Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Myth of the Native Speaker

In the last few days, I've seen a lot of discussion of international speculative fiction, where to find it, who writes it, etc. See Charles Tan here, Nick Mamatas here, for example. Although I started composing this post before that discussion got fully launched, I think it is relevant to that discussion, because it addresses the discrimination and injustice that surrounds the concept of native speakers, both in verbal speech contexts, teaching contexts, and in sf/f writing. And who knows? You might even find some situations here to give you worldbuilding or story inspiration while we're at it.

I'm sure you know the term "native speaker." Someone who speaks a language natively is someone who's grown up in a place where a particular language is spoken and thus has learned it when they were first learning language. I'm a native speaker of English, for example. I have friends who are native speakers of many languages: Urdu, Japanese, French, Spanish... the list goes on. Your book might contain native speakers of these world languages, or one (or more) of your own making.

For a person learning a foreign language, the idea of a native speaker takes on additional importance. The native speaker is the goal. "Nativelike" language use is defined as the pinnacle of success. Along with this comes the idea that you need to have a native speaker as a teacher, because otherwise how will you hear the language you're learning as it's really spoken in its country of origin? Indeed, if you learned it from someone who was once a student like you, wouldn't that be learning it halfway? Or would it?

Be careful. The biggest myth about native speakers of any language is that they are infallible.

Native speakers aren't infallible - just look around the writing boards and you'll be able to watch native speakers of English agonize over what a pain in the neck spelling is, or grammar. They'll argue on and on about one usage or another. (They're entitled to - which is something I'll come back to later.)

I remember when I was learning French. It was a second language for me, though I was still a toddler when I started learning it. I put a lot of effort into my learning. I wanted to be good at it, to speak with native speakers - an admirable goal that really is much of what language learning is all about. One day I got a letter from a pen pal in France, and it had spelling errors in it. I couldn't believe my eyes. Wow, people in France might not always spell French correctly? Well, when you think about it, of course it makes sense. People make spelling errors all the time, native language or no.

If you think about the concept of native-speakerhood from the point of view of language variability (and also world languages), you could argue that there is no one single English that everyone learns. The English one learns depends on what varieties of English one is exposed to. Does that include a particular dialect? Does it also include the standardized English of the news, and of the schools? What about engineering or medical terminology? What about literature? And - let's push that one a little further - what about science fiction and fantasy literature? Each of these sources is going to provide different kinds, complexities, and flavors of English.

The plot thickens when we take the myth of native speaker infallibility and turn it around. The faulty assumption of native speaker infallibility implies an equally faulty assumption of non-native speaker fallibility. This second myth is so powerful that it is used to invalidate the language use of learners all over the world.

Here's a relatively harmless example. When I was living in Japan I could never tell jokes. Things like puns sprang out at me but if I ever tried to use them for humor, people wouldn't laugh. They wouldn't even look confused and fail to get it. They would say, "No, no, no, you have it all wrong," and launch into a language lesson. I was making the joke precisely because I had already learned that lesson. But because I was a non-native speaker, the automatic conclusion was that it wasn't a joke at all, but a mistake.

Here's a subtle example that I think you might recognize, if you're a highly proficient second or third (etc.) language speaker. I have trouble getting my French friends to correct my usage because they understand me. If you accept effective communication as sufficient for a non-native speaker, you're not likely to help someone tune their language to become more accurate and articulate.

And here's an example that made me so angry that I didn't like myself. I started studying Japanese as my major in college, and then spent two years living in Japan studying it intensively. So when I came back to the US, I looked for Japanese teaching jobs. I taught first- and second-year Japanese at a California high school for one year and helped lead a trip to Japan with the school baseball team. The following year I moved to another school where I taught Japanese to 6-8th graders. At each of these schools I was the sole teacher of Japanese and in complete charge of my curriculum and activities, testing, etc. Then, after I began my Ph.D. program to study Education (and the teaching of Japanese in particular), I taught Japanese for one semester as part of a team run by native-speaking teachers of Japanese. Everything changed. We team-taught the classes so no single teacher saw any one class more than twice a week. For non-natives, that was once a week. For at least the first four weeks of class, I and the other non-native teachers weren't allowed to correct our students' homework without having our own work checked by the native teachers, regardless of our previous experience. Not once in the course of that semester were we given responsibility to correct testing material without supervision. It was not a situation I felt I could continue in beyond the end of that semester.

In my dissertation I learned some interesting things when I compared native and non-native teachers. The teachers I studied were of Japanese, but I'm sure much of this would also apply to English. When it comes to pragmatics - the subtleties of representing social identity and politeness behavior - we aren't typically conscious of what we do. If someone describes a situation to you and asks you what you'd say, you won't typically say what you would say, but what you believe you should say - and those aren't always the same thing. I think you can see the difficulty for teaching contexts. Non-native teachers, however, are more conscious of what they do, which makes them a great resource for teaching students in this area which is so critical for social and linguistic success. My conclusion was (in quick simplified summary version) that teamwork between native and non-native speakers is ideal for learning.

This all leads me to the following conclusion: both non-native and native speaker perspectives on language have value. This isn't just true for language teaching, but for writing as well.

Non-native speakers of English writing in English will do interesting things with the language, because they don't have the same underlying experience of language sources that a native speaking writer has had. Trouble may of course arise, as when an expression is ambiguous and the writer isn't fully aware of that ambiguity. But the alternate language background makes it easier to avoid falling into cliché, and can bring a freshness to writing style the likes of which you won't see in the writing of a native speaker (who, when avoiding cliché, will achieve freshness of a different variety).

Yet these writers can still fall into the trap of the assumption of fallibility. My friend Aliette de Bodard, has a debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, that has just come out from Angry Robot books. One reviewer claimed that the qualities of her writing that he disliked could be explained by the fact that English was not her native language - and while most other reviewers praise her work enthusiastically, you can imagine that Aliette was highly insulted by this. It piqued my own indignation to such an extent that I began writing this post. Her science fiction and fantasy writing grow directly out of a long history of reading sf/f in English - a natural source for the wonderful English she uses, which is then augmented in flavor and originality both by her own creativity and her unique perspective on the English language. She is also very articulate in discussing her own cross-cultural and cross-linguistic experiences with writing, so go take a look at some of her thoughts, here.

Aliette is not alone. Indeed, she's following in some very famous footsteps. History is full of works - classics in fact - written in English by non-native speakers. One of the most famous is Lolita, written in English by the Russian Vladimir Nabokov. [Reviewed here (1958).] And then there's Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad, a native speaker of Polish (here's another article about him).

I can't say that I haven't unconsciously fallen into the trap of not "getting" a non-native speaker's jokes. But after having worn the shoes of a non-native speaker, and experienced some of the consequences, I know I always try to question my own unconscious assumptions about language use and proficiency.

I hope you also find this post has given you some interesting things to think about.