There is a difference between Native Speakers and Non Native Speakers

A few days ago, that cheery cherry-picker of evidence, Russ Mayne, retwittered this gem from Adrian Holliday:

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

I replied

I think Dr. Johnson’s reply to Berkley will do here: Kick Holliday in the shin and say “I refute you thus”.

As usual, nobody took any notice of my smart alec reply, and Holliday’s tweet has so far got 44 “Likes” and has been re-tweeted 26 times. It provoked Marek Kiczkowiak, he of TEFL Equity Advocates, to say:

I’d also question whether we know what a NS is and what essentially makes them different from a NNS. Clear cut definition difficult I think.


Also questionable why learner’s progress should be compared to or rated by a NS, e.g. raters in pron research mostly NS


By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species, each with a set of immutable characteristics

I made a few comments on these tweets and promised to reply on this blog with my reasons for stating that pace Holliday and Kiczkowiak, there’s good reason to distinguish between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NSSs). Here they are. My thanks, once again, to Mike Long.

The psychological reality of native speakerness is easily demonstrated by the fact that we know one, and who isn’t one, when we meet them, often on the basis of just a few utterances. On a more objective level, when monolingual speakers are presented with (even very short) recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNs and asked to say which are which, the judges are always very good at distinguishing them, with inter-rater reliability typically above .9. How do they do this, and why is there so much agreement if there is no such thing as a NS?

What distinguishes them has been well documented in over 100 published empirical studies in the literature on age effects and maturational constraints. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs, or all NNSs, of course – for the simple reason that people vary. However, there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to.

For good examples of the numerous studies comparing NSs and NNSs, we may consider Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) and Granena & Long (2013).

If we take Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) first, we may note what they say at the start:

… what appears to be more compelling evidence for adult-learner nativelikeness can be found in studies that have focused exclusively on late, high-proficiency L2 speakers who have been preselected, or screened, for potentially nativelike verbal behavior. Characteristic of these studies is that they have employed quite sophisticated techniques for linguistic scrutiny, either through (a) great stringency and detail of the analyses, (b) demanding tests and tasks (e.g., through the choice of unusual target-language structures that are known to be difficult for learners), and/or (c) the use of multiple-task designs covering various linguistic domains rather than one or a few isolated structures, phenomena, or domains. These methodological features will be illustrated next through a review of a sample of studies.

and at the end

Our primary interpretation of the results is that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners and, furthermore, is much less common among child learners than has previously been assumed.

Here’s the conclusion from Granena & Long (2013). Note that “SP” refers to “Sensitive Periods” (sometimes referred to as “Critical Periods”) and “AO” refers to “Age of Onset”.

The evidence from this study, plus findings from previous research by others, leads to the conclusion that there is an SP for phonology, its offset beginning at age six, and possibly earlier (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than five, and larger mean differences between the groups), probably closing by age 12. There is an SP for lexis and collocations, its offset beginning around age six (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than age nine, and larger mean differences between groups), probably closing between ages nine and 12, earlier than the SP for morphology and syntax. There is an SP for morphology and syntax (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than 12, and larger mean differences between groups), its off-set beginning at age six, and closing in the mid-teens.

 Unlike phonology and grammar, lexical and collocational knowledge continues to develop throughout the life-span in both NSs and NNSs, but with explicit learning playing an increasingly important role, as the human capacity for implicit learning, especially for implicit item learning, gradually declines with age. It is for that reason that language aptitude can play a mitigating role, modifying the negative effects of increasing AO and age in general, in the lexical and collocational domain.

Just to deal with Kiczkowiak’s assertion

By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species,each with a set of immutable characteristics

No-one has ever suggested such a thing. NSs continue to add bibs and bobs to their repertoire throughout their lives (most obviously, but not only, lexis and collocations), and often lose stuff with increasing senility or after a brain injury. NNSs obviously do the same. Not different species, but measurably different.

NSs and NNSs are measurably different. I rest my case.


Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2009). Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny. Language Learning 59, 249-306.

Granena, G., & Long, M. H. (2013). Age of onset, length of residence, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment in three linguistic domains. Second Language Research 29, 3, 311-343.

14 thoughts on “There is a difference between Native Speakers and Non Native Speakers

  1. My thoughts: “As with the Critical Period Hypothesis, arguing against the NS concept involves acknowledging a certain level of biological reality while not letting that acknowledgement serve as justification for the huge and unwarranted extrapolations that the education marketplace makes based on that reality. That is, I personally think the NS is a useful and real concept, but certainly not as clear-cut as the way the term is often used implies – much like CPH is observably true for immigrants, but using it to recommend 1/2 hour weekly EFL classes for infants is extremely specious.”


    1. Hi Marc,

      The uses made of what you call “the NS concept” are a separate issue. My only (sic) point is that there’s a distinction between NSs and NNSs.


      1. I think in the minds of people opposed to the distinction between NS and NNS, acknowledging a difference (which I do) means tacitly agreeing to all that it is trotted out to justify. They’re not right about this, but they are right that fighting discrimination against one or the other group is probably more useful to us as professionals than affirming the empirical truth in the NS/NNS distinction.
        The reason that a term like “the NS concept” is necessary is because the idea of a NS in any of the contexts where we work is connected to psychological reality by the barest of threads and propped up by layers of folk wisdom. The same could be said for many beliefs about appropriate ways to categorize people purportedly based on biology.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. But did Holliday’s tweet query the distinction between native speakers and non native speakers? He queries, rather, the distinction between native speaking teachers and non-native speaking teachers. It could be objected, of course, that so long as the distinction between NSs and NNSs is real then so is the distinction between NSTs and NNSTs, but to say this may be as emtpy as to say that since some people are blonde and others dark-haired then necessarily there will be blonde and dark-haired teachers. Unless there is good reason to suppose that the difference is relevant to the practice of teaching then there is good reason to ignore it, which is what I take Holliday to be saying he does.


      3. The differences between NESTs and NNESTs are obviously more relevant than differences in hair colour, Patrick. There’s no need to ignore them, or to exaggerate their importance. The arguments supporting an end to discrimination against NNESTs in ELT are quite strong enough without resorting to arguments that spring from the sociolinguistic realitivism that Holliday serves up to his students. Similarly, Silvana Richardson’s claims that there is a monolingual bias in SLA, that UG favours NESTs, that task-based language teaching and the lexical approach “thrust a monolingual approach upon the world” are mistaken and unnecessary, as is Kiczkowiak’s suggestion that Brexit and Trump’s election mean that British and American teachers have “lost the right to claim that their version of English can serve as a reasonable model of English language use”. All this extra baggage does nothing to promote a just cause.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Hi Geoff

        i don’t disgree with any of this but I think you’ve put your finger on why people are made uneasy by the distinction. If the difference between NESTs and NNESTs is both real and relevant then we surely have to admit that an employer may legitimately have a preference for one over the other.


      5. Hi Patrick,

        I agree with Robert’s reply to you: the difference between NSs and NNSs doesn’t imply that NSs make better teachers of that language, and there’s no need to pretend the difference doesn’t exist.


    1. Hi. Patrick,

      I don’t see how you can conclude that an employer have a legitimate preference for one group over another from the premise that there are relevant differences between the two.

      Surely we can assign or infer differences without deriving any value judgements? It is not, after all, beyond any stretch of the imagination to maintain that an ethnic, transgender non-native English teacher with a Scouse accent is as capable of teaching as a Caucasian bloke from Eton with an RP accent, but these two people are blatantly different.

      Of course, an employer may favour one particular candidate over another, but that has nothing to do with the practice of discriminating en masse against teachers for their national or linguistic background.

      As easy as it is for progressives to jump on the right-on bandwagon and sycophantically applaud such statements as ‘I don’t see any difference between natives and non-natives’ or ‘I don’t bother reading research that makes a distinction’, they know themselves that there is a difference. Adding inverted commas a la ‘non-native speaker’ isn’t fooling anyone.

      Perhaps, when there are no norm providing contexts and all languages have transcended national and sociocultural borders to merge into one big world language (which I can’t see happening), then the native/non-native dichotomy can be assigned to the bin.


  2. I think limiting the discussion to SLA only, without acknowledging the sociocultural issues at play is precisely what Geoff accused Russell of in the opening paragraph – cheerful cherry picking of evidence. Here’s my full take on the issue:
    Btw, in reference to one of the comments Geoff made here, I never made any claims about Brexit and ‘native speakers’ ownership of English. The post Geoff refers to was written by Wiktor Kostrzewski.


    1. Thanks very much for visiting the blog and I’m very sorry to have wrongly attributed the remarks about Brexit and ‘native speakers’ ownership of English to you, Marek.


      1. No problem. It’s not the first time you did it. You left a very similar comment on Mura’s post. I get both our last names start with a K, but they’re quite different 😉


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