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Who is a Native Speaker and What is It They Speak

Who is a Native Speaker and What is It They Speak

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06/12/2012

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Who is a native speaker and what is it they speak?
I do not believe in worrying endlessly about definitions, but some preliminarydemarcation of the field of discourse is, obviously, both necessary and desirable.Fishman (1989:5)
1. Introduction
The term "native speaker" is pivotal in a number of areas. Firstly, even in generativelinguistics, the concept of an "ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogenous speechcommunity" (Chomsky, 1965:3) is crucial. While idealising from the data is both permissible and necessary, vagueness about the terms "speaker-listener" and "speechcommunity" may leave us uncertain as to exactly what data we are idealising, which thencasts doubts on such generative shibboleths as "competence and performance" and "coreand periphery". Secondly, it goes without saying that the term "native speaker" and itsassociated terms "mother tongue" and "member of a speech community" are of primaryimportance for sociolinguistics. On a more practical note, in the language teaching profession, being classed as a native speaker is the key to status, expanded jobopportunities and higher pay, which naturally creates a heated debate (one I do not intendto venture into). Finally, the question has important cultural and political implications, particularly for ethnic minorities, emerging nations and speakers of English as an"international language" (Pennycook, 1994).Uncritical use of the term "native speaker" begs two questions. The first is the question of what it is one may be a native speaker of. Words like "language" and "dialect" arethemselves ill-defined. This has led sociolinguists to prefer the term "speech community", but, as I shall argue, this simply moves the vagueness into a different area. Secondly,even if there is no ambiguity about the language, dialect or whatever, the word "native" isnot only vague, but has non-linguistic connotations which are by no means culturally or  politically neutral.Problems in defining these terms do not arise from mere lack of rigour; they are inherentin the very concepts we are attempting to define. In this essay, I shall thus adopt more of a philosophical than an ethnographic approach to the problem, and, rather than reviewingthe literature and then attempting to show who has the "best" definitions, shall examinethe various concepts in turn, picking out examples which illustrate the problems involved,and then offering suggestions for an alternative approach to their categorisation.
2. What does a native speak?
As stated earlier, there is no point in describing someone as a native speaker unless weare sure what it is they are a native speaker 
of 
. If we say "Susan Chang is a native speaker of English", are we referring to British, American or Singapore English, for example? Inthe case of Singapore English, is this Standard Singapore English, Vernacular SingaporeEnglish or both? Can she also be regarded as a native speaker of, say, Cantonese, and if 
 
so, is Cantonese a language or a dialect of Chinese? These questions, though somewhathoary, are by no means insignificant when attempting to understand the native speaker concept.2.1. Language versus dialectOne the face of it, Saussure's (1915) famous distinction of langue and parole looksuncomplicated. If parole is the totality of utterances by the speakers of a language, thenlangue is "a social product of the faculty of speech and a collection of necessaryconventions that have been adapted by a social body to permit individuals to exercise thatfaculty" (1915:61), which involves abstraction from parole (Ellis, 1993:104). However,isolating a langue from a confusing plethora of language examples requires first that we be selective about which utterances we abstract from. If we wish to describe, say, French,we would not include data from Breton, but would we include the French spoken by people who also speak Breton? Would we also include speakers of French outside France,for example French-speaking Swiss or Canadians? Conversely, would we only accept asFrench, language approved by the Académie Française?It seems that even determining the most basic object of study in linguistics - a language -involves sociolinguistic, and even political, considerations. It is perhaps surprising, then,that even many sociolinguists accept "language" as a given (Le Page & Tabouret-Keller,1985:1). Languages are notoriously hard to define, hence Max Weinreich's oft-quotedtongue-in-cheek definition: "A language is a dialect with its own army and navy." Outsidelinguistics departments, there is a pervasive attitude that "nation = language = territory =state" (Lunt, 1986:729, in Rudin & Eminov, 1993), and the assumptions of nationalismhave profoundly influenced our thinking about what is and is not a language (Fishman,1989, Williams, 1992).A case study of the controversial status of "national language" is provided by Kurdish.The classical taxonomy is set out by Hassanpour (1993:107): "Kurdish is a member of the Iranian group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages." On the ground, however, the situation is much more complex. In theSoutheast of Turkey, there are at least two "languages" that could reasonably be classedas Kurdish: Kürtçe and Zazaca. Of these, the former is regarded by most Kurdishnationalists in Turkey as "Kurdish", whereas there are good grounds for regarding Zazacaas closer to the Northern Iranian "Kurdish" of the philologists. Kürtçe could perhaps be better seen as a creole which arose when the Ottomans encouraged the migration of Arabs and Kurds into Southeast Anatolia as a way of keeping the nomadic (and heretical)Turks of the region under political and religious control (Turner, N., personalcommunication, 1996). This is not to say that it could not become a national language inthe unlikely event of the Turkish Kurds attaining political independence. One difficulty inobtaining reliable information on Kurdish is that linguistic statements have politicalconsequences, and almost all sources are biased one way or another. Hassanpour (1993),while informative, is somewhat propagandist (on the Kurdish side), while Turkishsources are usually even worse, often echoing the (now officially abandoned) line that theKurds are "mountainous Turks" who have forgotten their own language. For an extreme
 
Turkish nationalist there is no Kurdish language as such, merely dialects of Turkishand/or Persian, while for a Kurdish nationalist, Kurdish is a "pure" language which wascorrupted by centuries of Ottoman and Persian domination.The test of mutual intelligibility is also suspect. While Kürtçe and Zazaca share a similar grammar, a speaker of the former would have extreme difficulty in understanding thelatter. On the other hand, Serbian and Croatian are prominent recent examples of mutually intelligible "dialects" of the same "language" emerging as separate "languages",with archaisms and provincialisms being adopted to "purify" the language (Gee, 1997;Woodard, 1996). There is also now "an attempt in Bosnia to adopt officially religious andsocial terms associated with Muslim faith and values" (Gee, 1997), these largely derivingfrom Turkish, or from Arabic via Turkish. The same process has been well-documentedin the case of Hindi and Urdu (see, for example, Khubchandani, 1991). When a new stateis formed (or even just demanded) we see what Fishman (1972(a):46) describes as "theconscious cultivation of once lowly vernaculars ... as
independent 
languages, aslanguages suitable for 
all 
higher purposes, and as languages of state-building and
 state-deserving 
nationalities" (emphasis original).The most celebrated case of the failure of the mutual intelligibility test is that of Chinese"dialects". Hokkien and Cantonese, for example, are probably regarded as dialects of Chinese not because they are mutually intelligible (which they are to only a very limiteddegree), but because their speakers share a similar culture, and were for most of their history part of the same state (even though they are not now; depending on how youdefine Hokkien, a large minority or a small majority of its speakers are found outsideMainland China, notably in Taiwan). Perhaps most importantly, educated speakers alsoknow the same official variety (Mandarin) and write in the same ideograms (Hanzi).2.2. Language loyalty and standardisationA language is thus, to a large extent, whatever it is perceived to be. In a striking case,ÇavuÅŸ (1986:67, in Rudin & Eminov, 1993:46) gives a selection of "Turkish" wordswhich were proscribed by the Bulgarian government as part of its assimilation policy.These include
rapor 
,
burs
(both French), and
kütüphane
("library", Persian). Asignificant factor is "language loyalty" (Gumperz, 1972), which normally links regionaldialects to a national language of which they are seen as variant forms. However,sometimes a group may regard itself as speaking one language, when their dialect islinguistically closer to another, and language loyalty may also confuse the issue of mutualintelligibility (Gumperz, 1972:228-229).An influence on language loyalty is standardisation; a dialect is often perceived as avariant form of a language because that language possesses a standard form which isaccepted by speakers of the dialect in question. Standardisation occurs through a number of processes, such as urbanisation, increasing use of a "court language" (e.g. "the King'sEnglish"), increasing commercial, legal and literary use, and planned language reforms.

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