What Does it Mean to Have English as a Native Language?

Definition and Examples

Definition: The variety of the English language spoken by people who acquired English as their first language or mother tongue.

English as a Native Language (ENL) is commonly distinguished from English as an Additional Language (EAL), English as a Second Language (ESL), and English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

Native Englishes include American English, Australian English, British English, Canadian English, Irish English, New Zealand English, Scottish English, and Welsh English. In recent years, the proportion of ENL speakers has steadily declined while the use of English in ESL and EFL regions has rapidly increased.


  • "A wide variety of countries, such as Australia, Belize, Canada, Jamaica, the United Kingdom and the United States, speak English as a native language (ENL). ENL countries are established when large numbers of English speakers migrate from other English speaking countries, displacing other languages, both local and immigrant. Other countries, such as Fiji, Ghana, India, Singapore, and Zimbabwe use English as a second language (ESL). In ESL countries the language is imported during a colonial period and promoted through education, but there is not a massive migration of native English speakers."
    (Roger M. Thompson, Filipino English and Taglish. John Benjamins, 2003)

ENL Varieties

  • "English varies markedly from one ENL territory to another, and often from one region to another within heavily populated countries such as the US and UK, a state of affairs which, as travelers know well, can lead to problems of intelligibility. In the UK, for example, there are significant differences of accent, grammar, and vocabulary between Anglophone visitors to London and many of the local people (speakers of Cockney and near-Cockney), as well as in Scotland, where many people routinely mix Scots and English. In the US, there are significant differences between many speakers of African-American (or Black) English and what is sometimes called 'mainstream English.' . . . It is therefore risky to classify a territory as ENL and leave it at that, the ENLhood of a place being no guarantee whatever of unhampered communication in English."
    (Tom McArthur, The English Languages. Cambridge University. Press, 1998)

Standards of English

  • "Standard English is typically seen as 'correct' and 'grammatical,' while non-standard dialects are seen as 'wrong' and 'ungrammatical,' regardless of whether the speaker or the speaker's ancestors spoke English as a native language. Disapproval of non-standard varieties is not the prerogative of the formerly colonized. The reason that Singapore has had a Speak Good English Movement and India does not is that Singapore has a highly informal contact variety, usually known as Singlish, which has no parallel in India."
    (Anthea Fraser Gupta, "Standard English in the World." English in the World: Global Rules, Global Roles, ed. by Rani Rubdy and Mario Saraceni. Continuum, 2006)


  • ​"It is obvious that interdialectal contact tends to speed up phonological change, and new social norms can easily change the acceptability of formerly stigmatized pronunciations: innovation is therefore to be generally expected in ENL communities. By contrast, ESL societies are likely to be characterized by interference phenomena and overgeneralization, and therefore exhibit innovation (of different types)--unless these local features are criticized as deviances when compared with an external standard, say the educated speech of the South of England." (Manfred Görlach, Still More Englishes. John Benjamins, 2002)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Does it Mean to Have English as a Native Language?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/english-as-a-native-language-enl-1690598. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, January 29). What Does it Mean to Have English as a Native Language? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/english-as-a-native-language-enl-1690598 Nordquist, Richard. "What Does it Mean to Have English as a Native Language?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/english-as-a-native-language-enl-1690598 (accessed March 27, 2023).