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Native speaker: A unitary fantasy of a diverse reality

Page No.: 
3
Writer(s): 
Mitsuo Kubota, Kansai Gaidai University

The use of the term "native speaker" has been critically discussed in the field of teaching English (e.g., Davies, 1991; Kachru & Nelson, 1996; Paikeday, 1985; Phillipson, 1992; Rampton, 1990). This article attempts to examine the term as it is used in an EFL context as well as raise awareness about the multiplicity of the term. Five major factors defining a native speaker are then put forward followed by a brief discussion of a study which investigated the construct of a native speaker of English (NES) among university students in Japan, as well as their model speaker for learning English.

What is a Native English Speaker?

In theoretical linguistics, the native speaker is a person who is qualified to judge the grammaticality of sentences (Chomsky, 1965). In the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) studies, the native speaker provides the target models for learning. However, the term has not been defined clearly in either of these fields, yet it has been used widely as if it is a self-explanatory term. In response to this situation, some researchers (e.g., Kachru and Nelson, 1996; Paikeday, 1985; Rampton, 1990) have asserted that the casual use of the term "native speaker" needs to be questioned and problematized. After reviewing the literature regarding the term, I have isolated five defining issues for a NES:

  1. whether the person acquired English from birth (Davies, 1991; Liu, 1999; Paikeday, 1985; Phillipson, 1992)
  2. whether the person is a competent speaker (Davies, 1991; Paikeday, 1985; Rampton, 1990)
  3. whether the person acquired English formally through education or informally through daily use (Davies, 1991; Liu, 1990; Phillipson, 1992)
  4. what variety of English the person uses (Davies, 1991; Kachru & Nelson, 1996; McConnell, 2000)
  5. the race of the person (Amin, 1997; Kachru & Nelson, 1996; Liu, 1999; Lummis, 1975; Tsuda, 1990).

Keeping the above criteria in mind, I asked Japanese university students about their definition of a NES and their model for learning English. Based on the findings, I will discuss what needs to be considered in terms of the definition and the target for learning English in the Japanese context.

The Study

The participants were 260 Japanese university sophomores majoring in English. Because the university has a large number of English teachers and international students, many of whom the participants consider to be NESs, it is reasonable to say that the participants in the present study have exposure to NESs.

The study started with a qualitative, open-ended question: "Please define a native speaker of English." In addition to general English courses, although the participants have studied many subjects on English such as linguistics, literature and history as required subjects, their responses seemed to indicate that they had never stopped to think about what a NES is, believing it is an already agreed upon unitary concept. While answering the question, many participants verbally expressed a belief that the question was pointlessness saying, for example, "there's no need to define it because the term is self-explanatory" and "I can't write anything original and noteworthy about the term." In response to their comments, I did not provide any guidance, but encouraged them to describe what they thought, even if they thought it was self-evident.

The participants' descriptions provided valuable qualitative insights regarding the multiplicity of their perception of a NES. The study, including the open-ended question, the questionnaire and the interviews were conducted in Japanese. The English translation of the questions and response choices on the questionnaire (see Appendix) are presented in the tables. In order to obtain more focused quantitative data I created a questionnaire that included 16 questions (8 questions regarding their definition of a NES, and 8 parallel questions regarding their model for learning English), based on the qualitative data together with the five defining issues mentioned above. The same 260 participants filled out the questionnaire. I also conducted interviews with 45 participants to clarify, elaborate on, and obtain further insights into their definitional criteria. These participants were a convenience sample of students who came to my office hours, as well as students who I requested to visit in order to discuss their responses.

Results

The time of initial exposure and learning

The most recurrent defining criterion in the qualitative data is exposure to English from an early stage of life. The results from the quantitative data also indicate the participants' view. Of the participants, 83.7% indicated that it is necessary to be exposed to English from birth onward in order to be defined as a native speaker (see Table 1). The participants' view arises from their belief that early exposure to English is an important condition for acquiring native-like competency. For example, one of the participants stated that "unless you speak English from birth, you cannot acquire native-like competency."

Table 1. The person was first exposed to, and began to learn English

 

Birth Onward

Primary School

Jr. High School

College

Definition N (%)

216 (83.7)

37 (14.3)

5 (1.9)

0 (0.0)

Model N (%)

198 (76.7)

42 (16.3)

16 (6.2)

2 (0.8)

The participants' belief also led to their assumptions for their model speaker for learning English. A large number of the participants (76.7%) indicated that exposure to and learning of English from birth onward is a required qualification for their model speaker. The results show the participants' strong assumption for the relationship between early exposure and acquisition of native speaker competency. However, the participants do not seem to have a concrete image regarding competency. Very few participants mentioned competency issues in defining a NES, some examples included the ability to read a newspaper and attaining a speaking equivalent to the level of their Japanese. It seems that the participants' belief has been constructed through comparison of their own development of native language fluency to their learning experience of English.

The environment for acquisition

The second most recurrent descriptions in the open-ended question are "a person who uses English at home" and "a person who was educated in English." In other words, the participants consider the environment for acquiring English to be an important issue. In response to the question in terms of natural acquisition at home, 43.1% of the participants indicated that the use of English at home is a required condition &emdash; 71.2% indicated it was "required" or "important" (see Table 2). A similar result is found for acquisition through formal training &emdash; 74.6% indicated it was "required" or "important" (see Table 3). For the participants' model speaker for learning English, acquisition through formal training is somewhat more valued compared to acquisition through informal training (72.3% versus 61.9%, respectively).

Table 2. The person was raised in a family where the language used in the home was English

 

Required

Important

Desirable

Not Relevant

Definition N (%)

112 (43.1)

73 (28.1)

60 (23.1)

15 (5.8)

Model N (%)

84 (32.3)

77 (29.6)

69 (26.5)

30 (11.5)

Table 3. The person was educated in schools where the language of instruction was English

 

Required

Important

Desirable

Not Relevant

Definition N (%)

91 (35.0)

103 (39.6)

36 (13.8)

30 (11.5)

Model N (%)

108 (41.5)

80 (30.8)

47 (18.1)

25 (9.6)

Although the participants as a whole see the environment for acquisition as an important issue, the data also show that there are many participants (approximately 1/4 to 1/3) who view it as "irrelevant" or rudimentary importance. The descriptions in the open-ended question and the interview data reveal that these participants believe that native speaker competency can be acquired through continuous use of English or the study of English that takes place at least in one domain of their life.

The quantitative data also reveal that many of the participants believe that it is possible to become a native speaker of more than two languages (see Table 4). Only about 10% of the participants believe that only a monolingual English speaker can be defined as a NES, and more than half of the participants do not see bilingualism as a relevant issue. This is very different from the reports of previous research. For example, Liu (1999) reports that in the US context, some people who speak a language in addition to English have trouble identifying themselves as a NES. The reason for the difference is perhaps partly because most of the participants in the present study do not have experience living in a bilingual or multilingual society. Thus, they see NES only from a functional perspective, and do not take social and psychological issues regarding how people identify their native language into consideration.

Table 4. The ability to speak a language other than English:

 

English Only

English Dominant

Balanced Bilingual

Not Relevant

Definition N (%)

27 (10.4)

68 (26.2)

15 (5.8)

150 (57.5)

Model N (%)

11 (4.2)

71 (27.3)

53 (20.4)

125(48.1)

The variety of English

As has been discussed in the literature, the variety of English that a person speaks also has a great impact on people's judgments in defining a NES. Thus, in the questionnaire I asked the participants' opinions regarding both the place where the person grew up and the variety of English the person speaks. In asking the questions, I used two of Kachru and Nelson's (1996) three circles of the types of users of English. In Tables 5 and 6, the Inner Circle refers to countries where English is the dominant language such as the USA, England, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. The Outer Circle refers to countries where English plays wide and important roles in education and governance such as India, Pakistan, Singapore and South Africa. I provided the participants with these countries' names in the questionnaire.

Table 5. The place where the person was raised:

 

England or

the USA

Inner Circle

Inner

+ Outer Circle

Not Relevant

Definition N (%)

7 (2.7)

63 (24.2)

107 (41.2)

83 (31.9)

Model N (%)

39 (15.0)

90 (34.6)

37 (14.2)

94 (36.2)

Table 6. The variety of English that the person speaks:

 

England or

the USA

Inner Circle

Inner

+ Outer Circle

Not Relevant

Definition N (%)

19 (7.3)

74 (28.6)

96 (37.1)

70 (27.0)

Model N (%)

78 (30.0)

104 (40.0)

31 (11.9)

47 (18.1)

The results above reveal that participants believe the place the speaker grew up will indicate the variety of English they speak. Although somewhat weaker, a similar pattern is found in the response to the question that asked whether the speaker's foreign accent is an important issue when defining a NES. As shown in Table 7, the participants do not attach much importance to the existence of a foreign accent when defining a NES. However, the absence of a foreign accent is preferred for their model for learning English.

Table 7. The person does not have a foreign accent

 

Required

Important

Desirable

Not Relevant

Definition N (%)

49 (18.9)

82 (31.7)

56 (21.6)

72 (27.8)

Model N (%)

85 (32.7)

78 (30.0)

68 (26.2)

29 (11.2)

The person's race

Finally, the person's race can be an issue when determining whether the person is a NES or not. Tsuda (1990) and Lummis (1975) pointed out that a NES in the Japanese context really means an English speaker who is Caucasian. However, very few participants mentioned the race of a person as an issue for defining a NES in the open-ended question. As shown in Table 8, most of the participants (93.1%) indicated that race is not relevant. As far as the data shows, the participants do not see race as a factor.

Table 8. The person's race

 

Caucasian

Caucasian

or Black

Not Japanese

Not Relevant

Definition N (%)

3 (1.2)

10 (3.8)

5 (1.9)

242 (93.1)

Model N (%)

9 (3.5)

18 (6.9)

8 (3.1)

224 (86.5)

Discussion

These Japanese university students define a NES as a person who acquired English from birth onward. The participants report neither the variety of English that the person speaks nor the race of the person as important defining criteria. The important issue is whether the person uses English continuously in at least one domain of their daily life. Their model for learning English is similar to their definition of a NES, however, criteria such as being a speaker of the Inner Circle and lack of a foreign accent seem to be important.

The participants' definition of a NES as a person who acquired English from an early stage of their life is strongly related to their assumption that they need to start learning English as early as possible. Most of the participants in the present study started to study English as part of their curriculum when they entered Jr. High School, which means their learning started when they were twelve or thirteen years old. Many participants expressed regret and discouragement during the interview because they did not start studying English early enough to acquire native speaker competency. During the interviews with the participants I came to believe that their discouragement is largely due to a lack of experience exploring their own goals for learning English, and uncritically believing they need to eventually sound like a native speaker. It is noteworthy that the participants have never been encouraged to see the multiplicity of the concept of a NES. I believe that raising awareness of the multiplicity can help learners of English locate a realistic target for learning English.

In order to critically examine the complexity of the concept of a NES, it is necessary to take their variety of English into consideration. The participants in the present study believe that the variety of English that a person speaks is not relevant for defining a NES. However, they tend to think English in the Inner Circle provides a more appropriate model for learning English. The Ministry of Education in Japan (Monbusho, 1999) promotes teaching English that is not biased toward a particular region or group. However, McConnell (2000) reports that many Japanese English teachers tend to believe that American English should be the students' target. The descriptions in the open-ended question and interview data also reveal that many Japanese students believe that they are studying American English, and their achievement is evaluated based on the norm of American English, believing that American English is a unitary concept. One indicated that "American English is the best variety as a model, but British English and Australian English are acceptable substitutions." It seems that the conflicting situation in Japanese English education may have resulted in the student egalitarian assumptions that all types of English speaker should be defined as a NES, however, at the same time, they came to have the prejudiced view that their model for learning should come from the Inner Circle.

Conclusion

The language used by native speakers has provided models for language learners. Since the application of the concept of communicative competence to language teaching, learners have been expected to acquire socially appropriate language behavior in addition to general linguistic competence (Canale & Swain, 1980). However, some researchers (e.g., Kramsch, 1993) have problematized this uncritical imposition of a target culture onto language learners. In the context of English education in Japan, Suzuki (1999) asserted that Japanese English learners should be encouraged to use English that has distinct Japanese characteristics. I feel that both the imposition of a native speaker norm as well as the discouragement of assimilation into a native speaker norm is inappropriate.

Through interacting with the participants, and as a learner of English myself, I know that the motivations and goals for learning English vary from person to person. Some participants study English simply for their future career, while others are eager to become a member of a different language community. For students with various motivations, I do not think that English teachers have the right to impose a native speaker norm onto the learners or condemn students' efforts to depart from their native-language norms. Given the global dissemination of English as an international language and the increase of the number of English speakers who use English as a second language, it would be beneficial for both teachers and learners to have opportunities to consider and discuss what NES implies. Assigning an essay to describe the learners' views towards NES and their model for learning, or conducting a questionnaire as in the present study, are possible activities that can encourage both teachers and learners to face the complex reality of the concept of NES. Exposing learners to the multiple English varieties used by politicians, intellectuals, entertainers and others through audio-visual material, and discussing the intelligibility and perceptions towards each variety may help learners to become aware of the relationship between language and attitudes. I believe that such a process will create opportunities for teachers and learners to explore realistic and individually appropriate goals for learning English. Many participants appreciated the opportunity to explore the concept of NES commenting "I first realized that the concept of NES is very complex while participating in this research, and that there can be many target models for learning English, not just one." I believe that an important task for an English teacher is to help students to become aware of the multiplicity of the concept of NES, and provide information and opportunities that help the students define their own target for learning English.

References

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Mitsuo Kubota is an associate professor at Kansai Gaidai University. He received a Ph.D. in Educational Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently conducting action research in Japanese university English classrooms focusing on students' construction, negotiation and presentation of foreign language identities.

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