The native speaker concept

Doerr_native speaker concept_de Gruyter Mouton2In my own research, I have frequently run into difficulty in talking about a ‘native speaker’. What criteria must be met to be ‘native’? How can I, as a researcher, make any determination about fluency that categorizes someone as ‘native’ or ‘non-native’? Most importantly, when, where and how does being a ‘native speaker’ really matter? Reading Neriko Musha Doerr’s editorial introduction and theoretical background chapter in The native speaker concept (2009) put my previous thinking into perspective. Doerr identifies the key arguments and ideologies that leave us stuck with an idea of ‘native speaker’ that can never really be defined, and become so problematically implemented in many practical situations. Her argument, and the scope of the book, covers issues in language teaching and learning, language governance, and language ideologies about proficiency among speakers themselves. Here, I’m discussing some insights from a few of the book chapters – specifically those related to my own research interests about linguistic competence in migration contexts.

Broadly speaking, I came away from this book thinking about the ‘native speaker’ as a classic problem of categories. In Michiyo Takato’s case, involving ethnic Okinawan migrants ‘returning’ from colonies in Bolivia and Brazil, a wild sea of categorizations mix together and render some of her research participants severely disadvantaged. They are caught between schooling systems in different countries that stress competence in imperial/national languages (standard Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish), or enable students to learn and maintain ‘heritage’ languages (all of the above, plus Okinawan), depending on a given framing of where they come from as a ‘native’ or migrant. Takato picks up on one of the striking insights of this book, highlighted in Doerr’s theoretical chapter, that ‘native’ is often assumed to include universal competence of written and spoken forms. Teachers in her focal school system sometimes fail to recognize students’ weaker competence in written forms by assuming that their ‘native-like’ speech is associated with ‘native-like’ written training at home, while their ethnically Japanese parents – who themselves grew up in South America – are effectively illiterate in most Japanese written forms. Takato’s young participants, then, end up caught between ideologies of ethnic/national linguistic proficiency, as well as ideologies of linguistic competence as being a 4-skilled, equal package – reading, writing, listening and speaking. They become people who don’t quite fit into any easy category.

Complementarily, Anne Whiteside’s chapter on the presence of Maya in San Francisco questions any categorization of ‘native speaker’ as a matter of proficiency. She runs into contexts where Yucatecan migrants – many of whom come from Mayan-speaking origins – describe contradictory ideologies of what a ‘native speaker’ of Maya might be, in light of the devaluation of Maya in relation to Spanish as well as idealized images of a ‘good’ speaker of Maya. She observes how Maya becomes a common language in some restaurant kitchens, where many of the staff might be Maya-origin, enlaced with many other spoken codes. Whether or not her participants could be considered ‘native speakers’ by an external definition, their use of language flows so much between different codes (English, Spanish, Maya, Cantonese, Greek, French or Wolof, as she lists them) that it becomes difficult even to categorize what ‘language’ is in use, nevermind who is the ‘native’ speaking it. This is one example of what Doerr advocates for research as ‘native speaker effects’: the real-world implications for participants in their everyday linguistic competence and use.

These discussions highlight two of the problematic issues that come to the fore again and again in much recent research in language and diversity. One is that the traditional definitions and divisions of categories upon which we base an idea of a ‘language’ only really hold up in a context where they ‘matter’ – in a ‘when, where and how’ that individuals need to draw lines of distinction in order to access social, economic, and political resources. The second is that this pragmatic aspect to language use opens important questions on how the 4 skills might need to be considered as separable attributes, rather than lumped into one ‘language’ as being qualified as a ‘native’. This issue comes up over and over again in my own research among Moroccans in Europe, where the complex combinations of migrant communities produces individuals who often have extensive spoken competencies across several ‘languages’ and much more limited written competencies, either because they didn’t have any training or because the codified written forms do not exist. Beyond thinking about what it means to be a ‘native speaker’, this book also points to ways that sociolinguistic research pokes holes in definitions of a ‘language’, and signals new approaches to thinking about what elements make up linguistic practice.


Doerr, Neriko Musha, ed. 2009. The Native Speaker Concept: Ethnographic Investigations of Native Speaker Effects. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Author Lauren Wagner

Lauren Wagner is an Assistant Professor in Globalisation and Development at Maastricht University. Her research focuses on issues of diaspora and belonging through microanalysis of everyday encounters, based both in linguistic recorded data as well as in participant observation of materialist atmospheres.

More posts by Lauren Wagner
  • yvonnecrepaldi

    Indeed a problematic category. Here’s my story: I grew up in Hong Kong (spending 17 years there from age 3). Although I lived in other places for almost 20 years now, I’d still call my Cantonese native – meaning no HK person could spot that I am not one of them. Once I translated some marketing material (from German to Traditional Chinese) and the very professional reviser commented that the translation was most likely done by a Mainland Chinese and not a HK local. The HR of the translation agency questioned my credential, and I was totally shocked… and explained I had my kindergarten, primary, secondary education and even a M.A. done in HK. How was that possible? But no doubt, people’s migration experience influence their “native language” tremendously. Now think about cases in Singapore, where I live now, when local people (who were born here) fill in a language questionnaire, no one would put the top score (native score) for any of the multiple languages that they speak (English/Singlish, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and other Chinese/Indian languages) because they simply use a mixture on a daily basis – they feel inappropriate to claim English as their native showing awareness of their proficiency different from a Brit/American/Aussie. So this goes back to what Prof. Piller mentioned in another article ‘linguistic theory in Dubai’ about the impression of language being ‘discrete’.

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