translation.

  5. Atsiko,

    I think you're right that being a good speaker of a language is independent of being a good teacher of the language, at least to some degree. I wouldn't argue that non-native teachers are "better," just that they can sometimes have a level of linguistic awareness as a result of their study that a native teacher may not have. This is of course not to say that native teachers cannot have this kind of awareness - but for them, it would require a different kind of study. Having a teacher who speaks the language of the learner can be helpful, especially if there is a lot of grammar explanation going on - but it isn't always practical (as in classes where the students have several different native languages), and there is a major branch of language-teaching research that argues that grammar explanations are not very helpful to language learning anyway. The process is mysterious and non-linear, but I think it's safe to say that it's good to look at the task of language learning from multiple angles.

  6. Meindzai,

    I probably should have folded an answer to your comment in with Atsiko's above, as they're closely related. You're right that there's a sort of point of view issue involved in the language teaching and learning process. On the other hand, it's important not to equate native speakerhood with any particular level of teaching ability, and I believe that some native speakers have an easier time putting themselves into learners' shoes than others.

  7. Eh, two versions of "to be" ain't bad. That's what Italian has. jk

    I think that we might draw an analogy(which may get me lynched) by looking at native speaker "privilege". (Here comes langfail '10)

    A native speaker has trouble understanding why a student can't pick up the language as "easily" as they did. It's probably relevant that most people don't remember the time when they didn't speak their own language very well. But, the benefit of having someone who is not an L1 teach the class is balanced out some by the fact that your teacher probably had similar trouble learning English, or whatever language instruction is in.

  8. Interesting, Atsiko. I'm not sure about what you say about a native speaker not understanding why the student can't pick up the language as easily as they did. If you're speaking of a language teacher, I think that's unlikely. And while people may not remember their first verbal language acquisition, I'm sure they'd remember being in school and struggling with issues of grammar and usage, etc. much as we would. There certainly are people out there who have very little awareness of speakers of foreign language at all; that would influence their behavior, but those people wouldn't probably end up being in the position of language teacher.

  9. Very interesting, you have articulated a lot of stuff that is swilling around in my head. However, I'd just add another perspective to this issue from my personal experience. I grew up bilingual (Serbo-Croat/Hungarian), and those two languages could be said to be my native languages - I spoke them interchangably until high school. However, in the last 15 years an overwhelming majority of my reading and correspondence and a lot of oral communication was conducted in English.

    I'm still a native speaker of Serbian, but I find it increasingly easier to express myself in English, particularly when writing, to the extent of bouncing back and forth between the two languages when talking to people who understand both. On the other hand, my grasp of Hungarian has horribly deteriorated, to the point where I only have a relatively decent passive familiarity with it, stuttering and failing to remember words when I actually have to speak it.

    So in the end, I have a less than servicable grasp of a "native" language and a "more than native" grasp of a "foreign" language.

  10. Atsiko - After getting some grasp on "ser" vs. "estar" I am actually beginning to wonder why english *doesn't* have them! I'm starting to think we could clarify a lot of confusion in our discussions if we had the two different versions. But that's yet another topic...

    As to teacher issue, I think what Atsiko (and myself) are saying is that the native speaker of, let's say French, has a harder time understanding the difficulties involves with learning French, specifically, though they indeed may have some understanding of the difficulties of acquiring a second language in general.

    To be fair, there are a few things that skew my perspective. American schools are doing a terrible job right now with regards to language teaching. (And it's getting worse - public school language programs are being cut.) We might be lucky enough to get a second language in high school, when our brains are already starting to lose the "elasticity". A native speaker of Spanish in high school, while they certainly had to suffer through the difficulties of language acquisition, probably did it earlier than high school.

    But the point here is not to generalize about any sort of correlation between native speakers and teaching ability, as you said. I think the point of your post is to avoid making much assumptions to begin with. So to assume that native speakers are somehow deficient at teaching is just as "mythical" as assuming that they are not.

  11. Meindzai, thanks for this additional comment. I think you're right about how some native teachers have a hard time getting perspective on their own language. I'm also glad you see my point in trying not to generalize - there are a lot of wonderful language teachers out there, and the process of language learning is still quite mysterious. The issue of language fossilization is one that I can't really deal with in this post thread, but I've discussed it before - different aspects of language lose elasticity at different ages. We can talk about it again if you'd like.

  12. Sebastian,

    I'm really glad you joined this discussion, and you make some excellent points. In particular, I appreciate you bringing up the questions of bilingualism and language loss, both of which provide significant complication to the concept of a native speaker. The only reason I hadn't brought them up was that the post was already getting quite long! There are indeed many regions of the world where an American-style English monolingualism looks strange, and a more bilingual or multilingual approach is the norm. There are also situations where children who haven't solidified their literacy and mature communication in their native language, before being shoved into the near-exclusive use of another one, end up without a real "native language" at all (if by that we mean one they feel fully comfortable in). This is obviously a huge topic. Thanks again for mentioning it, as it's something people can continue to investigate if they're interested.

  13. Dang, just wrote a long post, and the server glitched. (Need to take my own advice about writing in a different text window!)

    How does the status of English as a 'world language' affect this discussion?

    English does have major flaws. Consider the example phrase: "Bill told Sam he loves his wife." Perfectly clear in many languages, but of spoken while drunk in English, this could produce a homicide.

    Juliette, great point about "would" vs. "should" say. Common, and done without thinking.
    On the flip side, my earliest Spanish teacher often emphasized we ought to say "como esta usted" rather than "que pasa." She much preferred the formal language.

    I've had Hispanic folks tell me they wished that English speakers would _not_ allow their language to get all funky, in casual conversation. (It becomes much harder for the learner to pick up formal English.)

  14. I once met a woman who claimed that English is a superior language because you can play with it and make jokes. She had experiences like the ones you mention here, where she tried to make jokes in German and had boring Germans tell her how that was not proper use of the language. After that she was convinced that word play is unknown or perhaps impossible in German, and maybe some other languages as well...

  15. aka,
    That's very unfortunate. Humor doesn't always translate easily across languages - i.e. it's not necessarily executed with the same language tools, on the same topics, in the same manner, etc. But it does sound at first glance like your friend was being discouraged from attempting humor, and drew the wrong conclusion.

  16. Paul,

    Thanks for commenting. I'm not sure I understand the nature of your question about the status of English as a world language. I believe I did mention it above when I talked about how there is no one single English that everyone learns. A native speaker of English will speak differently depending on which region of the world they learned to speak in. We may notice that their English has quirks of usage that we're not accustomed to - and some people might even guess incorrectly that they're not native speakers, when they just grew up with another variety of English. I kid you not, my Australian husband has been told that he "speaks English really well." To which he of course replied, "Why thank you, it's my native language."

    Your example of an English "flaw" really isn't so much an example of a flaw as of an ambiguity in usage. All languages have areas of ambiguity, and they counteract them in different ways when clarification is important. Ambiguity is also often a source of humor, so to my mind it's less a flaw than a characteristic of the language.

    Your observation about your Spanish teacher is an interesting one, as is your point about casual usage with language learners. Language teachers who are trying to teach Americans a language that includes formality often worry about what they perceive as a tendency toward extreme casualness in American English speakers. There is a whole tangle of cultural issues bound up in something as seemingly simple as learning "how to be polite" in another language (which I don't have time to go into in depth here). When people are learning a new language, generally their first concern is with message delivery, and so the distinction between polite and casual language can cause problems. It's even more of a problem in Japanese, where every sentence is marked for either formality or casualness, and there is no neutral message-sending form. Part of the issue is that our use of politeness is so subconscious that learners often don't perceive the need to learn two forms when they could be learning one. But both have value.

  17. Thanks, Juliette.

    My comment about 'world language' has a bit to do with that old British colonial saw, "They will understand if you speak it loudly and slowly enough." That is, there's a widespread assumption that people _should_ speak English, much less, speak it well. Any variety of major-nation English.
    (This may have diminished, slightly, in recent years.)

    You mentioned Urdu-speaking friends, and in this narrow context, I'm not sure I've ever once heard, or heard of, or even heard about, any jokes in Urdu. Never mind that tens of millions speak that language.

    I'm not familiar enough with ambiguities in languages other than English, thus my misapplication of the term 'flaw.' I know that Japanese lacks certain gender-specific words, and that could be awkward. It was years before my wife consistently remembered to use "he" and "she" in proper context.

    Paul C, certified gone-native speaker of . . .

  18. I asked a fellow in Chennai how to learn Tamil and he said, "You can't."

    There are all sorts of ambiguities in Russian. Plenty of words have more than one meaning. Ya xochu miru might mean "I want peace" or "I want [the] world." German likewise. The noun "Original" could mean something like a work of art that is without precedent, or it could mean a flaky person. And so it goes.

    A Venezuelan in Vienna told of an attempt to order a particular local pastry - two of them - and a mild pronunciation slip [due to Spanish having no umlaut, iirc] he wound up ordering two of her boobs. OTOH, a Tico I met once ordered a fresca in [I think] Honduras and discovered it did not mean a lemon-lime soda as it did in Costa Rico but rather a male prostitute. Both the Venezuelan and the Tico had to leave the premises quickly, without either pastry or soft drink.

  19. Thanks for the comment, Mike! Great, flavorful examples.

  20. Interesting topic. It reminds me of something from Anne McCaffrey's book Freedom's Landing. Without going into plot details, a bunch of humans of various nationalities and some aliens all get dropped onto this planet to presumably see if it is safe for colonization by the Catteni, a more powerful (and not very nice) alien race.

    Since not everyone can speak the same language, Kris, a native English speaker, becomes a sort of language teacher and interspecies negotiator. Partly self-imposed, partly assigned by the settlement leader.

    While her team runs around their part of the planet learning what they can and finding/meeting/rescuing other groups who'd been dropped, she corrects grammar and syntax, adds vocabulary, and explains idioms such as "oh boy" and "I'd give my eyeteeth for...." Other native English speakers sometimes scold her for it, saying, "I understood him/her just fine." Then the ones she corrected pipe up that they want to be corrected so they can speak it right.

    Just thought I'd share how a language learning discussion sometimes pops up within a story. It was one of many things I found fascinating about the book.