A Reply to A. Holliday’s “Why we should stop using native-non-native speaker labels”


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.

20 thoughts on “A Reply to A. Holliday’s “Why we should stop using native-non-native speaker labels”

  1. hi Geoff

    psycholinguistics, or more generally the cognitive tradition, in using a measure (in this case level of proficiency) is mostly in contexts of the relative performance of various levels; i think this issue is missed in a lot of the talk of whether to use or not use “native speaker” in academic talk i.e. a misconstruing of relative performance for absolute performance

    in your example of how people know very quickly whether a speaker is a “native” speaker or not this depends on the perceivers previous experience & consequent schema of what is a “native” speaker; i.e. someone who has never heard French will find it difficult to judge the “nativeness” of a speaker (all other things equal). so did the studies quoted by Long control for previous experience of a language?


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure there’s a Derwing and Munro paper that claims that people can identify native speakers and non-native speakers by their pronunciation even in languages that the listeners don’t speak.


      1. Thanks for this. Probably Munro, M. J., Derwing, T. M. & Burgess, C. (2010). Detection of nonnative speaker status from content-masked speech. Speech Communication, 52 (7-8), 626-637. I haven’t read it, but I will.


    1. Thanks for the link, Julia. I liked (and ‘Liked’!) the post. Good to see CELFS TEACHING AND LEARNING NETWORK flying the Bristol Uni flag. I have some very fond memories of visiting Bristol uni.


  2. ELT bites (http://www.eltresearchbites.com/201702-2383/) reported on a recent Applied Linguistics forum post by Jean-Marc Dewaele doi:10.1093/applin/amw055 where he suggests a) replacing NS by L1 user and NNS by L2 user. This move from learner/bilingual to L2 user follows Cook, V. J. and D. Singleton. 2014. Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition. Multilingual Matters. Dewaele then suggests b) replacing L2 user by Lx user, since L2 is currently a cover term for L3, L4 etc.

    I think L1 user and L2 user are good terms, since as you point out they are meaningful in second language research, and they are more neutral and accurate that the terms native and non-native which imply monolingual competences which are not typical all over the world. I’m not so sure about Lx, since the x would have to mean “anything more than 1,” but I appreciate the intent.

    And as you say at the start of your post, Geoff, there is a difference between talking about speakers’ competence and about language teaching. Perhaps the term “user” is helpful here as a more neutral alternative.


    1. Hi Shona,
      Thanks for this useful link.
      I agree that L1 user and L2 user are the best alternatives, and in most contexts much more suitable than native speaker and non-native speaker.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. An acquaintance of mine is Italian, learned English at school in Italy then came to live in Scotland as an adult. When I first met and spoke to her she seemed to me, from her speech, indubitably a native speaker of English as spoken in the west of Scotland. When she told me she was Italian I hadn’t the slightest doubt that she must mean that she was Italian like Peter Capaldi is Italian (i.e. Scottish of Italian ancestry). I was honestly astonished when I learned this was not the case. Long’s observation doesn’t seem to hold in every case.


    1. Hi Patrick,

      Long’s observation is actually Birdsong’s assertion. There are lots of people who have very high levels of proficiency indeed in an L2 – witness the number of ELT bloggers who are L2 users. The phenomenon (one of many) that SLA researchers study is incompleteness, which refers to the fact that the majority of the tens of millions of people who have learned English and other languages as an L2 do not achieve the high level of proficiency that you note in your Italian acquaintance.


      1. Hi there,
        An intriguing question. I think one can easily underestimate the pressures behind L1 acquisition and put it on par with L2. Compare the existential angst surrounding L1 learning with the leisurely aura of L2 learning. Keenness of learning for a child is powered by much greater “psychological energy” than it is for my EFL students. Recalling my own children’s experience with L1, kids engagement is of a different caliber all together. Compared to the off the shelf language course, the stakes for the paying client student are laughable. Which makes me (like to) think that if all students “became like children” L2 proficiency would not be illusory.



      2. Thanks Geoff, to be sure I understand, issue is that sufficient exposure to a language in early childhood guarantees acquisition of very high level of proficiency whilst in later life not so?


  4. HI Patrick,

    Yes, that’s it. The new emergentists, connectionists, usage-based theories say that SLA is explained by a general learning theory, so they have the problem of why the results are so different in the 2 groups of child L1A and adult L2A. Those who appeal to an innate system of grammatical categories and principles (UG) can appeal to sensitive periods to explain some of the differences – UG is not or is only partially avaialble to the second group. Everybody agrees that some explanation is needed for the dramatic difference.

    Holliday’s arguments are about racism, but in my earlier discussion with Kiczkowiak, he kept insisting that so many L2 users achieved such a high level of proficiency in the L2, and there was such variation in how L1 users actually used the L1, that the native speaker label refers only to an imaginary, fanciful beast. Well, he’s wrong, but I think he’s making an unecessary hullabaloo about it. Nobody denies that there are tens, or hundreds of thousands of people who speak English to a very high level of proficiency indeed, and everybody should agree that the discrimination against NNESTs should end. Further, as Mura points out, in most contexts we use relative measures of proficiency.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting case study in Emolinguistics. Social Linguistics impacting on Academic Linguistics and an Academic attempting to change the Emotional concept of the word “native”, within an Academic neutral emotional context. Employment opportunities for teachers are surely not an area of study which impacts on the study of the advantages and disadvantages of native and non-native teachers in a Linguistic context. The reality of the situation needs to be addressed by the teaching environments and analysis by people like Julia Gardos Carroll seeking out the positives of non native teacher advantages and the academic support they can be given and not turning it into an Emotional debate about racism which impacts on the global Emotional meaning of the word ‘native’.

    The word can have very negative emotional concepts particularly in the context of colonialism whilst also having highly positive emotional concepts, especially when there is great pride in being a native of any society. Modern humans it seems are becoming increasingly emotional and the linguistics of human interaction is a reflection of this trend. However, that is not the subject here, just a minimal explanation of the process taking place in the attempt to turn ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ into “racist” terminology which is an attack on the whole scientific community which attempts to retain neutral emotional impact through the language it uses. It is also attempting to challenge the Factual Reality of the concept of ‘native’ which is used almost exclusively in a scientific, practical context, other than the Emotional concept developed in colonial times and still used by some humans to denigrate others.

    Halliday ,it appears to me, is attempting to emotionalise the word by projecting his own emotional interpretations upon a context which has no Factual basis. As has been pointed out earlier, there are many advantages to being a ‘non-native speaker’ not forgetting that it is, in most cases, a non-native speaker who sets a learner on the path to proficiency and their desire to eventually interact with native speakers to reach the level of proficiency they seek. It can also be argued by extension, learners wanting a native speaker under Halliday’s subjective interpretation, are also “racist”, the Factual Reality of his Emotional Reality. Native-non-native speakers are global Factual Realities ungoverned by any Emotional Reality, as are species of many creations, native to their environment, as determined by Mother Nature, or are they forbidden to be acknowledged in whatever form they take?

    Mother tongue speaking teachers and non Mother tongue speaking teachers is a bit of a mouthful and does not really roll off the tongue and L2+L1 = L1+L2 and not forgetting (L1)x2 is a bit like Mathematics intruding on Linguistic vocabulary, on the other hand where would we be without all the acronyms which constantly baffle those who have no idea what we are referring to. Somewhat tongue in cheek!

    Anyway, since when has racism ever been ‘Neo’ 

    Global question: Why are Factual Realities being denied in so many areas of life in favour of Emotional realities which are so often based on negative emotions?

    An alternative aspect.


  6. Thanks for the blog. I sympathise with Holliday’s position as a practitioner and researcher within ELT and Sociolinguistics research for over 20 years. However, I disagree with the way he has ‘decreed’ that no-one can use the term and I agree his tone is ’emotional’. Some of that tone stems from his frustration at the over- & mis-use of the terms ‘native and non-native speaker’ over many years in ELT and how practitioners do not address the divisive nature of the label as well as ignoring its origins. At a recent EAP conference, Holliday made the very valid point that lecturers in Physics, English Literature or Architecture would never be called ‘Non-native lecturers of X’, but this is what English language teachers have to put up with. Imagine a Literature tutor being told they are ‘better’ at teaching, say, modern African literature because they are a non-native speaker teacher!

    The roots of this labelling are complex and are often internalised by some practitioners in ELT as the ‘difference’ and ‘deficiency’ narratives. In other words, by using the term, we are maintaining the mainstream discourse rather than challenging it, and it needs challenging. The discrimination in ELT is bound-up with the term itself, and with those come massive generalisations. Also, in my experience, these are used all too easily. This creates an unnecessary division amongst practitioners.

    Having said that, it is also important to stress the strengths that teachers from different backgrounds bring to the profession, from wherever they are and whatever those influences may be. Therefore, I do see value in Julia’s research in that she wants to stress positive aspects of ‘non-nativespeakerness’ and teachers who have learnt English as a second or third language. This is why I have been helping her with some of the research, in fact. However, this is merely a slight a redressing of a massive imbalance, unfortunately, of the assumptions made about the ‘idealised native speaker’ in terms of being a teaching professional. The assumption is that, because of early socialisation in the L1, somehow native (in the SLA definition) speakers have an innate ability to understand and teach, certain items of English language more easily/effectively/naturally than someone who learnt English at a later stage of their life. There has also been a false assumption (often from students/Language School Managers) that they will learn ‘good pronunciation’ by listening to a ‘native speaker’. This false assumption is at the root of very harmful discrimination in our profession, which only in the last 5-10 years is being properly addressed.

    This polarised labelling leads to over-generalisation and therefore the stereotyping of groups of teachers into artificial ‘speech communities’, for want of a better term. It also ignores the role that bilingualism and multilingualism play in forming identities. I prefer to see individuals as ever-changing and adapting to their environment as a result of their individual and group experiences. The other problem is that this stress on positive aspects of ‘NNESTs’, by definition, does not address why there are negative aspects which are, or have been, present in the discourse and labelling within ELT. It also fails to address why there is a need to define ELT practitioners as such, other than ‘this is how we have been labelled’ (by others). I think we need to question where the labels originated and why they are still so pervasive. This is where Holliday’s (and other’s) research has been situated (I think).

    For example, I have been assigned groups in language schools based on the fact I am an ‘expert at communication’ (but not grammar) while my ‘NNEST’ colleague was given the grammar to work on with their students as they are deemed ‘better at teaching grammar’ (but not at communication). I feel there was also a subtext of expecting students to learn how to speak like a NS by somehow mimicking my pronunciation, which is not the aim of pronunciation teaching. Now, the ‘NNEST’ may be ‘better’ at teaching grammar, but I doubt very much it is because of their ‘nativespeakerness’ (their socialisation in the language at an early age). They may be able to bring in different teaching approaches, but they are likely to have been learnt at undergraduate/postgraduate level in a particular educational culture. Therefore, one may as well divide English teachers into ‘Formally educated teachers – 4-year teaching degree’ and ‘Teachers who have come through the CELTA/DELTA route’. This may well have as much influence on their ability to teach grammar as does their ‘non-nativeness’.

    Also, through these polar opposites, divisions and stereotypes, we run the risk of ignoring bi- and multi-lingualism as well as how people have the ability to learn a new language, integrate into a new culture as well as dismissing a great deal of teacher training and teaching experience as inconsequential.

    In an assessment context, Cambridge exams have only just moved away from the ‘native-like’ labels for their English language tests. Some may feel it is helpful to have a ‘target-speaker’ in mind, but it seems to me to only add to the concept of the ‘idealised native speaker’ that Holliday and other researchers have defined. Instead, we must ask which ‘native speaker’ is the examiner using as an example in an oral test – a Geordie, a Nigerian or a white, middle-class, university-educated RP speaker? With this, come many assumptions about ability, status, and ideal pronunciation that go way outside the SLA definition.

    From a personal perspective, by this definition I am an ‘Native speaker teacher’. However, I do not label myself as a ‘native speaker’ teacher of English. I am ‘just’ an English Language Tutor or, better still, someone who works as an English Language Tutor. However, that is not to say I am ‘ignoring factual reality’ or have moved towards ’emotional reality’. It is very difficult to say how exactly my ‘nativespeakerness’ affects how I teach the language. One might as easily say the fact I lived away from UK for 17 years affects my ability to teach English more than the fact I was socialised in English at an early age. There are many factors and separating out only one aspect to label teachers of English from the many others ‘denies reality’ just as much.


    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks for this, and I agree with everything you say. Just one small quibble. You say “In other words, by using the term [native speaker], we are maintaining the mainstream discourse rather than challenging it, and it needs challenging.” I’m not sure what “mainstream discourse” refers to here. If it’s a political reference to the discourse of some putative ruling group, then it needs carefully spelling out. We all agree that the term NS is often used to unfairly discriminate against a certain set of workers, and that must stop. We further agree that the term is difficult to rid of its colonial connotations, and so, as Shona suggests, the term “L1 speaker” rather than “native speaker” should be used in academic papers wherever possible. But you sound a bit too much like Holliday himself when you claim that to use the term NS is to maintain “the mainstream discourse”.


  7. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks very much for your response. You’re right – I didn’t explain my terms enough in that sentence. What I meant by ‘we’ is ELT practitioners (teachers, administrators and students, in fact) and researchers in Applied Linguistics. By mainstream discourse, I mean just the wider discourse used by the majority in ELT as an industry/sector. And, yes, it is a generalisation! I don’t mean that SLA researchers should change the long-established definition, and I make it quite clear that I disagree with a white, middle-class English researcher telling other practitioners what they can and can’t say. Also, this does not mean I attach blame to those who use it – I use it, too. Furthermore, I guess you could argue that we need to end discrimination rather than worry about changing the terminology, but I do think that the ‘unquestioned’ use of the term, or, at least, the lack of a critical perspective can further lead to the easy pigeon-holing and imaginary groupings I mentioned before.


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