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Native Speakers Don’t Exist

Maybe. Or not quite. This might be an exaggeration but it’s meant to provoke, and to illustrate a common theme of misaligned expectations among language learners. It was during a workshop with a group of sales consultants for an EFL course that I essentially blurted out this sentence – the title of this blog – to the effect of getting them to think about how they can be honest when dealing with their clients expectations.

What exactly, the question is, do we mean when we say that we want to learn to speak a foreign language like a native speaker? Is it a realistic goal? Indeed, what is a native speaker accent? The topic ties in with other reflections on this blog about accents and dialects.

I would say, to put it bluntly that to sound exactly like someone from Yorkshire, for example, you’d have to travel back in time and orchestrate events so that your mother and father somehow transplanted their life to Yorkshire, lived their long enough for you to grow up surrounded by the local accent more than any other, and not leave until you were in your late teens, at the earliest.

Think about people you know that have a native-like command of your native tongue. Do they sound like the come from some place in particular? Probably not. They can function in the language equally as well as you, they have an equal, slightly weaker, or perhaps even slightly stronger grasp of the grammar of your language than you do, and they get along just fine most of the time, just like you do. What is the difference, then, between you in terms of your “nativeness”? 

Let’s think about a few other examples first before we answer that. Imagine someone from another region of the Anglo-Saxon world trying to imitate your accent. You’ve probably heard it. It probably sounds just a bit off at best, ridiculous at worst. 

That gets me thinking: if we can’t – or most people can’t – even accurately imitate or adopt a different regional parlance in our own native tongue, imagine the challenge faced when that accent we’re trying to adopt is of a completely different set of phonemes, intonation, tone or other general musical quality.

It seems fitting that it’s time, in this global world, to separate the ideas of native-level “functionality” in a language (i.e: I can greet people, talk about my job, express my opinions, talk about my field of expertise, read and understand subtle cues of feeling and expression, etc.) and native-level pronunciation and intonation. The former, I believe, is acquirable and we have to admit even some native speakers are better at certain “functions” of language than others. The latter, I think it’s safe to say, is not so much about competence and ability than it is a marker of origin.

Everyone’s accent, dialect, particular grammar and vocabulary, it can be said, is a like the little tag on a garment that reads “made in China” or “manufactured right here” which in many cases make no difference to the fact that the garment is made with cotton, fits well and is of good quality.

Metal chopsticks, made in Korea, pick up the noodles of a stir-fry essentially the same way as wooden chopsticks in China, even though they may look a bit different, and a Professor with a degree in astrophysics from India can probably communicate more knowledge in his Mumbai-accented lectures than a Londoner with a certificate in customer service can answering the phone at a call center – not that either is necessarily more valuable than the other.

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