Are the terms ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ appropriate, practical and useful to describe language identity, use and understanding? In terms of English, which country or countries are we referring to as ‘native’? And which part of that specific country? Whose English is ‘native English’? Does ‘nativeness’ in English Language Teaching (ELT) equate to a better teaching and learning experience and improved learning outcomes? The British Council’s Ann Veitch and Ebru Weston, from the English Programmes team and teacher Huma Riaz explore these questions:
“I’m Huma. I have worked in India, England and now the UAE. I have been teaching for over 13 years for the British Council during which time I have also donned many other hats as a teacher trainer, an e-moderator, a materials writer and an examiner. I’m an Indian and I grew up in India. I’m multilingual with English as my fourth language. Since childhood, I’ve had access to all of my language repertoire for performing various functions requiring the use of different languages. Currently, I use English for almost everything other than speaking to my parents and my in-laws. I think English is my only dominant language because I’m not a native speaker of any of the other languages I know including my mother tongue or home language, so what would my English language passport say? A non-native speaker, a ‘developing’ native speaker, a hybrid or simply a ‘speaker’ of English?”
“I’m Ebru and am from Turkey. I came to England 24 years ago and have lived in England, Spain, Tanzania and Sudan during those years. I am bilingual but with limited visits to Turkey and use of Turkish, I feel English has become my dominant language over the years.
“Leaving a nine-year career in marketing, I decided to become an English language teacher as I realised how much I loved teaching. After completing the CELTA course during the summer of 2011, I rewrote my CV and sent it to over 10 language schools in a city in Spain. I was turned down by all schools but one on the basis of me being Turkish. Following my interview with the only school who got back to me, I was told that I gave a good interview and sounded ‘very British’ so they would like to offer me a job but on one condition – I had to tell my students I was British. It was hard, especially for someone who was born and brought up and educated in Turkey. I was shocked to hear this condition but I was desperate for a job so I took it. And there started the uncomfortable journey of lying to my students for two years that my mother was Turkish and my father was English. I was delighted when I got my next job and that I did not have to lie about who I was to anybody anymore.”
“I’m Ann and I would be classed as a ‘native speaker’. I grew up in a working class, poor, rather insular community in Gateshead, in the North of England. As such, I grew up speaking English in a dialect, known as Geordie. Geordie is known as a ‘strong dialect’ because of its phonological, grammatical and lexical differences to ‘standard’ English. Attitudes towards and stereotypes associated with dialects shift over time but Geordie has rarely been associated with power, social status, prestige, intellect or competence. In accent surveys conducted in the UK, it’s often linked to words like ‘trustworthy’, ‘likeable’, ‘friendly’ and ‘motivational’. I spent 20 years living and working overseas where, as a white, native teacher, albeit with a ‘strange’ accent, jobs were easy to find. For many years I tried to speak ‘posh’, rarely spoke in dialect, apologised for my accent and tried not to be irritated when British people commented that ‘I hadn’t lost my accent’ or Geordies and the community I grew up amongst commented that I had.”
Despite the recognition that English is a global language, a lingua franca, an international language, owned and used by many, concepts of ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’, and the associated baggage these terms carry, are pervasive. Within ELT, there has been movement to stop using the terms ‘native/non-native’, redress the marginalisation of and discrimination against ‘non-native’ models and non-native English teachers and decolonise our approach to Englishes. However, we still observe and experience systems and processes which reinforce a hierarchy of Englishes in which English is owned and controlled by ‘native speakers’. The more distant a speaker is from this ‘inner circle’, the less valid, prestigious and desired their English is. This is reflected in recruitment processes, availability of opportunities, wages, teaching and learning materials, standards and assessments and in AI. For instance, to get a cutting-edge answer to our question ‘what is a native speaker?’, we asked ChatGPT – the artificial intelligence chatbot:
‘Native speakers typically possess an intuitive understanding of the language's grammar, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and pronunciation, as they have grown up using the language in everyday life. They are considered to have the highest level of proficiency and fluency in that language.’
Sadly, and predictably, its answer reflects a history that positions ‘native’ language as culturally, racially and linguistically superior, aspirational, standard-setting and the benchmark of acceptability. In positioning ‘native speakers’ as such, we inevitably create a ‘non-native’ opposite – inferior, deficient, non-authentic and non-standard. As defined by ChatGPT: ‘Non-native speakers often have a different accent or may make grammatical errors that are influenced by their native language. However, with sufficient practice and exposure, non-native speakers can achieve high levels of proficiency in a second language.
The aspirational quality of ‘nativeness’ and its cultural, linguistic dominance and perceived capital means that parents and learners demand native teachers, in the belief that they speak ‘proper English’ and are ‘better’ teachers. As teachers, we know that good English language teaching is about a teacher’s skills, knowledge, language proficiency, experience, cross-cultural understanding and the ability to understand and adapt to learners while continually developing themselves. You can be a native speaker but have very few of these attributes.
If these terms are so harmful, why does the English Language Teaching (ELT) community continue to use them? The simple answer is they are an easy, neat way of categorising and compartmentalising language identity, understanding and use. But language identity, understanding and use is far from neat and easy – it’s complex, complicated and fluid, based on a huge variety of factors. So, what do we use instead? There is a problem with replacing ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ with other binary absolutes. It may help to remove some of the stereotyping and stigmatising around these terms, but it does not help in accurately conceptualising language identity, understanding and use. Perhaps we have to accept the complexity and reflect this more accurately and equitably through more nuanced descriptions?
None of these points and arguments are ground-breaking or new. But ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ as terms and concepts are so engrained and embedded within structures that change is neither quick nor easy. It requires sustained effort and a collective commitment to embrace diversity and inclusivity across multiple levels. We need to continue to raise awareness and encourage open discussions about language identity, understanding and use. We need to take a collective and collaborative approach as ELT professionals to build alliances and networks, valuing difference and similarity. We need to ensure that those with power and privilege in this area, such as the British Council, use their voice effectively and practise what they preach. We need to have courage and agency to call out and challenge prejudice in ELT marketing, recruitment, employment, resources, standards and assessment. We also need wider change – a better community understanding of what good ELT teaching is and pedagogical changes within the ELT classroom which encouraging multilingual approaches to teaching and learning and the use of full linguistic repertoires. We need systemic changes to teacher recruitment and reward, ensuring this is based on skill, knowledge and ability rather than ‘nativeness’– an area British Council has made considerable progress in over the last decades – and, if necessary, changes in how language is treated in law.