“Are You a Native Speaker of English?”: Exploring What It Means to be a “Non-Native, Native Speaker”

By Wai In Chan

Awhile ago, when I read Van Herk’s (2012) chapter on language and place, I noticed the chapter (3) started with an example (p. 25) that really resonated with me. In addition, our discussion in class on “native speakerism” (the idea that native speakers are more qualified to teach a language than non-native speakers) and ethnicity, really got me thinking about my own language situation in Canada. It made me think of the following two reverse scenarios that happened recently in my life.

“Can you give me a preview of a lesson for me?” She asked, as I finished telling her about my previous teaching experiences.

“Sure”. I began to speak and detail what I would do during the first class on the whiteboard.

“Okay, please stop. That is enough.” She demanded.

“But I haven’t even started the lesson.” I protested.

“That’s okay, you are what we are looking for. You have an excellent native speaker “English” when you speak because there is no accent.”

This is a recent transcript of an interview that I had at a Chinese school that employs part-time teachers for various subjects. I was being interviewed for a position as an English teacher and I had brought along a few lesson plans and a USB key with resources that I’ve created. However, when she told me that she was going to hire me based on the fact that I had no accent when I spoke English, I was a bit uneasy. I had offered her my lesson plans and my USB key, but she refused all of that. I felt like I was betraying all my non-native English speaking friends in that moment.

Flash forwards to a presentation I had just finished in class, and an international classmate of mine approaches me in the hallway. She tells me that my presentation was very clear and that she was surprised I did not have an accent.

“Are you a native speaker of English?” She asked me.

“Well, I came to Canada when I was two years old and I learned English here.” I answered.

“Ah, that explains why your English is so good and why you don’t have an accent. So you are a native speaker unlike me.” She responded.

This is the typical kind of response I receive as a non-native native speaker of English. I identify as a “non-native native” speaker because I don’t see myself as a “native” of Canada because I was born in Hong Kong, and those are my roots. However, I am a native speaker of English because I learned English here as my second language after learning Cantonese at home. I consider both languages as my native languages, but Cantonese really was the first language I had communicated to others with. I also do not feel comfortable being called a “native” speaker simply because I happen to have received my English education in Canada. It’s often a strange dilemma because at first appearance when meeting new people, I look like a non-native Chinese-Canadian. After I open my mouth and speak English, the other person often changes their expression and tone when they realize I have no accent. Then they ask me if I am a native English speaker, and I often cannot answer that question because I have no idea what I am.

This question has been bothering me for years, and I have read some literature on it (I would recommend Faez (2011) and research by Péter Medgyes). But the research that I have read often does not include individuals like me who are non-native, but a native speaker of English. I often joke to people that I am the “mythological non-native speaking teacher” who has achieved native proficiency (due to my circumstances of immigration). Most international students that I have met often admire this ability of mine, wishing that they could one day be similar to me. However, I have found this ability to be a curse because i) it disconnect the roots of my heritage when people meet me (they see me as Canadian, not Chinese), and ii) native speakers treat me with native speaker “privilege”, and non-native speakers treat me with native speaker “envy” or “admiration”. I just want to be seen as a Chinese-Canadian who speaks English, nothing more and nothing special.

So I wanted to open the question to you all, what would you consider me, a native speaker or a non-native speaker of English, or both? Can an individual ever be considered both a native and non-native speaker? Should there be a divide/label that constantly divides the two sides, which prevents non-native speakers from ever reaching the native speaker side? Are there ways in which you can suggest we counter this dichotomy and the need for labeling people (like in my case) as a native speaker or non-native speaker, but never both?

References

Faez, F. (2011). Are you a native speaker of English? Moving beyond a simplistic dichotomy. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 8(4), 378-399.

Van Herk, G. (2012). Place. In Gerard. V. H. (Ed.), What is sociolinguistics? (pp. 25-46). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

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2 thoughts on ““Are You a Native Speaker of English?”: Exploring What It Means to be a “Non-Native, Native Speaker””

  1. (Dean)
    Hello Wai In,
    Interesting post! Your identity is complex and you should embrace it regardless of how people respond to you. It seems to me a classic example of ‘cognitive short-cuts’ gone awry. People want to put you in a neat box for their own understanding, in relation to their own aspirations/concepts of place. Those Asian students who envy your English proficiency are seeing you in relation to their own wish to be proficient and be seen as a ‘native speaker’/’blend in’. While those who see you as more Canadian because of your proficiency relate to the multi-cultural identity of ‘Canada’, not realizing they are denying you your Chinese identity in the process. People will always be confused by anyone not embodying simple, definable boxes. Own your English Proficiency and be proud of you Cantonese heritage. Everyone else’s confusion is THEIR OWN confusion.

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  2. Hi Wai In,

    Thank you for your post!

    I was intrigued by your story – similar things have happened to me in the past, too. I moved to Boston when I was four, and continued my education in English until the age of 13.

    They say that you know you’ve reached native proficiency when people start laughing at your mistakes. There was a time two years ago in Toronto when my Canadian friends kept laughing at me for minor mistakes I made in English (idioms and such – I would say things like “to the ends of no ends”… apparently that’s not a real phrase) and I got really frustrated. I felt like constantly reminding them that I’m Japanese and I’m therefore not supposed to be speaking “perfect English,” but there was a side of me that realized that they perceived me as a native speaker. I also got the occasional, “Oh, I thought you were born and raised here!” as well, and I would never know whether to be happy or to be concerned, since their expectations of me as a “native” were higher than I could handle.

    When I’m here in Canada, I tend to hold onto my Japanese identity… maybe because I’m afraid I’ll lose that identity, especially with how people treat me here, as a “native speaker”. It’s always been confusing for me though, because the English-speaking side of me is also a large part of my identity. I know this is easier said than done, but a part of respecting someone is not assuming, or forgetting. Language can be a really big part of people’s identities, and it’s not something to be taken lightly.

    Again, thank you for your post 🙂
    – hina

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