About “Native-Speakers” and English

Charles Sarvan, in the Sunday Island, 14 August 2011 under a different title

Questions about expressions such as “native speaker” and “mother tongue” were raised by Christopher Rezel, author and journalist now settled in Australia. Though not a language-specialist, I share a few thoughts and perplexities, not necessarily to provide answers but to contribute to on-going discussion. To begin with “mother tongue”, let us say a Swedish family adopts a Vietnamese child of about five or six. Soon, the child will function fluently and naturally in Swedish and yet, in a literal sense, it won’t be her mother tongue, the language of her biological mother. To be precise, Swedish will be her “foster-mother tongue”. The phrase “mother tongue” now tends to appear in casual conversation, rather than in writing of a formal or academic nature. 

 With the other phrase (“native speaker”), the preferred practice when in doubt is to consult, where possible, someone considered to be a “native speaker” rather than checking with a dictionary or book of grammar. If that person finds it “acceptable”, then one uses it:  “acceptable” usage, rather than “correct”, partly because there has been a move away from linguistic dogmatism and authoritarianism towards greater flexibility and variety. Secondly, because language use and the meanings of words change (semantic shift) with time, and the edition of the book consulted may not record the latest. First comes usage, the use of a language by its speakers; grammarians and linguistics observe and describe this linguistic “behaviour” and, finally, teachers and parents attempt to inculcate, turning what was originally “description” into “prescription” and rules. A native-speaker initially “acquires”, unconsciously, her language (and may then go on to “learn”, consciously, another). However, those with limited schooling or those who did not study English as a subject beyond secondary school, while having the confidence to say that a certain usage is “okay”, won’t be able to explain the grammatical rules involved.

 “Native speakers” are considered to be the “owners” of a language and can take liberties with it; bend, even break, the rules; be idiosyncratic and creative. In ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by (Irish) James Joyce – one of the greatest of 20th century English-language writers  –  Stephen Daedalus feels uneasy when talking with the Dean, an Englishman:  “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine […] His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech […] My soul frets in the shadow of his language.” 

But Joyce’s autobiographical novel was published in 1916, and over the intervening near-century, the role of, and attitude to, English has changed significantly. The language has become the medium of international communication; is recognised as one ofIndia’s languages, and several African countries after independence (Ghana, 1957) retained English as the official language and the medium of instruction in schools. It is now accepted that there is not one but several Englishes. (My computer stubbornly insists on underlining “Englishes” as a mistake.) The International Association for World Englishes publishes a journal with that title: ‘World Englishes’ (Oxford). As I have written elsewhere, during the long years of British imperialism, the term “native” was used condescendingly, if not derogatorily. Meanwhile, “native” has become (sometimes) a matter of fierce contestation. Who is autochthonous? Claims to be the “native”, to have arrived at an earlier date in a certain region or country, are really claims to rights and privileges. Similarly, to be recognised as a “native speaker” is to be accorded rights when it comes to language-use

 But if English is now native (natural) to different people – Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and to some Africans and Asians – then there are native speakers using different forms of English. I have heard some Americans say they speak American, rather than English. (My impression is that young Europeans tend to prefer American-English to the British variety.) It is unfortunate that the same word, “English”, applies both to a people and to a language: there are several Indian languages, but no one language known as “Indian”. (I recall once being asked at a social gathering whether I “speak Indian”!)

 Moving from James Joyce to Chinua Achebe, the latter writes that, talking at a literary conference about non-English writers using English as their medium of creative expression, he was made to feel uncomfortable by the attitude of the Australian poet, A. D. Hope: “I felt somewhat like an illegitimate child face to face with the true son of the house lamenting the excesses of an adventurous and profligate father who had kept a mistress in every port” (‘Morning Yet on Creation Day’). But, Achebe asserts, the “price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use”. If English has become the world’s language, then no one group can claim ownership, privilege and status. Universality implies equality.

 Can we, therefore, say there are Sri Lankan native-speakers of English? What is the difference between someone who is a “native speaker” of English and another to whom it is her “first language”? The latter phrase does not mean the language first learnt – see the Vietnamese child adopted by Swedes – but the language in which a person is now best, and most fully, able to express herself. It seems to me that while a language can become a speaker’s “first language” (in the sense in which I use it) gradually, over time and later in life, “native speaker” implies a very early immersion in that language (and in the culture of which that language is part and expression). The characters in Carl Muller’s Burgher novels pride themselves on having English as their language, the one spoken at home. 

While one’s “native language” may also be the “first”, the converse does not necessarily apply: someone can be a native-speaker of a language, and have another as her first. InZambia(unless things have changed in the intervening years), the medium of instruction from Grade 1 to university is English. It is the (only) medium of government and administration. So a Zambian could be a native speaker of, say, Bemba or Nyanja (the latter in the capital,Lusaka), and have English as her first language, the language in which she was best able to express her thoughts and enter into discussion. Zambian languages do not have the vocabulary to cope with science, medicine, engineering, philosophy and other such subjects. It is a cycle: the language is not used in certain fields and, therefore, does not have the vocabulary; it doesn’t have the vocabulary, and cannot be used. So it was, I believe, with Sinhala and Tamil until the end of the 1950s. 

Bilinguals are native speakers, and feel at home in two languages. One test of the role language plays in the life of an individual is said to be the answer to the question, “In what language do you dream?” My sons tell me they dream either in German or in English, depending on where the dream is located – inGermanyor in some English-speaking country (includingLondon) where they lived – and the individuals who figure in the dream. I would think there are Sri Lankans who are bilingual native-speakers: English and Sinhala or Tamil.

It is not unusual for English-language schools to insist on employing only native-speaker teachers, and to draw the attention of potential students to this fact: it is very good for business. (In the past, “native-speakers only” translated into “whites only”.) Of course, not all native speakers of a language have a perfect “control” of their language, and by “native speaker” is meant someone who has, what is now termed, “native-speaker competence”.  To express it differently, not all native-speakers have what is meant by “native-speaker competence” – while some who are not, may.  For example, Joseph Conrad – a great (English-language) writer – achieved fluency in English only as an adult: English was not his native-language.

External, non-linguistic, factors play a very important (if not decisive) role. Originally, “barbarian” meant one who did not speak Greek and, therefore, was thought to be uncivilized. The Romans came along, included themselves, and by extension, barbarians came to denote those who spoke neither Greek nor Latin.  And so it was with English within theBritish Empire– in geographical extent, the greatest empire the world has ever seen. “Natives” (in the pejorative meaning) either didn’t speak English or did so in a manner that served to amuse, and to confirm British superiority: see, for example, the imitation in popular comedy (among others by Peter Sellers) of the so-called Indian or Oriental accent. Non-Westerners joined in the laughter directed at them, some innocently; some, particularly of the middle and upper class, desperately trying to distance themselves from the caricature. Irrespective of time and place, irrespective of which empire, it was the social elite of the defeated who tended to imitate and assimilate elements of the conqueror’s culture, including the language. To speak English signalled education and social status. It also provided employment opportunity which, in turn, further enhanced social standing. 

Going a step further, if to speak English bestowed social recognition, then to speak it like an Englishman brought a still greater measure of regard and admiration, that is, from those who did not accept that English was one of Sri Lanka’s languages; that Sri Lankan English was a legitimate variety, different but fully equal. (Of course, there is no one “English accent” but regional – even area – and class accents.)

As Achebe writes (op. cit.), one of the greatest of faults of non-Western people is their lack of self-confidence (despite protest and bluster to the contrary) vis-a-vis the Western world which, in turn, indicates a deep down acceptance of inferiority.

      The fault is not in our stars [fate]  

       But in ourselves                  (Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2)

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