Home Grown Speaking

‘I want to speak like a native.’ Anyone who studies a language normally wants this. But who exactly is a native speaker? The easy answer is anyone who was born into a language. But most people realize that there is a great difference in ability amongst native speakers based on education and social background. Some learners – at least from my experience – have better language skills such as a richer vocabulary or more grammatical knowledge – than native speakers. But native speakers have a feel. They seem to know what is right and wrong. Is it this sense that makes them a true native?

Alan Davies, Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Native Speaker in Applied Linguistics, answered some questions for The Word on this topic. The first point he made was how difficult it is to pin down a native speaker. He said it is not possible to find a ‘true’ native speaker because of the differences in region, education, social class and other factors.

Professor Davies said one of the limitations to the idea of a native speaker is the research used. Researchers use highly educated people as examples of native speakers. Students of second languages, especially students of English, come from a wide range of backgrounds. Students are compared to an ideal which native speakers themselves avoid.

Barbara Schmiedtová, associate professor at the Institute for German as Foreign Philology at Heidelberg University offered a similar opinion.

Assess vs. judge: To assess is to work out how good something is. ‘The teacher assessed his class.’ To judge is to make a final decision about something’s value or in court, someone’s guilt. ‘He was judged guilty of the crime.’

“The learning progress is assessed or measured in terms of how close is a learner able to come to the norm of the native speaker group,” she told The Word.

“Native speakers’ command of spoken and written language often differs dramatically; in general, spoken language being much better than written; also not all native speakers are able to write different text types, for example a scientific article or a novel or a journalistic essay are special skills only some native speakers master in their life (and most of them after training),” she said.

The difficulty in defining the abilities of a native speaker increases when we consider mistakes. We expect learners to make mistakes, but native speakers make mistakes too. From my teaching experience the mistakes made by people born into the language are not made by learners. Learners may forget articles or misspell a word for phonetic reasons. But I’ve never seen one make this error – misspelling ‘Your welcome’, something people born into the language do.

Professor Schmiedtová also found that native speakers make grammatical mistakes. Speaking about her own area of expertise, which is German, she gave a number of reasons for this including fatigue, pressure, stress and alcohol.

“What is especially striking to me are the many mistakes native speakers of German make in comma placement,” she said.

Split vs. separate: If you split a sandwich you would cut it in half. If you separated a sandwich you would remove the filling from the bread.

Students are aware that language can be unpredictable. It is why we often talk about British and American English. Yet the language does not easily split into two versions shouting each other down across the Atlantic. Regions within Britain have their own dialects. People of different social backgrounds have different styles.

But it seems hard to get away from the native speaker as a goal. Students want to have something to aim for and teachers need (or desire) a benchmark. People react to another person’s language use – rightly or wrongly – on an ideal they have learned. The thing to remember is that this ideal is not fixed and we native speakers rarely live up to it.

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Original article by Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team

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People who study a language look at a native speaker as their goal. But how perfect is this goal? Native speakers are all very different. Furthermore, native speakers can have worse language skills than some learners.

Alan Davies, Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Native Speaker in Applied Linguistics, answered some questions for The Word on this topic.

“Native speakers (NSs) vary so comprehensively (region, education, age, social class, gender…) that it is not possible to find a representative NS. In practice, much of the appeal to the NS as a model for education and so on is to an idealization which exhibits total control of the Standard Language,” Professor Davies wrote via email.

Professor Davies also said that native speakers often used in experiments or whose language use is recorded are highly educated people. They are not typical people.

Barbara Schmiedtová, associate professor at the Institute for German as Foreign Philology at Heidelberg University offered a similar opinion. She said native speakers were like a tool to help the teacher set some standard.

But it is a tool of many parts. Native speakers can have very different speaking, listening, writing and reading abilities.

Native versus natural: If something is native it means that it is original. It comes from somewhere. ‘He is a native of New York.’ Natural means it is connected with nature. ‘She only eats natural foods.’

“Native speakers’ command of spoken and written language often differs dramatically; in general, spoken language being much better than written; also not all native speakers are able to write different text types,” she said. For example people have to learn to write scientific reports or novels.

‘So do’ and ‘so does’ are used when the sentence following another repeats the verb in the sentence before. ‘I love chocolate. So does my wife.’

Mistakes make defining a native speaker even harder. Learners naturally make mistakes, but so do native speakers. For example, many native speakers incorrectly write ‘Your welcome’. I’ve never seen a learner do that.

It is not only the native speaker which is the ideal. The English language is too. What is proper English? This question will be different for Americans and British and also people with university degrees and those who are not so educated.

But it is hard to stop having the native speaker as a goal. Students want to know how good they are and teachers need a standard. Besides, communication happens in a society, so the proper use of language is very practical. We need to understand each other. The thing to remember is that this standard changes.

Original article by Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team

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The basic meaning of chasm is a deep crack or hole in the ground. The author uses it here to describe a wide difference in ideas.

‘I want to speak like a native.’ Anyone who studies a language no doubt wishes this. But who exactly is a native speaker? The easy answer is anyone who was born into a language. But even a mildly attentive person can realize that great chasms of ability exist between native speakers based on education and social background. Furthermore, some learners – at least from my experience – have better language skills such as a richer vocabulary or more thorough grammatical knowledge – then native speakers. But native speakers have a feel. They seem to know what is right and wrong. Is this innate sense the defining characteristic?

Alan Davies, Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Native Speaker in Applied Linguistics, answered some questions for The Word on this topic. The first point he made was how difficult it is to pin down a native speaker.

“Native speakers (NSs) vary so comprehensively (region, education, age, social class, gender…) that it is not possible to find a representative NS. In practice, much of the appeal to the NS as a model for education and so on is to an idealization which exhibits total control of the Standard Language,” Professor Davies wrote via email.

However, Professor Davies points out limitations to the notion of a native speaker. Namely, researchers into second language acquisition use highly educated people as examples of native speakers. Students of second languages, especially nowadays students of English, come from a wide range of backgrounds. Students are compared to an ideal which native speakers themselves don’t live up to.

Barbara Schmiedtová, associate professor at the Institute for German as Foreign Philology at Heidelberg University offered a similar opinion. She saw the idea of the native speaker as a tool used to give shape to the classroom experience.

“The learning progress is assessed or measured in terms of how close is a learner able to come to the norm of the native speaker group,” she told The Word.

It is a tool of many parts. Abilities within the so-called meta-skills: speaking and listening on one hand and reading and writing on the other, differ.

“Native speakers’ command of spoken and written language often differs dramatically; in general, spoken language being much better than written; also not all native speakers are able to write different text types, for example a scientific article or a novel or a journalistic essay are special skills only some native speakers master in their life (and most of them after training),” she said.

The difficulty in defining the abilities of a native speaker becomes all the more difficult when we consider mistakes. We expect learners to make mistakes, but native speakers make mistakes too. From my teaching experience the mistakes made by people born into the language are not made by learners. Learners may forget articles or misspell a word for phonetic reasons. But I’ve never seen one make this error – ‘Your welcome’, something people born into the language do.

Professor Davies confirmed this observation. “A good example would be Welsh mutation (consonantal change at the beginning of words depending on context). Native Speakers do not make mistakes in mutation after early acquisition. Non NSs do. However, it has been pointed out that all the mistakes that non NSs make can be found in one or other dialect of NSs.”

Professor Schmiedtová also found that native speakers produce grammatical mistakes. Speaking about her own area of expertise, which is German, she gave a number of reasons for this including fatigue, pressure, stress and alcohol.

“What is especially striking to me are the many mistakes native speakers of German make in comma placement,” she said.

To drill something into someone is to force knowledge into them. ‘When I was a student, I remembering the teacher drilling article usage into us.’

That we encounter mistakes in use doesn’t only mean we have an idealized version of a native speaker. The language we compare this use to is also an ideal. Linguists have accepted this for a long time and most professionals do not treat the grammar rules which teachers drill into students as absolute.

Students are aware of the divergence of pronunciation and vocabulary among dialects. It is why we often talk about British and American English. Yet the language does not neatly split into two versions shouting each other down across the Atlantic. Regions within Britain have their own forms of English. People of different social backgrounds use different styles.

Yet it seems hard to get away from the native speaker as a goal. Students want to have something to aim for and teachers need (or desire) a benchmark. Moreover, the social and institutionalized nature of communication – the fact that it happens in a context which determines meaning – makes the notion of proper use a practical concern. People react to another person’s language use – rightly or wrongly – on an ideal they have learned. The thing to remember is that this ideal is not fixed and we native speakers rarely live up to it.

Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia

Home Grown Speaking Quiz: Spicy

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