‘Native-like’: What or Who does it represent? (by Sumanthra Govender)


“The concept of “native-like” proficiency is a moving target, which isn’t fighting fair. What is a native speaker, really? It’s becoming more and more difficult to define. The fact is, people speak the language(s) they know lots of different ways. The ways that people speak the language(s) they know relates to more than just the order they learned them in, for example, their education, experiences, and more. And, as my BILD colleague, Sumanthra, pointed out to me when we were talking about this topic, there are so many different groups around the world who use English, begging the question, which group has “ownership” of native-like proficiency? In other words, whose “native-like” proficiency should be considered the model? It’s simply not possible to define or answer these questions.” (Godfrey-Smith, 2016)

The excerpt above was written by my BILD colleague Lauren in her most recent post about the desired ‘native-speaker proficiency’ end goal many students aim for in their language studies. Her post is the springboard for this piece, where my purpose is to explore the effect of the “native-speaker” narrative on not only students but educators as well. 

Similar to Lauren’s call for promoting a bilingual communicative ability, I also feel the need to help students reconsider and reconceptualise the ‘native speaker’ level as the ultimate level of language proficiency. A ‘native speaker’ goal implies a standard language form, but as pointed out above, there can be variant forms of a language. Therefore, which one is considered the ‘standard’ or the ‘model of the standard’ to attain? This uncertainty invites the potential for a ‘standard form’, such as British or American English, to minimise the fluency, communicability, voice and authenticity of speakers of other variant forms, like South African or Indian English. Moreover, I am still waiting to see a textbook or a proficiency test claim that with a certain level of proficiency an English language learner will definitely have a ‘native speaker’ competency level. The ideal of a ‘native-speaker’ ability is still quite apparent in both forms of education tools.  As a result, many high-level proficient students continue to be overly critical of their language skills and achievements if a ‘native-speaker’ level is not attained. This is a lot of pressure and it is completely unfair.

Nevertheless, the ideology of the ‘native-speaker’ is still very much stressed by several other stakeholders in the field of language education. While multilingualism is promoted in the language-learning field as a wonderful asset, the field seems to deny its value with the perpetuated assumption that ‘native speakerness’ is the primary model of linguistic expertise (Aneja, 2014 ; Canagarajah, 1999; Holliday, 2005). Therefore, some language educators and program/curriculum developers also need to rethink their views and promotion of the ‘native-speaker’ goal.

Recently, a colleague told me, “greater authenticity in the delivery of and content of language lessons” can really only be achieved with the use of native speaker teachers. I don’t think she realises the gravity of such a comment and perspective.  Not only does a ‘native speaker’ stance imply a standard language form, but it also imposes a notion of dominance of one group of speakers over others with stereotypical notions of who the ‘native speaker’ is and who the ‘non-native speaker’ is. Moreover, it sets the stage for the dominant professional discourse that a native speaker has better knowledge of a language and by extension would be a better teacher of the language. In employment situations in the global language learning community, a native speaker can benefit in terms of teaching opportunities and positions simply because they are a native speaker. Yet it is common for non-native speakers to be denied a position despite having acquired a superior level of proficiency and understanding of the target language (Holliday, 2005).  My mother tongue is English and I guess that qualifies me as being a native speaker. My ‘native-speakerness’ of the English language has given me the opportunity to professionally exploit my status in order to obtain various English Language teaching positions in Canada and abroad. However, it has also given me a ‘power’ to mask my skin colour, which would have and has prevented me from making professional gains because my physical appearance defines me as a non-native speaker in the eyes of many.

With the perpetuation of the native / non-native dichotomy, it’s not surprising why the value of this currency continues to be very real among students today. If the language learning community continues to abide by this dichotomy, it’s future members might continue to live by it too. However, I feel the conversation is changing. Critical questions are being raised, and the concerns posed by Lauren and in this blog post need to be voiced in order to rethink the perspectives of ‘native speakerism’ ideology and reframe the labels of language learner expertise.


Aneja, G. (2014). Disinventing and reconstituting native speaker ideologies through the classroom experiences of international TESOL students. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 29(1), 23-39.

Canagarajah, A. S. (1999). Interrogating the “native speaker fallacy”: Non-linguistic roots, non-pedagogical results. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non-native educators in English language teaching (pp. 77-92). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Photo – http://www.teaching-certification.com/foreign-language-certification.html



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