Being Multilingual: The natives and the speakers

Being Multilingual: The natives and the speakers

Comments3 comments

Linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira discusses what it means to be a native speaker of a second language.

Let me start with the good news. We are, all of us without exception, native speakers. This may come as a surprise to those of us who have had close encounters with the second/foreign language world, but is nonetheless true. It means that we are all competent users of language – more or less competent, of course, depending on all sorts of individual and social factors that make us clumsy or proficient in whatever we do.

Now the bad news. We are, all of us who use second/foreign languages, failed native speakers of them, which is the meaning of the more politically correct label 'non-native speakers'. This is because non-native productions are routinely compared to native models for purposes of quality control, and native speakers of someone else's non-native language are never more or less competent users of this language. They are competent, period: they have no accent, which means they have a good accent, and they probably have no grammar and no vocabulary either, because their grammar and their vocabulary are quite good too.

Being Multilingual: The natives and the speakers

Now the obvious news. None of us second/foreign language users can ever become native speakers of those languages, for two reasons: because the word native in 'native speaker' means ‘born into'; and because our mothers might balk at the prospect of giving birth to us all over again in a language they don't speak. Second/foreign language theory and practice nonetheless appear to entertain the hope that we somehow can. Using native models and assessment methods draws on the assumption that learning a language means learning to impersonate someone, instead of learning to use their language.

Now the funny news. The term 'native speaker' means ‘monolingual': all the native speakers to whom second/foreign language learners have been compared since it became standard practice to do so are 'monolinguals'. Given that language learners are becoming multilingual – those who already aren't, that is – such comparisons reflect the belief that ideal users of language are monolingual (rings a bell?). Indeed, multilinguals who become multilinguals from birth are not native speakers of their languages, because multilinguals across the board are also routinely compared to native speakers, and you can't compare a thing to itself. Even funnier, multilinguals are not non-native speakers either, because they are also compared to non-natives. Makes one wonder what multilinguals are.

And now, the extremely funny news. Even those of us who do become indistinguishable from native speakers, including where native speakers themselves can't tell the difference, fail to reach native proficiency: we have near-native-like proficiency instead (I'm not joking, seriously!). This is because we human beings, for all our native competence, are apparently fallible in our judgements about our languages. We don't notice what we don't care about, whereas the machines that we build to make our judgements for us do: the proof is in reported examples of millisecond differences in, for example, the amount of puffed air that emanates from native and non-native vocal tracts pronouncing the sounds at the beginning of English words like pan, tan and can (this is the 'aspiration of voiceless plosives', in the insider lingo).

Near-native-like users of languages could well make ideal candidates to international espionage agencies – barring suspicion that the enemy might have access to millisecond-detectors, of course. As it is, they and other non-natives already have enough trouble in the job market: for language teaching posts, for example, it has been debated whether native speakers with no teacher training whatsoever shouldn't be preferred to non-natives with full teaching credentials. I'm not joking here either.

The bottom line is that if you're looking for differences, you'll find them: milliseconds are popular in other research comparing multilinguals to monolinguals, but the relevance, to human communication, of speech features that human beings can't perceive has been questioned in (monolingual) clinical settings too. To me, inventing the word-play of expressions akin to 'near-native-like' on the strength of such features simply self-fulfills the belief that native speakers have exclusive rights to competence in their languages, and the related curse of the Big Bad Funny-lingual.

Being Multilingual: The natives and the speakersSetting up goals, and educational goals to boot, that forever elude common mortals brings to mind the '___ jokes', those jokes that are largely the same in different parts of the world, but are only funny when the blank is filled with nationality words that the jokers think are funny to joke about – telling a Finn, say, how many Portuguese it takes to screw in a light bulb is not very funny. One of these jokes suggested the following parallel to me: an outsider (= the aspiring language user) asks a local (= the native language user) for directions to a place (= native proficiency). The local thinks a while and replies: "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here." It is the same no-can-do mindset that, faced with can-dos, changes gear to call them 'gifted learners'. This is yet another ill-defined player in second/foreign language scenarios, to which I will return some other day.


Thomas Paul Bonfiglio's book, Mother tongues and nations. The invention of the native speaker, explains that native speakers originated as a time-and-space-bound construct. The unquestioned relevance that it came to gain in second/foreign language settings across the board may well need some re-thinking, not least in view of the confusing meanings that associate with it, as noted above. The presumed, assumed, implicit and implied 'definitions', if any, of other terms that we find in similar settings, such as mother tongue, or first language, might also benefit from a thorough spring-cleaning.

I believe that all this vagueness stems from the artificiality of attempting to classify users of language not by their uses of their languages, which naturally form a cline, but by their all-or-none birth rights to (one of) them. Next time, I'll talk some more about natives, and about non-natives too. Specifically, about why wishing someone a happy birfday, for example, which we hear from native and non-native speakers alike, may somehow sound less damnable coming from the former than from the latter.

with permission of Being Multilingual.

Madalena Cruz-FerreiraBeing Multilingual - Madalena Cruz Ferreira is a freelance linguist who works on debunking myths and misconceptions about multilingualism at home, in school, and in clinic. One of her books, Multilinguals are ...?, is "a breath of fresh air in a field which desperately needs ventilation" (David Crystal), and "should be required reading for those who work closely with groups and individuals who use multiple languages" (Jeff MacSwan). She is Portuguese, married to a Swede, based in Singapore, and the mother of three trilingual children. She runs two blogs, Being Multilingual, on multilingualism, and Lang101 Blog, on linguistics for starters. You can find her on Twitter.

Photo credit: akk_rus (photo 1), lululemon athletica (photo 2), Pratham Books (head/hot photo).


Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.

If you believe any of the information on this page is incorrect or out-of-date, please let us know. Expatica makes every effort to ensure its articles are as comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date as possible, but we're also grateful for any help! (If you want to contact Expatica for any other reason, please follow the instructions on this website's contact page.)

Captcha Note: Characters are case sensitive
The details you provide on this page will not be used to send any unsolicited e-mail, and will not be sold to a third party. Privacy policy .

3 Comments To This Article

  • Madalena Cruz-Ferreira posted:

    on 13th July 2013, 20:52:36 - Reply

    Heinz: Different languages do make us feel special, as you say – in different ways for each language, I find. We don’t need to be “natives” to call them ours. Thank you for your kind words about the article!

    Lawrence: I wasn’t sure how to interpret your comment in relation to the notion of “native speaker”. Would you want to clarify, please? Thank you for joining the discussion!

  • Lawrence Ness posted:

    on 29th April 2013, 13:46:43 - Reply

    More kids with ipads.....well done, congratulations.
  • Heinz posted:

    on 24th April 2013, 15:02:53 - Reply

    Good Day!
    what an enjoyable article. I found it very interesting. I guess i will never be a native speaker in a nother language but at least I can feel special in the language of my birth.