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speaker This paper argues for the prominent influence of the postmodernist paradigm on the evolution of the concept of the native speaker and, focusing on one particular postmodern theory, proposes to examine several views of the concept that offer alternative definitions that could be suitable for all speakers who do not fit neatly in the clear-cut categories represented by the terms native and nonnative speaker. Introduction Rising from the ashes of the Middle Ages and its superstitions and religious constraints, the modern era was based on ‘optimism, reason and progress’, and in this era, these values ‘became the dominant discourses and the foundations of knowledge’. The ‘rational man was believed to have the capacity to uncover a singular knowable reality - a reality that would not be subject to question…’ (Grbich, 2004). The nation-state was central to the modern era, with its idealised standard version of the official language, its educational system that actively promoted the use of that standard language and often strongly discouraged the use of regional dialects, its language planning programmes and institutions aiming at encouraging nationalist sentiments and unifying ‘particularistic and diverse subgroups’ (Fishman, 2003; Billig, 1995) its study of ‘the Other’ and its colonial ambitions. The postmodern turn questioned the modern era’s stereotypes. Main characteristics of the postmodern turn A child of modernity, the notion of postmodernism is an elusive one because postmodernist theories and attitudes come in many forms and have many meanings; an experimental style of representation in the arts and architecture, a historical epoch that follows the modern one, and varieties of social theory. There is no single theory called Postmodernism, but from Foucault to Derrida and others, they are all characterised by a scepticism toward long-cherished concepts and modes of thought, an unwillingness ‘to accept taken-for-granted components of our reality and the ‘‘official’’ accounts of how they came to be the way they are’ ((sic), Dean 1994, p.4 ), as well as an awareness of the contingent, particular and shifting nature of categories inherited from the modern era (Pennycook, 2006). The modern era’s metanarratives, dichotomies and its nation-state leave the postmodern thinker incredulous (Lyotard, 1984; Grbich, 2004). Indeed, the postmodern thinker discovers several models of order, and perceives knowledge as local and contextual. Colonial and post-colonial systems of thought gradually give way to globalisation and multiculturalism, the centralisation of power decreases, the voices of minority groups and scholars from former colonial territories are increasingly heard (Grbich, 2004; Chakrabarty, 1992). Deconstructing the native speaker: definitions and intersections
Constance Mbassi Manga, Masters assignment, KCL, 2009 The notion of the native speaker fits the modern idealised concepts of a standard language and a unique truth, perfectly. According to Ferguson, ‘linguists . . . have long given a special place to the native speaker as the only true and reliable source of language data’ (Ferguson, 1982, p. vii). Indeed the concept fulfils the appeal for models and norms that characterises the Western modern world’s tendency to study and classify (Jeffers, 2006; King, 1999; Tuhiwai Smith, 1999). The concept of the native speaker can be scrutinized through this lens of postmodernism (Rubdy, 2007), and within the postmodern theories, this paper uses Derrida’s deconstructionism for this scrutiny. ‘Derrida's deconstructionism is provocative, if not subversive, in questioning the self-evidence, logic and non-judgmental character of dichotomies we live by’ (Rawlings, 1999). It does not necessarily offer solutions, but dissects ‘texts’1, and the concept of the native speaker can be viewed as one such ‘text’ to be undone. Like everything else, it is socially constructed (Davies, 2003; Rubdy, 2007) and can therefore be de-constructed. This particular theory seems ideal as the aim of this discussion is to understand what being a native speaker entails, rather than to search for a single and all-encompassing ‘truth’, insufficient to account for the complexities involved in the real world. The notion of the native speaker has greatly evolved since its first appearance ‘in medieval times’ (natale idioma or lingua native meaning language of birth or innate language). At the time ‘it was commonly believed or suspected that language was in some way biologically inherited’ (Christophersen, 1988). It is now commonly accepted that ‘no human baby is born with an innate knowledge of any particular language’, but that they ‘learn the language of their environment’ (ibid). Apparently only the English language uses the term ‘native speaker’; other languages and cultures offer concepts that are dissociated with the notion of birth. For example, in Polish the term that comes closest to the English one is jezyk ojczysty (sic), which can be loosely translated as ‘father tongue’ i.e. language of the fatherland; in Russian, nositel jazyka (sic), or carrier of the language; in Chinese, country language (sic) (Radwańska-Williams, 2008) while in French, the concept of the mother tongue is preferred (langue maternelle). In Duala, a Bantu language of the Niger-Congo group (Ethnologue.com), such a definition is not even considered, the only interest being to know in what language(s) an individual can communicate. In English, tentative definitions of the concept have been offered. Bloomfield who prefers the term ‘native language’ defines it as the ‘first language a human being learns to speak’ and excludes from that definition all languages learnt later; Chomsky, taking the focus away from a binary distinction between native and non-native, looks at language development as part of all human development,
According to Derrida, "Everything is a text; this is a text," he said, waving his arm at the diners around him in the bland suburban-like restaurant, blithely picking at their lunches, completely unaware that they were being "deconstructed." (Cuddon, 1991) 2
Constance Mbassi Manga, Masters assignment, KCL, 2009 and states that ‘everyone is a Native Speaker of the particular language that the person has ‘grown ‘in [their]… brain’. Chomsky’s native speaker construct, a member of an idealised homogeneous speech community2, is taken as the authoritative and reliable source of grammaticality judgments indicative of linguistic competence (Radwańska-Williams, 2008). Halliday (1978) choosing to use the ‘mother tongue’, recognises that it requires clarification and states that ‘no language ever completely replaces the mother tongue’; he suggests that ‘certain kinds of ability seem to be … difficult to acquire in a second language’ but considers the possibility of acquiring native speaker level in a second language. Davies (2003), who argues that the native speaker is determined by attitude as much as language ability and knowledge, offers step by step characteristics of the native speaker; he states that the native speaker acquires the language during childhood, has grammatical intuitions, a capacity to produce fluent spontaneous discourse, to write creatively in his or her language (from jokes to epics, metaphor to novels) and to translate into the language of which she or he is a native speaker. These characteristics quite clearly exclude a great number of native speakers worldwide; it seems obvious that not all native speakers can translate into their language as it implies a good knowledge of the source language they are translating from, let alone write novels as that entails writing skills that many laymen do not have. Another interesting concept is that of the home language (MbassiManga, 1973); it is prudent, because it does not make any claims whatsoever as to the level of proficiency or expertise of the speaker, but just signals the fact that it is the language spoken at home, probably the language of intimacy but not necessarily the one in which the speaker will have the best writing skills for example. Most linguists associate the concept of the native speaker with primacy in language use, with an idealised intrinsic spoken competence, with the notion of gradual postnatal acquisition and refinement, or with written competence. These frames exclude or ignore languages that are replaced by new ones, and used more frequently and fluently than the first one, for example when children migrate; they marginalise multilingual people (Davies, 2003; Lee, 2005) and people who are highly competent in a language but have foreign accents, those who speak a language fluently but do not write it for various reasons for example if there are no written forms of a language ((Florez & Terrill, 2003), or all the so-called ‘native speakers’ who are not ‘ipso facto knowledgeable, correct and infallible in their competence’(Nayar, 1994) . The term is clearly a useful one in that it responds, albeit in an imperfect way, to the perception shared by laymen and linguists, that some people have of an ‘insider knowledge’ of a language or dialect, while others approach it at a later stage in their lives, and use it with less ease. Nevertheless, there is a genuine need for more appropriate terms suitable for particular language practices and situations, in
Davies offers three definitions of the speech community (2003); the one referred to here, a blend of some of his criteria, is ‘a group of people all of whom speak the same language’ and who share a common acceptance of which language code is to be used for what purpose. 3
Constance Mbassi Manga, Masters assignment, KCL, 2009 linguistics, built on the study of the native speaker’s language competence, and in education, for the study of second language acquisition, in language teaching and other professional situations in which the term is used as a benchmark for the evaluation of language proficiency (RadwańskaWilliams, 2008). It would be difficult to simply drop the concept (Ferguson, 1983) without offering suitable alternatives. Such alternative terms are offered by several linguists, particularly Paikeday (1985) who proposes ‘proficient user of the language’, Christophersen (1988) who offers the notion of a ‘primary’ language –with regard to importance rather than chronology- and Rampton (2003), with language expertise, inheritance and affiliation. While Paikeday’s term essentially focuses on the use of the language without taking into account ‘personal preference and commitment’ (Christophersen, 1988), social factors, cultural realities, identity etc…, and Christophersen’s interesting proposition requires a detailed discussion about the meaning of ‘importance’ in this context3, Rampton’s multiplicity of terms cover a wider range of linguistic and social situations. According to Rampton (1990), language expertise is particularly valuable in that it focuses on learned and relative competence, it is different from identification, it is partial and subject to certification. The underlying premise is that expertise is targeted and limited by nature, and thus encompasses more speakers than the term ‘native speaker’. He recognises that expertise does not cover language as a symbol of social group identification, and offers inheritance and affiliation, two aspects of language loyalty that he deems worth distinguishing. These two flexible and ‘negotiated’ terms express the individual’s membership in a group; inheritance is not limited to birth (because it can ‘lose its value and be disowned’ for example (ibid)) and affiliation can vary, for example because people can belong to several groups or their feelings of belonging can change. Unlike the concept of the native speaker, this flexibility takes into account the complex nature of the language practices that exist in the multicultural world people live in today. For instance, ‘native speakers' of substandard varieties of the standard language and of regional dialects might not be recognised as 'native speakers' of the standard variety, but they certainly have a certain level of expertise and could be affiliated or not to the standard variety. In addition, the notion of expertise is less biased than the native/non-native dichotomy in that the latter implies that native is positive, superior and offers greater prospects of success while non-native is negative, ‘less than native’, inferior and can convey feelings of inadequacy (Radwańska-Williams, 2008). This can have implications in schools for example leading to the discrimination of non-native teachers of English (Thomas, 1999), Holliday, 2005, Chiba et al., 1995) or the false perception that non-native speakers among the children are less able to learn. Similarly, people who learn two languages from birth have two ‘first languages’ and can be ‘experts’ in both languages, but it would be difficult to classify them as native speakers of both,
Who is the language important for, and how is it important? The most important language for a learner could the one he masters less, for example because she/he needs to acquire proficiency in that language for professional reasons. 4
Constance Mbassi Manga, Masters assignment, KCL, 2009 even if they are ‘fully at home in the language[s], confident in [their] use of [those languages] and able to make judgments about usage with which other members of the language community will normally agree’ (Radwańska-Williams, 2008). For example, when registering as an interpreter or a translator on professional websites or paper forms, there is always only one box to tick or one field in which the linguist is invited to put her/his native language; even though translators are experts in several languages, they are not considered ‘native’ for more than one. Moreover, an individual’s knowledge of language can vary over the course of a lifetime. A native speaker of one language for example who moves to and settles in a country where a different language is spoken and uses the new language most of the time, will certainly experience a change in her/his ‘expertise’ in her/his ‘native’ language. Conclusion Deconstructing the ‘native speaker’ discourse reveals a rich and complex layer of language practices, and various models that take into account language use within the society. The awareness by scholars that there is nothing straightforward about languages and language practices can be useful to inform classification particularly in education but also to understand practices of people who are likely to find it difficult to fully pledge allegiance to a former colonial language, or others who may be keen to maintain one particular language spoken by their parents or ancestors as a way of preserving what remnant of identity they can preserve. Where a job requires applicants to be native speakers, with a hidden agenda aiming at eliminating foreign candidates who are assumed to be non-native, a scenario that Paikeday condemns (1985), the potential risk of social discrimination might be reduced if a certain level of expertise is taken as the criterion, because proficiency in the language required for the position would imply suitability for the position. Nevertheless, some questions remain; if expertise implies assessment by others, how can the expertise of languages that are not taught in oral or written form in schools, and with no officially certified expert, be assessed? Furthermore, would expert native speakers of a ‘world’ variety of a language such as French be awarded native speaker status in Europe (for example for educational or professional purposes)? Many people nowadays are from several places at a time and from no place in particular, because they are not necessarily affiliated to their birth place or their current place of residence and some have no link with their parents’ place of birth (for example many Beurs4 in France). Paul Christophersen, a native Dane with outstanding proficiency in English that surpasses that of many ‘native’ English speakers, and who epitomises the complexity of this matter, points out that ‘there is clearly a need for a term to replace native when talking about proficiency (1988). The term
Second-generation immigrants of Maghrebi descent (Tarr, 2005) 5
Constance Mbassi Manga, Masters assignment, KCL, 2009 ‘primary’ (in the expression ‘primary language’), he says, is rather ambiguous. He argues that the term ‘dominant’ is ill-suited and rather unpleasant, and that the term ‘proficient’ offers an incomplete picture. Like Christophersen, this paper recognises the validity of several propositions particularly the notions of home language, expertise and affiliation, but suggests that there is no unique solution; different concepts cater for different aspects of the relationship between the speaker and the language, and the concept of the ‘native speaker’ is not one of them. Indeed, given its fuzzy nature, its irrelevance in the present world with its shifting language practices, and its inadequacy in meeting the need for valid definitions, this paper sympathises with Paikeday’s statement (1985) that ‘the native speaker is dead’.
Constance Mbassi Manga, Masters assignment, KCL, 2009
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Constance Mbassi Manga, Masters assignment, KCL, 2009
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