1 In the domain of English language teaching, there is just about universal agreement that discrimination against non-native speaker teachers must stop. Those who fight to end such discrimination have my full support.
2 In the domain of SLA research, native speakers of language X are people for whom language X is the language they learnt through primary socialization in early childhood, as a first language.
3 To paraphrase Long (2007, 2015), 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. When monolingual speakers are presented with recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNSs 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?
4 For the last 60 years, the term “native speaker” has been used in the literature concerning studies of language learning, and one of the most studied phenomenon of all is the failure of the vast majority of post adolescent L2 learners to achieve what Birdsong (2009) refers to as “native like attainment”.
On the prevailing view of ultimate attainment in second language acquisition, native competence cannot be achieved by post pubertal learners. There are few exceptions to this generalization (Birdsong 1992).
5 Claims concerning the relative abilities of native speakers and learners of the target language are not disconfirmed by individual cases. The claims all accept the psychological reality of native speakerness.
6 The specific claim that very few post adolescent L2 learners attain native like proficiency is supported by a great deal of empirical evidence (see, e.g., reviews by Long 2007, Harley and Wang 1995; Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson 2003).
7 When trying to explain why most L2 learners don’t attain native competence, scholars have investigated various “sensitive periods”. It’s widely accepted that there are multiple sensitive periods for different domains of second language learning – pronunciation, morphology and syntax, lexis and collocation (see Long, 2007, Problems in SLA, Chapter 3 for a review of sensitive periods).
To the issue then
Adrian Holliday, Professor of Applied Linguistics & Intercultural Education at Canterbury Christ Church University, has just published a post on his blog: Why we should stop using native-non-native speaker labels in response to queries about his claim that the terms native speaker and non-native speaker are neo-racist. He addresses the questions: “What does ‘neo-racist’ mean?” and “Are there no occasion (sic) when these labels can be used?”.
He starts with his own subjective impressions of what ‘native speaker’ means to him and then says
In academia the established use of ‘native speaker’ as a sociolinguistic category comes from particular paradigmatic discourses of science and is not fixed beyond critical scrutiny.
I’ve no idea what the phrase “particular paradigmatic discourses of science” refers to, but I’m sure we can all agree that the use of ‘native speaker’ as a sociological category is not fixed beyond critical scrutiny. Holliday seems to be saying that quantitative research based on testing hypotheses with empirical evidence, as carried out by many scholars trying to understand the psychological process of SLA is part of a “mistaken paradigm”. Since in SLA research there isn’t, and never has been, any general theory of SLA with paradigm status, and since I’m sure that in the field of sociolinguistics and cultural education they’re even further away from any such theory, talk of paradigms, like talk of “imagined objective ‘science’”, and problems that reside in differences being evoked “regardless of the words that are being used”, and labels referring to things that “do not actually exist at all”, belongs to the giddy world of post modern sociology where words mean what their authors choose them to mean “neither more nor less”, as Humpty Dumpty triumphantly concludes.
Whatever the term ‘native speaker’ might be used for in sociolinguistics, in psycholinguistics ‘native speaker’ refers to real people, as I’ve explained above, and nothing that Holliday says challenges this fact. So we’re left with the charge that when we refer to people as ‘non-native speakers’, we imply that they are “culturally deficient”, which amounts to “deep and unrecognised racism”. We “define, confine and reduce” this group of people and refer to their culture in a way that evokes “images of deficiency or superiority – divisive associations with competence, knowledge and race – who can, who can’t, and what sort of people they are”.
In my opinion this is so badly written as to be almost incoherent, but perhaps it expresses exactly what Holliday means to say. Whatever it means, it’s difficult to counter something like neo-racism if it’s “unrecognised”, and if any attempt we make to use other terms just pushes the labelling “even further into a normalised, reified discourse, where we are even less likely to reflect on their meaning, and where a technicalisation of the labels somehow makes them more legitimate”. Still, since Holliday confidently asserts that “the native-non-native speaker labels” refer to something “that does not actually exist”, it should be easy enough for sociolinguists (and those involved in intercultural education too, I suppose) to stop using them. Meanwhile, back in the real world, it’s a different story.
Long (2007) argues that the issue of age differences is fundamental for SLA theory construction. If the evidence from sensitive periods shows that adults are inferior learners because they are qualitatively different from children, then this could provide an explanation for the failure of the vast majority of post adolescent L2 learners to achieve Birdsong’s “native like attainment”. If we want to propose the same theory for child and adult language acquisition, then we’ll have to account for the differences in outcome some other way; for example, by claiming that the same knowledge and abilities produce inferior results due to different initial states in L1 acquisition and L2 acquisition. Either way, the importance of the existence (or not) of sensitive periods for those scholars trying to explain the psychological process of SLA indicates that native speakerness will continue to be used as a measure of the proficiency of adult L2 learners.
Harley, B. & Wang, W. (1997). “The critical period hypothesis: Where are we now?”. In A. M. B. de Groot & J. F. Kroll (Eds.), Tutorials in Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic perspectives (pp. 19–51). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hyltenstam, K. & Abrahamsson, N. (2003). “Maturational constraints in SLA”. In C.J. Doughty & M.H. Long (Eds.), Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Long, M. (2007) Problems in SLA. London, Erlbaum.
Long, M. (2015) SLA and Task-based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.