NOTE: The article below is mirrored from the JALT Teacher Education SIG website.

Explorations in Teacher Education: Vol. 8, No. 2, Apr. 2000. (p. 12 - 14)

The Native Speaker Concept in ELT -
A Review of Three Books

by Tim Newfields

One controversy in the ELT profession has been about how native speakers and non native speakers differ – or whether the term "native speaker" can be said to have any validity.

In 1991 Alan Davies considered this issue from varied linguistic angles, concluding that the dichotomy between native speakers of English (NS) and nonnative speakers (NNS) may be of theoretical interest, but it has limited applied validity. His 181-page work presents many intriguing models of what being a NS might imply. A relative lack of empirical studies in his text is perhaps its major weakness.

Davies points out the term "native speaker" has at least three meanings: (1) being a speaker of ones own idiolect, (2) being a speaker of an uncodified dialect, or (3) being part of a group adhering to a codified norm in a standard language. He acknowledges that NNSs can become NSs, though it's much more difficult for adults to do so than children. He further notes that it's possible to be a NS of more than one language, though this is rare. Another possibility: that native speakers can some how lose their "nativeness" over time is not considered.

One of the more interesting parts of Davies' book concerns how NSs usually recognize NNSs. NNSs are often recognized in three ways: (1) for using forms which don't exist, (2) for sociolinguistic errors, or (3) when using terms that NSs somehow consider their "property". For instance, many NSs react unfavorably if NNSs use highly idiomatic slang. A paradox is that the more nativelike in accent and grammar NNSs becomes, the more stringent NSs tend to be about sociolinguistic violations. This may explain why some NNSs prefer not to seem too nativelike, as it impinges on their identity.

In a prophetic way Davies concludes this work by suggesting:

The debate about the native speaker will go on. In that debate it will continue to be necessary to distinguish between the two senses of native speaker, the flesh and blood and the ideal; and if others choose to dismiss, as I have, the flesh and blood of the native speaker as having no clothes, I believe they still have use for the ideal. That indeed is a myth but an useful myth. (p. 167)

In 1994 Peter Medgyes, a native speaker of Hungarian, produced a 128-page work relating the NS/NNS theme to the classroom and ELT profession as a whole. His book has four basic premises –

  1. NS/NNS teachers usually differ in language proficiency.
  2. They also tend to differ in terms of teaching behaviors.
  3. Item (1) accounts for most of the differences in (2).
  4. Both can be equally good teachers in their own terms.

Listing the relative merits of NS teachers, Medgyes comments that they tend to be less textbook-dependent and tolerant of student errors. NNS teachers, however, are often able to provide better role models, teach learning strategies more effectively, supply learners with more explicit information than NS teachers.

Medgyes acknowledges that NNS teachers have difficult roles. They are "at junction between two languages and several cultures." (p. 39) and often feel unsure whether to establish rules based on their native culture or not. He adds that many NNS teachers find it difficult to separate their L1 and L2 identities, emphasizing that teaching is a craft which requires well-honed acting skills.

"Of these three works, Medgyes' is undoubtedly the most useful for EFL teachers."
The strength of Medgyes' book is in the way it systematically covers many topics. It is probably too ambitious in attempting to show how all four language languages skills can be developed. This is a useful goal, but more suitable for a book devoted solely to that theme.

In 1999 George Braine of The University of Hong Kong edited a 233-page volume representing the voices of 15 nonnative ELT professionals from ten countries. This joint work reflects the controversy and hearty polemic involved in the NS/NNS debate.

Five NNS teachers narrate their personal learning/teaching experiences in the first section of this book. The second section focuses on sociopolitical issues of how sexism, racism, and nativism often create discrimination in the workplace. The final 87 pages explore issues related to teacher education and self-image.

The most interesting essay in Braine's book examined the role of textuality in constructing NS/NNS linguistic identity. The ways that different language systems structure thought was underscored skillfully by Claire Kramsch, a professor at UC Berkerly, and Wan Shun Eva Lam, a graduate student there. "Texts written in a foreign language may put ones own native language into question." (p. 58) they add, affirming the value of writing foreign language diaries to construct a new sense of linguistic identity. They also note how the concept of "foreignness" is closely related to creativity.

Another interesting essay by Xiao-ming Li described the conflicting urges writers and language learners may have. Often her desire to develop a voice as a writer conflicted with her desire to imitate "correct" language forms. Li likens this to "trying to create ones own music before one has mastered all the notes." She points out that skillful teachers see the "otherness" (p. 50) of non-native teachers as an asset rather than liability.

Many of the essays in Braine's blast the native speaker concept and highlight how discrimination pervades the workplace. The poignancy of many first-hand accounts of prejudice gives this volume a persuasive force.

Of these three works, Medgyes' is undoubtedly the most useful for EFL teachers in Asia. However, those with a keen interest in linguistic theory may find Davies' more scholarly work of value. Many of essays in Braine's work are deeply moving. The quality of the essays in Braine's work, however, is too uneven; some essays blur the line between fact and opinion. Moreover, when authors attempt to make universal statements on the basis of studies with only 5, 7, 14, or 16 respondents, they stand on shaky ground. However, the strength of Braine's work is in giving the NS/NNS issue a highly personal perspective.

– Reviewed by Tim Newfields


Braine, G. (Ed). (1999). Non-native educators in English language teaching. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Davies, A. (1991). The native speaker in applied linguistics. Edinburgh University Press.

Medgyes, P. (1994). The non-native yeacher. MacMillian.

Chronological Index Subject Index Title Index
Copyright (c) 2000, 2008 by Tim Newfields