Linguistic Flatland: When the Non-Native Sphere fell through Flatland

Recently Adrian Holliday stated,

I no longer review research that compares ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers as though the groups are real and not imagined”

Inadvertently fuelling the everlasting native vs non-native speaker debate, as Geoff Jordan (of Critical ELT fame) and Marek Kikscowiak (of TEFL Equity Advocates fame) engaged in a bitter, yet surprisingly well-mannered dispute over whether there is a difference between a native and a non-native speaker.

(Note, since I began writing this, Geoff has already typed up a rebuttal of Marek’s post. It is well worth reading, and I look forward to Marek’s response.)

Essentially, Geoff’s position is that, for the purposes of psycholinguistics and SLA research, there is a difference between NS and NNS, and this difference is useful in conducting research into how we acquire second languages. That is not to say, however, that we have grounds to favour one group over the other.

Marek’s position is that we should not favour one group over the other, and while some SLA research might have uncovered linguistic differences between particular sets of NS and NNS, within a sociolinguistic framework, it is not obvious what a ‘native speaker’ is.

I suppose what Geoff is looking to show is that there are measurable differences. What Marek is asking for is evidence of measurable differences that have pragmatic implication beyond the field of SLA research (specifically, one would suspect, for teaching and teaching recruitment). Or, to put it another way, Marek’s response to Geoff boils down to ‘so what’?

For any SLA researcher, the importance of any distinction between NS and NNS should be obvious, but Marek has a valid point that the distinction is neither obviously important nor obvious to anyone outside of that framework. As Geoff himself notes, people vary, and we can’t point to any particular set of linguistic traits that belong uniquely to native or non-native speakers. If we try, therefore, to distinguish NS and NNS in terms of linguistic differences, we’re always going to find an example of some non-native who is identical to some native. One can be, therefore, conflated or confused with a native speaker without actually being a native speaker. Does this mean there is no objective, clearly defined difference between NS and NNS? Not quite. Does that mean there is an objective, clearly defined difference between NS and NNS? Not evidently.

I think we can take it as given that there are no immutable characteristics separating NS and NNS, despite Marek’s assertion that this is often implied by “constantly comparing NS and NNS”. Obtaining NS status might be viewed as being similar to obtaining citizenship status in another country: some foreigners (to that country) can do it, not all of them do, and even if most or all of the Irish in the world obtained American citizenship, we’d still be able to distinguish an Irish American from any other type of American. However, it would be disingenuous of anyone to say an Irish American is not, or is different to, an American, and this is where I disagree with one of Geoff’s arguments, which goes as follows (bearing in mind it has been a long time since I had to attempt a syllogism)

P1. Monolingual speakers can tell the difference between native and non-native speakers

P2. If there were no difference, monolinguals wouldn’t be able to tell the difference

  1. There is a difference between native and non-native speakers

The premises are, prima facie, true, the conclusion logically follows, but I remain unconvinced. Before addressing the argument, let’s quickly consider what P1 does not mean

P1 does not mean that monolingual speakers can identify where speakers are from, only that they are either native or non-native.

P1 does not mean that there is any one native accent, speech pattern, etc, that distinguishes a speaker as being native or non-native.

All P1 says is that monolinguals can tell the difference between native and non-native speakers.

However, what Geoff’s argument does not address is those cases in which a native speaker is confused with a non-native speaker. The thing about English is that it has spread throughout the globe, giving us a whole multitude of different speakers of English as a first, other, second, or additional language. Are any of these ‘native’? The knee-jerk response is ‘Well, yes, if they’re from an inner circle (thank-you Kachru) or norm-providing context,”. The more measured response is “It’s a matter of perspective: a Pakistani may be a native speaker of Pakistani English, as a Brit may be a native speaker of British English,” to which the first person would say “OK, but given that Pakistan does not have norm-providing status, you can’t say that a native speaker of Pakistani English is a native speaker of English per se”. Yes, but within the UK (as with any other norm-provider of English) there are a whole host of linguistic communities with varying levels of nativeness, from the newly arrived migrants to the EAL school leaver who has been a permanent resident in the UK since the age of 5. Many of these people are, for all intents and purposes, native, but will be mixed up with a non-native because they have a ‘foreign’ accent, or code switch. It is easy to tell the difference between a UK native and a Chinese native. It is notoriously difficult to tell the difference between a Bangladeshi who has acquired English and an English person of Bangladeshi descent. Yes, this isn’t true in every case, but token examples are immaterial.

So, the claim that monolinguals can distinguish native and non-native speakers doesn’t address whether monolinguals can identify any given native speaker. This, I feel, lies at the crux of Marek’s position: that the NS-NNS distinction is not clearly defined, whether you’re comparing individuals, linguistic sets or levels of proficiency.

I should point out, at this stage, that Geoff supported his position with other arguments, and reference to empirical research. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, claiming on the basis of one argument that his entire position is wrong. Geoff points out that there are “clear, easily recognized, departures (sic) from the norm”, though he doesn’t state what this ‘norm’ is, or what departures NNS make. If departing from a norm is enough to call someone an NNS, I can call a Liverpudlian, a Dub(liner), an Aussie, a 60-year-old resident of Ilkley Moor who has refused to let go of the traditional Yorkshire dialect, a Cockney (note the deliberate use of asyndeton) departures from the norm (and if you played a recording of Mrs Moor to many so-called native speakers, they wouldn’t call her English, much less native English). Whatever the ‘norm’ is, it is politically grounded, and politically charged.

None of this, however, means that NS is not obviously distinguishable from NNS, only that we’re pretty shoddy at distinguishing the two. Popping over to Marek’s post, he asserts, “a ‘native speaker’ is proficient”. I don’t agree with that. Neither Geoff nor Marek have proferred an appropriate or suitable definition of ‘proficiency’ (note the inverted commas), and, whatever definition they had in mind, I do not believe the ‘proficiency’ that belongs to the native speaker is the same as the ‘proficiency’ supposedly attainable by the non-native speaker. Nor, for that matter, is native or native-like proficiency the same as the CEFR C2 level ‘proficiency’ aimed for by NNS. There are levels of linguistic and communicative proficiency amongst natives as among non-natives (compare, for example, a 4 year old UK native with a 50 year old UK native. It makes no sense to say they are both equally ‘proficient’, or even that they fit within the same level of ‘proficiency’ in English). Being ‘proficient’ is not sufficient to be ‘native’. Being ‘native’ is not sufficient to be ‘proficient’ (I hope to see that in a rap, some day).

Marek then goes on to list 6 requisites of native status. It is telling that he does not address the first point, viz. “early childhood acquisition”. This, I think, is the one most people would attribute to native speakers. Marek, then, should be tasked with addressing this point or providing type evidence of people who acquired English at a later stage in their life yet are indistinguishable from natives. Since Marek himself admits that the first factor is exclusive to natives, I fear he has defeated his own argument. He does state that early acquisition entails acquisition of

“intuition about grammar (both pertaining to dialect and standard language);

capability to generate spontaneous and fluent discourse;

capability to write creatively;

ability to translate into their L1;

and creative communicative range”

and dismisses step 1 (early acquisition) as none of the other steps (above) are unique to NS. However, these steps all describe someone who has attained a high level of English, so the scope is limited to a very specific (dare I say cherry-picked?) sort of NNS. Moreover, it ignores other factors, such as phonological mastery, intuitive grasp of metaphorical and idiomatic language, and capability to comprehend a range of diverse dialects within a native’s language community.

In this post, which has addressed mere parts of Geoff’s and Marek’s posts, I hope to have added my own voice to the debate. What I have contributed, here, should not be taken as a rebuttal of either man’s position (nor of their arguments in their entirety). I have merely selected some of the points they made.

I look forward to seeing how Marek will respond to Geoff’s second post, and where this will all lead. My own take on the matter is that the boundary between ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ as concepts are growing increasingly blurred as the borders between linguistic frameworks and communities breaks down. For now, there is a difference between NS and NNS, but that does not mean one is superior to the other, nor does it mean that, for any given point in the future, today’s NS will not be tomorrow’s NNS.

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