native speaker (linguistics)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

native speaker
To be the native speaker of a language traditionally means to speak it "from your mother's knee" (Leonard Bloomfield, Language, 1933). (Johner Images/Getty Images)


In language studies, native speaker is a controversial term for a person who speaks and writes using his or her native language (or mother tongue). Put simply, the traditional view is that the language of a native speaker is determined by birthplace. Contrast with non-native speaker.

Linguist Braj Kachru identifies native speakers of English as those who have grown up in the "Inner Circle" of countries—Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

An extremely proficient speaker of a second language is sometimes referred to as a near-native speaker.

When a person acquires a second-language at a very young age, the distinction between native and non-native speaker becomes ambiguous. "A child may be a native speaker of more than one language as long as the acquisition process starts early," says Alan Davies. "After puberty (Felix, 1987), it becomes difficult—not impossible, but very difficult (Birdsong, 1992)—to become a native speaker." (The Handbook of Applied Linguistics, 2004).

In recent years, the concept of the native speaker has come under criticism, especially in connection with the study of World EnglishNew Englishes, and English as a Lingua Franca:  "While there may be linguistic differences between native and non-native speakers of English, the native speaker is really a political construct carrying a particular ideological baggage" (Stephanie Hackert in World Englishes--Problems, Properties and Prospects, 2009).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "The terms 'native speaker' and 'non-native speaker' suggest a clear-cut distinction that doesn't really exist. Instead it can be seen as a continuum, with someone who has complete control of the language in question at one end, to the beginner at the other, with an infinite range of proficiencies to be found in between."
    (Caroline Brandt, Success on Your Certificate Course in English Language Teaching. Sage, 2006)

  • The Common-Sense View
    "The concept of a native speaker seems clear enough, doesn't it? It is surely a common sense idea, referring to people who have a special control over a language, insider knowledge about 'their' language. . . . But just how special is the native speaker?

    "This common-sense view is important and has practical implications, . . . but the common-sense view alone is inadequate and needs the support and explanation given by a thorough theoretical discussion is lacking."
    (Alan Davies, The Native Speaker: Myth and Reality. Multilingual Matters, 2003)

  • The Ideology of the Native Speaker Model
    "[T]he notion of 'native speaker'--sometimes referred to as the ideology of the 'native speaker' model—in the field of second language education has been a powerful principle that influences almost every aspect of language teaching and learning . . .. The notion of 'native speaker' takes for granted the homogeneity among, and superiority of the linguistic competence of 'native speakers' and legitimizes the unequal power relations between 'native' and 'non-native' speakers."
    (Neriko Musha Doerr and Yuri Kumagai, "Towards a Critical Orientation in Second Language Education." The Native Speaker Concept. Walter de Gruyter, 2009)
  • An Ideal Native Speaker
    "I know several foreigners whose command of English I could not fault, but they themselves deny they are native speakers. When pressed on this point, they draw attention to such matters as . . . their lack of awareness of childhood associations, their limited passive knowledge of varieties, the fact that there are some topics which they are more 'comfortable' discussing in their first language. 'I couldn’t make love in English,' said one man to me. . . .

    "In an ideal native speaker, there is a chronologically based awareness, a continuum from birth to death where there are no gaps. In an ideal non-native speaker, this continuum either does not start with birth, or if it does, the continuum has been significantly broken at some point. (I’m a case of the latter, in fact, having been brought up in a Welsh-English environment until nine, then moving to England, where I promptly forgot most of my Welsh, and would no longer now claim to be a native speaker, even though I have many childhood associations and instinctive forms.)"
    (David Crystal, quoted by T. M. Paikeday in The Native Speaker Is Dead: An Informal Discussion of a Linguistic Myth. Paikeday, 1985)