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What is a Native English Speaker, Anyway?

Most ambitious English learners share the same goal: to use English with “native-like” fluency. But what is native English? And who are the native English speakers?

The popular belief among English learners (and many English teachers) is that native English belongs to the United Kingdom and its five major former post-colonial nations: Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA. But is this really accurate? Are those really the world’s only native English speaking societies? And are citizens of those six countries automatically native English speakers?

The answers to these questions are not as obvious as some might think. To understand what native English is, it might be good to first look at what native English is not, according to conventional wisdom.

Native English is not the same thing as English lingua franca. “Lingua franca” refers to any language that’s used as a common second language among groups of people who are in frequent contact, but speak different native languages. Because English is a global language, it’s often used as a lingua franca in multilingual nations.

English is used as a lingua franca to some extent in multilingual European countries like Switzerland, where different regions are dominated by different languages. Swiss people may use English as a common language when they travel to a part of their own country with a different native language than theirs. Switzerland has just four languages, each of which dominates a specific region of the nation. When Swiss native Italian French, German, or Romanish speakers travel outside of their language zones, they often rely on English as their lingua franca.

In other more linguistically diverse countries, English sometimes acts as a lingua franca for every day  local living, not just travel. Take India, which has 22 official languages, and over 1500 language groups overall. In a India and other linguistically rich countries, there aren’t that many regions where everyone has the same native language. Individual cities and towns can lack a dominant native language, so that a global language such as English becomes the community lingua franca. And even individual households can have mixed languages, with the father speaking one language, and the mother speaking another.

When a mother and father have two different native languages, English as lingua franca can dominate home life as well as life outside the home. The parents may speak English to each other and to their children. So English can actually be a person’s “home language,” even if they live in a country that is not considered to be a native English speaking country.

By now you may see the problem with the distinction between native English and English as lingua franca. Places like Canada and Australia are seen as native English speaking countries, because English is the language of home, school, business, and life in general. But doesn’t English also dominate life in the same way in many communities in India, Malaysia, Singapore, and so on?

At some point an English lingua franca evolves and becomes a new form of English in its own right. This is what happened with English in Jamaica, for instance. And debatably, this is what happened with English in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The early settlers of these countries had many different native languages, but they used English—the language of their colonial government—as a lingua franca. And this process is still going on in some ways. Multilingual immigrants still come to these countries and use English as a common language.

And children still grow up in homes where their parents use English as a lingua franca rather than a shared native language. In fact, my father grew up in an American English lingua franca household So did my son, since his mother is a native Korean speaker. And even England, which has the clearest claim to native-English nation status, is full of immigrants. The English lingua franca experience is very common in British households, neighborhoods, towns, and cities.

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The takeaway here is that trying to sound exactly like you come from one specific “native English” country isn’t necessary. You can have the native-like fluency you want—or need—just by reaching a point where you can comfortably use English in any of your life’s situations. So don’t measure the understandability of your English by whether or not you have the right accent, or the correct “native” manner of speech. Your understandability is measured by whether people can understand you.

Native-like fluency is a good concept and a good goal. But it’s not a concrete set of rules and standards. In fact, as you can see in this Engvid video lesson, native English speakers make mistakes too.

 

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