14 June 2009

What is a native English speaker?

For me the question of whether or not someone is a native speaker is an easy one; it is my mother tongue and any language that I pick up at a later date will not be my native language no matter how much effort I put in to it. My mother tongue was learnt without an internal vocabulary, but any new language depends on my current vocabulary. I think that in Thailand this distinction becomes blurred; for some people native English speaker means being white, for others it means having a certain accent, while for others it means being able to speak English well enough. This would all be irrelevant except for the fact that being seen as a native speaker can not only affect your ability to get a job, but also the pay and conditions once you are in the job.

Many foreign teachers believe that the term 'native speaker' is purely a race issue. They see the tern 'native speaker' as being code for white person. Some of the Filipino teachers point out that their country now has English as an official language so they should be classified as native speakers (perhaps Thailand should follow this example and, rather than spend money on English teachers, just list it as an official language of Thailand). Race does cloud the issue in Thailand, but I feel there is more to it than just this. I don't agree that having a good understanding of English is the same as speaking/understanding it 'like a native'.

There are also those who argue that having a certain accent is what being a native speaker is all about. The Irish and Scots lose out here as many believe these accents are too difficult; American English become the prestige native speaker accent with all others being seen as at most second best. My point here is not to get into the debate about which accent is better, but about the perceptions people have.

I always just considered myself a native English speaker without much thought as to what this actually means; I didn't need to think about it. Living and working in Thailand though has made me question lots of my assumptions. Does native speaker mean your mother tongue? Will my son, who is being brought up with two languages while living in Thailand, be considered a native English speaker?

What exactly is a native English speaker and should it matter?


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