Over the last few years there has been a growing clamour in the ELT world against not only the concept and definition of who is and isn’t a ‘native speaker’ of English, but also the very term itself is now starting to be questioned – quite rightly, in my view.
Etymologically, ‘native’ comes from the Latin ‘nativus’, meaning ‘born’ that gave us ‘natal’ and ‘innate’. This implies that the English that a ‘native speaker’ has is somehow, something deep inside of them that they are born with, rather than as the product of cultural exposure, environmental factors or as a product of their own conscious learning. The meaning has shifted to refer more to the place where someone is from, but that underlying etymological hangover is still very much implicitly understood. There are also the uncomfortable Prince Phillip-isms that the word ‘native’ conjures up in these post-Colonial, trans-global times and the spectre of the ideology of natural superiority that goes along with it.
Then there is the problem of which nationalities qualify as ‘native’. If we only include Kachru’s Inner Circle lot (USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – yes, in that order, with the USA first and New Zealand a poor fifth!) then we are excluding the Expanding Circle countries (Singapore, India etc) and the Outer Cirle ones too. Who gets to decide who can join the club? And if we have new members, do we then need a new term to encompass and reflect this?
And even if we go all traditional and accept that only people from the Inner Circle can be truly ‘native’ speakers, can we really put American English, British English, Canadian English, Australian English and New Zealand English all under the same umbrella? How can such a diverse range of pronunciations, spelling, lexis and even grammatical structure all come under one moniker? It’s like referring to the incredible of array of genres, styles, languages, instruments, techniques, melody and history of music in Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia as ‘African’ music (I’m not sure it was worth typing all those out to make my point, but it seemed like a good idea when I started!). It’s meaningless and potentially offensive to lump this breathtaking diversity into one reductionist word.
This is all before we tackle the complex issues that today’s globalised, fragmented world brings. Can you be a ‘native speaker’ of more than one language? I recently asked a friend whether he considered his daughter, who is bilingual in Japanese and English, but was born and raised in Japan, to be a native English speaker. He asserted that she wasn’t because her level of English was not as good as her Japanese and would be seen as slightly below the level of someone who had grown up in England. I definitely don’t agree with this. My own 4-year-old son is in exactly the same position, but I would argue that he is a ‘native’ speaker of both English AND Japanese, he doesn’t have to be physically from or in a certain country to claim ‘nativeness’. Or how about his classmates at the international pre-school that he attends once a week, most of whom were born in Japan to American parents serving in the US navy? They are ‘from’ Japan, as in that is where they were born and are growing up, but have limited Japanese skills and near-perfect (but probably different from their peers that are actually in the US) English skills. Most people would argue that they are certainly ‘native’ English speakers, but still my friend doesn’t recognise his own daughter as a ‘native’ English speaker because she happens to speak another language better.
There have been a few recent (excellent!) publications that have expressed their dissatisfaction with the ‘native speaker’ term at the beginning of the paper or book, but have then conceded that for ease of reference they will use the term anyway. Or others have taken to putting it in inverted commas (as I have done in this post) or adding the prefix ‘so-called’ before the word.
Although I understand this and these are all admirable ways to draw attention to the issue, I think it’s time to for researchers and publishers to have the courage to move beyond it and introduce some new terminology free of the divisive connotations that the term ‘native’ implies.
So, what can we use instead? I don’t know! I’ve tried out Local British English Speaker (Local Australian English Speaker, Local Indian English Speaker etc.) and it kind of works when talking about a specific person or isolated group, but breaks down when we try to make it a catch-all phrase. But maybe that’s the point, maybe we need to get away from having a catch-all phrase and start distinguishing as we would any other trait. Maybe we need a new set of phrases, in the plural.
I don’t know what it/they will be, but I sincerely hope that soon a new term/some new terms will be latched onto in the literature and we can start to change our concepts of who and what has a right to the English language.