Research & Reflections
The Native Speaker: A Category in Need of Rupture
Imagine if, instead of giving "native speakers" the power to designate those who grew up speaking a given language as all-knowing experts on it, we understood that languages are immense and beautiful webs. Non-native speakers can have expertise in a language that is different from, yet comparable to that of native speakers.
The Native Speaker: A Category in Need of RuptureBy Gina Elia/Fulbright Taiwan
In my language, we say “I love you” a lot.
Think about that sentence for a minute. Really think about it. Does it strike you as odd? I speak of my native language, which happens to be English, as though it belongs to me. But how can something as massive and unruly as a language belong to anybody? The largest category of words in almost any language is technical—specialized jargon unknown to the majority of native speakers. Languages are created by human beings, but they quickly grow into giant, complex webs of syntax and vocabulary bigger than any one person. So how can a language belong to anybody? Sure, “my language” might simply be a form of shorthand, easier than having to say in full, “the language I speak,” all the time. It is also no different than the way people use the possessive pronoun to describe every aspect of their identity—“my nationality,” “my religion,” and so on.
Yet, in the above sentence, I also use my supposed “ownership” of the English language as the basis for feeling comfortable asserting how “I love you” is used by all English speakers in the world, as though I could ever assert such a thing without conducting methodical, meticulous research. But I cannot deny that I have heard such sentences uttered by many people, including myself, on numerous occasions. This year, the longer I lived in Mandarin-speaking Taiwan as a native English speaker, the more I began to feel that something felt strange about the way that people discuss their languages as possessions. I began to think that someone’s comfort with referring to a language as “my” language was tied to whether or not that person felt justified in considering themselves a “native speaker” of that language. Furthermore, the identity of “native English speaker” in particular seemed to carry a lot of privilege with it that, incredibly, had never come into question for many of the people, both Taiwanese and American, with whom I had conversations about this issue after coming to Taiwan.
As I settled into my daily life in Taipei, I started to have an unsettling feeling in my stomach whenever I suspected that my “native English speaker” label was leading people to assume I had attributes that I didn’t. Wherever I went and whomever I talked to, I became an expert on the English language just by virtue of having grown up in a country where people speak it. I must have been told half a dozen times that I should start teaching English as a side job, as though I would be qualified for a matter as difficult as teaching a language to other people simply because of my birthright as a “native English speaker,” with no additional pedagogical training. This is, I suspect, the same mentality responsible for the status quo of programs and schools around the world whose minimum qualification for their TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teachers is not a particular degree or certificate, but is simply that they hail from countries where English is a dominant language.
While I was sitting over a delicious di guo (“earth pot”) dinner in Nanjing one evening, chatting with a Frenchwoman who had come to China to teach French and theater, she told me that unlike English teachers, French teachers in China were required to have some kind of degree or certificate in language pedagogy. Again that uncomfortable feeling returned to my stomach as I mulled over why that wasn’t the case for English teachers. English is in great demand as a language of study, to be sure, which means that teachers are in great demand also. Perhaps lowering the requirements for TEFL teachers enables schools to hire them more quickly? Yet, even if we accept that it might take too long to get a full degree in English pedagogy, a TEFL or TESOL certificate can be earned in a matter of months. I also found out at Fulbright Orientation that the Fulbright English-teaching program puts its teachers through a rigorous training process led by extremely qualified people. It seems crazy that English-teaching certificates or the kind of training accorded by Fulbright is not the norm for many English-teaching programs throughout China and Taiwan.
The use of “my language” began to bother me more as I came to associate it with a reflection of the expertise toward their language native speakers are taught that they have as a birthright, especially if they are native English speakers. To me, this felt like serious unchecked privilege. It is true that to some extent, it is impossible for world travelers not to discuss their language in this quasi-possessive way. Just as travelers inevitably are burdened with representing their entire home countries to locals they speak to in other lands, they also serve as representatives, whether willing or not, of the language they speak. Yet, because there are so many non-native speakers of English, this mentality feels more problematic when referring to the English language. Who gets to identify as having the English expertise of a native speaker, and who does not? Try to define who gets to say “my language” when referring to English, and the difficulty of demarcating the group who gets to be considered “true” native English speakers becomes clear.
Who can realistically say “my language” about English without having an eyebrow raised at them? Certainly that claim goes unquestioned for people born and raised, at least in part, in an English-speaking country or region. What about people who have studied English from the very early years of their childhood, many of whom go on to use it as their primary professional language? Let’s not forget about people who have started the study of English a bit later in life, but who have worked or studied abroad, and have eventually come to a point where they have been speaking and using English regularly for a decade or more. But shouldn’t we also include those people who work or live abroad so long that they get to a point where they have been immersed in English longer than they were ever immersed in their native language? What about people who grow up virtually bilingual in English and another language? It is clear how thinking about the English language as a possession that only some people are entitled to can become a tool for discrimination and bigotry, a way of drawing a dividing line between the in-group and the out-group, distinguishing those who are “truly” native speakers and those to whom, no matter how well they know the language, it can never belong. This might be true of any language, but it feels especially dangerous when thinking about defining native and non-native speakers of English, given the cultural capital that the ability to speak English well has come to take on in the postcolonial, globalized society we live in today.
Not only does this idea that only people born in English-speaking countries can claim to be experts on the English language stroke egos when such ego-stroking is far from merited, it is also unfair to non-native English speakers. One rainy afternoon in Taipei, I was trying to catch the free shuttle from National Taiwan University to Academia Sinica. The bus showed up on time, but the driver didn’t stop. Slowing the bus to a crawl as he passed us, the driver shouted that it was full and then sped away. That left the five or so of us standing there wondering what to do until a sturdy Taiwanese woman pulling a small suitcase behind her took command of the situation, suggesting that we walk out to the street and split two cabs between the five of us. I ended up in her car. We got to chatting, and it turned out that she was a professor of Comparative Literature at National Taiwan University, focused primarily on 18th and 19th-century American literature. She had previously won a Fulbright grant on three separate occasions to conduct research in the United States. We formed an instantaneous connection as two Fulbright grantees who had devoted their lives to the study of literature.
This conversation between the two of us highlights the inaccurate portrayal that can result from the lopsided weight we tend to accord to the authority of the “native speakers” of a language. This woman is a native Mandarin speaker from Taiwan. I am a native English speaker from the United States. However, without a doubt, she could spin circles around me in any discussion about the function and nature of language in the works of Thomas Paine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Nathanial Hawthorne, who have all left behind important writings that contribute to the narrative of American history we have today. Sure, I am a native English speaker and she isn’t, but literature is one of the highest forms of language, and she is a lot more familiar with the literary history of my native country than I am.
I tried my best not to say anything obnoxious like, “Wow, you know more about them than I do!” as though it was some out-of-this-world feat that a non-native speaker of English could have put in the time and effort to become an expert on a literary culture other than her own. Maybe it seems self-evident that it would be silly to exclaim this sentence. When I am chatting in Chinese, however, I hear these kinds of comments all the time.
As soon as most native Chinese speakers I talk with hear about the PhD dissertation I am currently writing on modern Chinese literature, they exclaim with a laugh that I likely know a lot more about that subject than they do, as if that concept is somehow funny. It’s not actually particularly surprising at all—about as surprising as it would be to laugh that someone writing a PhD dissertation on the American Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage knows more about it than does a gay person. Personally identifying with a group carries with it a different knowledge set than does academically learning about that group. Yet, to so many people, it is funny that I know more about modern Chinese literature than an average native Chinese speaker. I can only imagine this stems from a feeling they have that as native speakers, they should somehow be the experts on all matters related to their language—as though that could ever be possible. Thus, they are laughing because they perceive themselves to be falling short of a goal that nobody could ever possibly attain.
English, my own native language, does not belong to me. It developed hundreds of years ago out of a complex history of intermingled languages including Latin and German, and it has been a part of historical events I have no personal experience with, from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I to Mahatma Gandhi’s resistance to British colonization of India. It seems strikingly conceited to go around talking about this language with such a rich history, which I happen to have grown up speaking, as “mine,” and to furthermore see this ability to call English “my language” as a license to make grand proclamations about it even though I have hardly studied it formally at all.
How fascinating would the world be if we broke down that “native speaker” concept, particularly in reference to native speakers of English? Imagine if, instead of giving this label the power to designate those who grew up speaking a given language as all-knowing experts on it, we understood that languages are immense and beautiful webs. Non-native speakers can have expertise in a language that is different from, yet comparable to that of native speakers.
In such a world, I imagine that the deep “feel” for their language that native speakers have would make them natural experts on certain matters, such as what phrasing sounds the best or what the best-sounding translation of a sentence is. At the same time, a plethora of other kinds of experts on a given language would exist, who would not necessarily have to be native speakers of that language, but who would have put in the time and effort to master one of its many dimensions that don’t depend on having a natural “feel” for it. For example, people have successfully, with time and effort, become experts on the grammar or literature of languages they do not consider themselves native speakers of. In the world I envision, these experts would be considered equally as reliable as the native speakers of a given language, with respect to whatever aspect of that language they have mastered. If we truly want to build an ever-increasing number of intercultural bridges within the world, we need to begin by tearing down the territorial walls we erect around the languages we speak.
(This article is reproduced with the kind permission from Gina Elia. It presents the opinion or perspective of the original author, which does not represent the standpoint of CommonWealth Magazine.)
The Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Taiwan) is one of 49 bi-national/bilateral non-profit organizations established to administer the Fulbright educational exchange program. For more information on the grants see the Fulbright Taiwan website. Research & Reflections is an online publication of submissions from Fulbright Taiwan grant recipients. We hope that it can help fulfill the Fulbright Taiwan's mission of cross-cultural understanding and knowledge-generation. Read more at Research & Reflections.
About the author
Gina Elia is a PhD Candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in modern and contemporary Chinese literature. Her dissertation explores the signification of religious literary modernity in Republican Era China. "Religious literary modernity" refers to the literature of several prominent authors from this period, in which religious belief is conceptualized as fundamental to the formation of a successful and sustainable modern society.