Re-naming the ‘native speaker’

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.



7 thoughts on “Re-naming the ‘native speaker’”

  1. Hi Luke,
    Very interesting post. I don’t really have any answers, but I like using the terms in inverted commas as ‘non-native speaker’ to indicate their ambiguity and subjectiveness. There was an interesting discussion on this topic on the website I run, TEFL Equity Advocates, which might interest you:
    Good luck with the blog. Looking forward to see how it develops!


    1. Hi,
      Thanks for being my first visitor! Thanks for the link too, the discussion was interesting to read.

      For me, it’s not so much that it’s a false dichotomy, it’s the loaded connotations of the term itself that suggests some kind of in-born superiority

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi,
        You’re welcome! I don’t think I’ve ever been the first visitor of any blog, so it’s a pleasure 🙂 BTW, I’ve done some sharing of your post so hope there have ben more visitors.
        I agree. There are a lot of connotations, which makes me think that perhaps ‘non-native speakers’ need to rebrand themselves and change the associations the public has with the ‘non-native’ brand. This might be more effective than trying to get rid of the term or to replace it with an alternative one. What do you think?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for sharing, it’s a big help!

        You may be right, ‘native-speaker’ has meaning and implications far outside the realms of just teaching English, so it might not be possible to change that. NNS on the other hand is usually only used in the context of teaching English, so there is more scope and possibility for change. Hopefully websites like yours will be able to act as a catalyst for this!


  2. I suppose the term “first language”, “second language”, etc. may be preferable for not having the metaphorical baggage of “innateness”. They might open up their own cans of worms though for people who don’t know or for whom it doesn’t matter which language came first chronologically. My dad spoke Japanese until he was 4, and now in his 60s speaks only (fluent) English. How would you describe this situation with the terminology available?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great example of the complexity of the whole issue.

      If someone has retained both languages I suppose we could call them dual-native speakers, in a similar way to people that have dual nationality.

      But if you start with one language and end up with another, under the current definitions and terminology you are a native-speaker of a language that you no longer speak – which makes no sense!


      1. Absolutely. Another important point to consider is that for a lot of bi and multilingual people out there (whether simultaneous bilinguals or not), it might not make much sense to talk about L1, L2, L3 or being a ‘native’ speaker if that’s to mean some difference in proficiency. For example, it might be difficult to define the order of acquisition.
        In my own case, I feel equally proficient in Polish, Spanish and English, despite the fact that my L1 is Polish. And if we were to take the order of learning/acquisition, my L3 would be German, not Spanish, even though I’m much more proficient in Spanish.
        My point is that for the purposes of teaching English and applied linguistics it makes very little sense to talk about ‘native speakers’, or to treat ‘native speakers’ as a benchmark or a goal of language acquisition. For example, most pronunciation research to date treats standard ‘native speaker’ model as the target students should aim for and evaluates students’ progress against it. And of course this evaluation is always done by ‘native speakers’. This of course leads to skewed findings, because what is or is not intelligible to a ‘native speaker’ is not of such great importance if we agree that English is a global language.
        Coming back to the labelling, I think Rampton’s (1990) distinction between language expertise, inheritance and affiliation is very important here. In my case, I am an expert in Polish, English and Spanish, however, I’ve inherited only one of them, Polish. As far as affiliation is concerned, that would be a very tricky matter. Of course, there’s a lot of affiliation I feel with my L1, Polish, but also with the other two languages as I have used them for such a long time, worked in them, lived them, read profusely, made love, watched football, swore, and what have you.
        The problem in ELT is that expertise, inheritance and affiliation are all taken for granted in the ‘native speaker’, but of course this is not always the case.

        Liked by 1 person

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