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Native speakers

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


During my time in Taiwan, I’ve come a cross enough examples of people overstating the importance of being a native speaker to lead me to think that it’s a general trend and not an isolated phenomenon. For instance, people are embarrassed when I know words in Chinese they don’t (“I’m a native speaker, why don’t I know this word?”) or they can’t understand why I have a category in Anki for Swedish words (“You’re Swedish, why do you need to learn Swedish words?”).

This attitude is so bizarre it left me baffled the first few times. At first, I thought that people who said this were just more ignorant than the rest of the population, but I’ve come across this so often that it can no longer be dismissed as coincidence: people really seem to think that native speakers know everything, although it’s obvious that they don’t.

Disclaimer

This article might sound a bit harsh and therefore I want to state clearly that my goal is not to bash native speakers or to elevate my own ability in any way. I’m a native speaker of Swedish and recognise that there is much I need to learn; there will always be. I’ve also learnt English, French and Chinese which means I can approach the subject from that angle as well. I’m also grateful to a lot of native speakers, so this article should in no way be regarded as diminishing their contribution to my language learning.

My goal here is to point out that people generally think that being a native speaker is the same as being really good in all areas of that language, and that I think this notion is mostly false. I also want to point out that someone who masters a language as a second language will have different skills from someone learning it as their native language. This is not good, neither is it bad; it simply is.

Native speakers and native speakers

The first mistake her is to lump native speakers together in one single group. There is a huge difference between a native speaker who reads fifty books a year and has a  PhD, and a native speaker who dropped out of school at the age of fifteen and spends all his free time playing football. Native speakers learn their own language to whatever extent is required of them (except perhaps for the few of us who genuinely love languages and thinks language learning is a goal in itself), which means that the football player above will have a very weak grasp of formal and written language.

Of course, the opposite is also true, that the PhD will know less about football. Still, pursuing a career which is heavily based on language (anything even remotely academic)  is bound to increase your vocabulary enormously, so thinking that native speakers are homogenous group is just stupid. Research suggests that the number of words that are used in everyday conversation is indeed very low; advanced vocabulary is only needed when discussing something specific or reading something on a decent level of complexity.

Native speakers and second language learners

  • Native speakers have a very good grasp of all practical aspects of their own language, but most of them have a fairly weak grasp of theoretical aspects (such as grammar, phonetics and so on). Just because an American can speak English for ten hours straight with perfect communication results doesn’t mean that the language he uses is 100% correct. Reading students essays in your native language is a good way of proving to yourself that not everybody master their own language, not even at university level.
  • Native speakers pronunciation is usually far from any kind of standardised pronunciation (how many people in the United Kingdom follow Received Pronunciation 100%?), which of course isn’t wrong per se, but might be something to keep in mind as a second language learner. If you plan on teaching the language in the future, this might be very important. Having an Indian dialect in Englsh is fine if you live in India, but I don’t think it will earn you any extra points if you look for a teaching job in Europe.
  • Second language learners who have reached a high level usually have a superior understanding of grammar, phonetics and other more theoretical areas, although they might not have a well developed gut-feeling for what is smooth and fluent language and might lack in idiomatic expressions or usage. In other words, native speakers will usually construct a sentence correctly and with proper intonation, but someone who has mastered the language as a second language will probably be far better at explaining the relevant syntax and pronunciation.

Why is this important?

This insight is important when you learn a second language from native speakers. Don’t think that their knowledge of their own language is infallible just because they are native speakers! For example, I’ve come across many people in Taiwan (some even teachers), who cannot explain the third tone in Mandarin properly.They think that they are accurately describing how they pronounce a given sound, but in reality they are doing something else.

This is not to say that second language learners in general know more than native speakers, but rather that just because someone is a native speaker it doesn’t mean he’s superior to a second language learner in all situations.

I’ve stated elsewhere that theoretical knowledge is fairly important for most of us when learning a second language. This is because even though you have lots of friends who speak the language and teachers who can help you, you cannot be 100% sure that what they tell you is right.If you have talent, you can pick up almost everything just by listening, but for us mere mortals, learning the tones in Chinese require a lot more than passive listening.

Some suggestions final comments

So, if you teach your own language, be open and admit that there are lots of things you don’t know. That’s okay and nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn and develop further. You will be right most of the time, but thinking that you will be right every time is a sign of ignorance and hubris.

Knowing how to handle native speakers when learning a foreign language is sometimes tricky and involves more than I’ve brought up here (for instance, they might be reluctant to directly tell you where you go wrong even if they clearly hear that you’re making a mistake; I wrote more about attitude here).

In short, be aware of your limitations in your own language and strive to gradually expand your horizons. Teaching is a wonderful tool too deepen your knowledge of any subject, your native language notwithstanding! If you learn a language from a native speaker, don’t trust what he tells you blindly. Naturally, some native speakers have reached a very high level of proficiency,but being a native speaker does not guarantee that!

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  1. Chris’s avatar

    I think any committed language learner would agree with you on this. While teaching English does somewhat limit your immersion opportunities, it has still however, really helped me learn Chinese, and vice-versa. Learning the local language and understanding how it works has really allowed me to better help my students and more quickly recognize their problems. Not just being able to translate whenever I want, but also you start to become aware of the various pitfalls and traps that Chinese speakers fall into when learning English.

    It’s sounds ridiculously obvious, but teaching and learning just go so in-hand together. The best teachers I’ve met have always openly admitted they learn so much from their students.

    The worst teachers I’ve come across are those that can’t admit their faults, and I’m sorry to say, I have encountered many of these teachers in Taiwan, usually a generation or two older as well. It’s sad and I hope that teaching for 30 years doesn’t turn me into one of those monsters!

    Anyway, you’re preaching to the converted mate :)

    Reply

  2. Niklas’s avatar

    I´m Swedish, you’re Swedish…
    I´m 100% sure you know more swedish words them me…
    I´m fairly sure you know more english words than I know swedish words…
    I would not be very surprised if you know more chinese words then I know swedish…

    So you might stand above “us mere mortals” ;-)
    (or its just me being stupid :-D)

    Reply