The fetishization of native-speaker status

Recently I was reading an article on the dynamics of language choice, use, and (perceived) ownership between Irish-language majors (i.e. university students) born in the Gaeltacht, hence presumed or actual native speakers, and those not, hence ‘learners’.[1] It’s a fascinating article and well worth a read, and it caused me to reflect somewhat on the way ‘native speaker’-status is fetishized among the language communities I engage in.

Before I get into that though, I want to bring in a set of distinctions mentioned in the article, but formulated by Ó Giollagáin.[2] This is a more nuanced typology of speakers, which I present here though perhaps not entirely accurate to the source:

Native speaker: a fluent speaker who acquired the language from infancy in a familial/community setting.

Neo-native speaker: a fluent speaker who acquired the language from infancy from parents who are co-speakers but not native speakers. (e.g. the parents learnt the language and then used it together in the home.

Semi-speaker: a speaker who received some degree of bi- or multi-lingual input in the family context, as from one parent speaking fluently and productively, and where the semi-speaker emerges with a range of ability, e.g. from passive bilingualism, through to competent speaker ability.

Second Language speaker (L2 speaker): someone who learnt the language as an L2, not from infancy, but speakers it with a high degree of competency. (e.g. a CEFR C2 speaker)

Learner: someone who is not a highly competent speaker of the language, but is somewhere along the learning trajectory. (e.g. a CEFR A1-B2 speaker)


I think that’s an incredibly helpful typology which avoids the very simplistic dichotomy of native vs non-native, even the trichotomy of native / non-native fluent / learner, which is often what I see people employ. Though even Ó Giollagáin’s typology could be nuanced further. These are singular categories and one really needs to reckon with multi-faceted continuums.

One of the things that O’Rourke’s article does well is that in the introduction its literature review points to a good body of material that problematises the idea of ‘native speaker’ as a clear, monolithic entity. That is also an important thing to do.

So, all this by way of introduction today. My own thoughts got more of a kick start when I heard someone refer to a very prominent contemporary Gàidhlig singer, and fluent speaker as, ‘oh, she’s just a learner’, echoing a comment from this person’s own language teacher.

People, I find, generally fetishize native speakers. They are the ideal representation of an L speaker, whose language is considered pure, uncriticisable, inerrant, and more valuable. This happens across languages. It effects, for instance, hiring practices. A native English speaker, in many places, will be a preferred candidate than a non-native fluent speaker, even when the former has no teaching skills or experience, and the latter is a trained language educator. Despite the reality that a fluent L2 speaker has the experience of learning the language as an L2 like their students will, their status as speaker is often denigrated.

Indeed, although ultimate levels of language attainment for an L2 speaker may be indistinguishable from a native speaker, the simple knowledge that someone is a non-native tends to mean, that that person will always be perceived as an inferior speaker, even when no difference in speech can be detected. It means their errors are more likely to be pointed out, than when a native speaker ‘misspeaks’. It means they will continue to be compared against native speaker speech as a benchmark, and the highest compliment they can receive is ‘oh, they speak as good as a native’.

One even finds this kind of fetishization among language communities without native speakers. I am a participant in the micro-cultures of active Latin speakers, and active Ancient-Greek speakers. There are no native speakers of these languages. There are some highly competent speakers of these languages. Those speakers tend to be lionised for their ability. Linguistic competence is treated as a status feature, and the perceived difficulty of learning to speak those languages probably heightens that. While it may be impossible to avoid language proficiency as a status feature, when language proficiency becomes a status competition, and speakers compete to assert their status via proficiency displays, this is deeply problematic for both communication, and for the language acquisition process.

Moreover the idealisation of what a native speaker of Latin might be like, the dream of creating neo-native speakers, and the fetishization of that as an ideal speaker, continues to deeply plague a community that is at heart not dedicated to Latin language revitalisation (e.g. the aim of Latin speakers is rarely, if ever, to create a new living language community, like Hebrew did, and see it evolve. If contemporary Latin evolved it would become a new Romance language, defeating the reason many people learn Latin in the first place – lingusitic continuity with a 2700 year-old language community).

While I personally think we will never jettison the idea or ideal of native speakers, I think a growing linguistic meta-awareness of the complexity and complication of the term, and its role as an ideal, can serve to mitigate its sociolinguistic effects, especially the deleterious ones. Replacing the idealisation of native speech with competent speech broadens the base of language content that is ‘worth’ consumption. It jettisons the idea of ‘authentic’ content as only that produced by native speakers for native speakers. It recognises that linguistic competence is not a product of birth, but of acquisition, whether as an L1 or L2. At the same time, an awareness of the ways in which learners, and competent speakers, native or not, perceive and use linguistic competence as a value holder for status, may allow for self-regulation of communicative exchanges to discourage language as performance and competition. On the proficient side, to recognise that one doesn’t need to demonstrate and prove one’s own proficiency as a power-play to others; on the less-proficient side, to dismiss (and dare I say, ignore and sideline) speakers whose communicative acts serve primarily to assert their own dominance.

[1] Bernadette O’Rourke, ‘Whose Language Is It? Struggles for Language Ownership in an Irish Language Classroom’, Journal of Language, Identity & Education 10:5 (201): 327-345

[2] C. Ó Giollagáin ‘Scagadh ar rannúcainteoirí comhaimseartha Gaeltachta: gnéithe d’antraipeolaíocht teangeolaíochta phobal Ráth Chairn.’ Irish Journal of Anthropology, 6 (2002): 25–56.

2 responses

  1. This is fascinating.

    You write, “The idealisation of what a native speaker of Latin might be like . . . continues to deeply plague a community that is at heart not dedicated to Latin language revitalisation.” To what, if anything, would you say the community IS committed?

    • Even talking about a unified spoken-latin community is probably a bit misleading. An array of subcommunities might be better. And to what degree there is a sense of unity around anything except ‘we’re people that cultivate spoken latin’ is something I’d love to see discussed.

      But on this particular question, and I’d be interested in your own thoughts too, the general attitude I encounter is (a) we speak Latin in order to acquire Latin better, and hence to engage with texts – classical, most often, but medieval and later too – as better readers. There is thus an orientation towards a linguistic standard that remains, for the most part, Ciceronian in idealisation, In terms of a ‘living’ community, I’d say the ideal is an ongoing, sustained ‘community’ of speakers, who can effectively inculcate new speakers as learned L2 speakers. e.g. the continuation of Latin’s former role as a learned language of discourse in Europe, though these days shorn (to some degree, if not entirely successfully), of some of the socio-cultural attendants of Latin’s former prestige-status

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