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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Native Speaker

In the half century that I have been on this planet I have never questioned my status as a native-speaker of English.  I was born in the US, went to school there, and arrived in my new country in 1989 ready to use my "linguistic capital"  (see Pei-Chia Lan) to work and make friends.  I mean, who wouldn't want to hire me?  Or be friends with me?

It didn't quite work out that way.  People's responses were mixed.  Some were indeed delighted to do language exchanges and polish their already high level of English.  Others flat out refused.  And the workplace was another story entirely.  English was indeed perceived to be useful in some very limited contexts, but what they really wanted was a fluent French speaker who could also pull out fluent English when needed.  One place I worked for years actually forbid me from speaking or writing in English.  We are a French company, they said, and French is the only language we want or need.  That turned out to be a good thing; I made amazing progress in French in a very short period of time.

In spite of that experience I still saw my native-speaker status as something that made me special and uniquely qualified to help others with their English.  To my surprise as I researched the topic I learned that not everyone (and that means linguistics experts and other language professionals) would agree.  "Native speaker" is a contested term.

Think of language skills as being on a continuum:  on one end are those who are just starting out and at the other end are those who have mastered speaking, understanding, reading and writing.  We are all somewhere on that continuum.  There are second language learners who are more skilled with that language than the majority of "native" speakers.  Not many people can write as well as Joseph Conrad in English and he didn't start learning the language until he was an adult. Same for Donald Keene who was so fluent in Japanese that he was pronounced "a Person of Cultural Merit" by the Japanese government.

Exceptions that prove the rule?  Honestly, my experience says that it's not unusual at all.  Through the course of one's life languages come and go and we move up and down the continuum depending on the context.  At my grandfather's funeral I met a man everyone called "Frenchy."  His family left France when he was 9 or 10 years old.    His English (including accent) was just like the English of all the other members of the working class neighborhood in which my grandparents lived.  Could he have written a novel or a dissertation?  Probably not but that didn't make him any different from my native-born grandfather.  His French, however, was terrible and that should not surprise anyone.  But had he moved back to France I imagine that he would have picked up whatever additional French he needed to get along.

My own children grew up mostly in French.  When they were in elementary school their English was pretty limited, they couldn't write at all, and they howled when I firmly suggested they read Harry Potter in English.  But the elder Frenchling grew up and wrote her honor's thesis in English at a Canadian university and did a fine job.  The younger Frenchling wrote a novel in English when she was 16.  They have a high level in all areas in both languages but that didn't happen by magic - it took work, opportunity, education, and motivation.

Was Frenchy a native-speaker of French or English or both?  Same question about my Frenchlings.  My spouse.  Or me?  My spoken French degrades in Japan as I have no use for it.  But send me to Paris or Brussels and within a few days it bounces right back.

So, it's not binary:  native speaker versus non-native speaker.  Language use and fluency ebbs and flows over a lifetime.

But aren't the native speakers the experts in their own language?  I always thought so.  And then one day I ended up correcting a report by one of my French co-workers which was riddled with grammatical and spelling errors.  The French correct each other all the time because there is a wide variation in language skill and they care when anyone makes a mistake.  Also, I have met French speakers who have a very high level of English and have a much better grasp of  the rules of English grammar than I do.  I don't feel like much of an English "expert" when I talk with them.

To muddy the waters even further, there is an argument that it might be better to learn a language from someone who has made the journey from your language to the target language. A very fluent (but "non-native") speaker of the language to be learned understands what things are difficult for you because you are both coming from the same place:   English, French, Japanese or any other language. I had never considered that but I think it makes a lot of sense.

Finally, in Japan I was confronted by situations that had never happened to me in France and I still don't know what to make of them or if I did the right thing.  The first was a request to help someone with a dissertation in English.  That was a tough one.  A dissertation is supposed to be an original work.  Is correcting her paper a violation of the rules?  Helping her write it surely is.  Not helping seemed ungenerous but helping could have had bad results for both of us.  In the end I didn't answer the email and I didn't help.  I still feel badly about it.

The second was the awareness that there are people who rely on teaching English to buy food, pay rent and support families.  Furthermore, they have experience or credentials that I don't have.  I don't consider myself qualified to be an teacher of English in any country.  There is a lot of competition in Japan in the EFL market.  Salaries and working conditions are not what they were.  When I volunteer to help someone with their English (people who could perfectly well pay a real teacher and not an amateur like me) am I undercutting the market and making things worse for people who rely on teaching for their livelihood?   A real conundrum.  

What do you think?


Inaka Nezumi said...

I think you have hit on a great excuse to turn down requests to edit other people's English! "Sorry, I'd love to help you, but that would be taking food out of the mouth of someone who depends on that kind of work to make a living, and I cannot in good conscience stab a fellow immigrant in the back like that." Then raise a fist in solidarity and march out of the room humming the Internationale.

Think it might work?

Inaka Nezumi said...

Actually, in all seriousness, I do try to direct people to use paid editing services whenever possible. Mainly because if I didn't, a huge fraction of my work day would be taken up doing such favors. But of course, sending work out like that takes time, and people are always running up against deadlines, so the requests never die out completely. And I likewise try to send my Japanese text out for professional editing when possible rather than bothering co-workers, but I also have to admit to running up against the occasional deadline...

Fortunately, native-level English or Japanese is not usually required, as long as it is understandable. But for occasions when it is, nothing substitutes for having a (well-educated) target-language native go over it, I think.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I LOVE it. A former American colleague in France who is a lifelong member of the CGT (the Communist union) would most definitely approve.

Ellen Lebelle said...

I'm constantly asked to teach, coach, or edit. I say I'm retired, there's a good little"school" on rue Paul Bert run by a young English woman who charges reasonable prices.

Maria said...

I do give classes to those who come to me. Over the years I have learned the rules of grammar as taught in EFL classes here in Spain. The rules kids have to follow are almost always in the back of the books, and I merely peruse them, look at the examples, and explain the concept. I also have auxiliary books I use, to give structured exercises and further explain the rules.

Am I qualified? Only because I speak English and it was one of my better subjects. Are there qualified people out there who can give classes? Yes, there are people who have studied English in order to teach it. Unfortunately, that only means some of them are qualified on paper, because not all of them have a complete grasp of the language. People tend to value me because I speak English, and, in a country where well-spoken English is not extended, including among paper-qualified personnel, that is a plus. Some of my classes, in fact, are conversation classes, where I am asked to correct pronunciation.

Am I under-cutting the professionals? I think not because I charge about the same, and from the moment someone comes to ask for classes, I explain what I can do and what I can't. There are some levels, such as upper high school, where I have to study the rules myself, because they're more complicated and I have less experience with them. I explain this and also stress the fact that I don't have teacher training.

And, truth is, sometimes I have had to correct the child's English teacher, especially in matter of vocabulary.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, If it had been something other than a dissertation, I would have thought of it as simply helping out a colleague/fellow student. Editing for punctuation and spelling mistakes would be one thing but correcting how he/she expressed himself? There is a line here and I couldn't see how to stay one the right side of it.

Ellen, I like that answer. One option I had that I didn't think about was to send my llow student to SWET Society of Writers, Editors and Translators.

Maria, You are exactly the sort of person that I would worry about undercutting. When I said professionals I pretty much meant all English teachers here, and that includes those who teach in conversation schools or offer private lessons or even part-time unversity professors who need to supplement their incomes. (For the most part in Japan teaching English requires only a BA in any subject.) Now imagine a bunch of short-timers like me saying, hey, I've got a BA and speak native level English and I am happy to teach/edit/correct your English for FREE. Because, well, I have time and I think it would fill my days. See what I mean? :-)