who's a native speaker?

Beverly Flanigan flanigan at OHIOU.EDU
Tue Feb 3 19:39:07 UTC 2004

Well, at the risk of being labeled one of the terminology idiots, I'll add
my own expertise.  After almost 25 years of teaching graduate classes
composed of one-third to one-half foreign students who have learned English
as a second language, I can attest to the reality of non-native English.  I
assume Erin is not concerned with a Chomskyan or Paikedayan (OK, Tom?)
debate over "native speaker" as an idealization; she appears to be
genuinely concerned about the writing ability of "real" non-native
speaker/writers.  This is not a matter to be ignored, since non-native
"accents" do carry over into writing too--particularly in the use of
articles, word order, and lexical derivations.   Most of us in linguistics
departments have torn our hair out many times over the writing of even
seemingly sophisticated students and, dare I say it, colleagues.

As to what constitutes a starting criterion for real "native speaker
ability," selecting birth in the U.S. (or Britain or another "core"
English-speaking country) is not always a safe assumption, though it is
more likely to work than birth abroad (even to English-speaking
parents).  A child's parents, peer group, schooling, and the surrounding
society's language uses are determinative, in various
proportions.  Furthermore, the age at which a non-native speaker acquires
or learns English is important; most studies suggest that after the age of
7, or 10, or 14 (the age varies, but puberty is almost always the cut-off),
it is virtually impossible to become native-like--in either accent,
grammar, or lexicon or a combination thereof.  "Near-native" is a more
fluid concept, but by definition it is not "like a native."

I know, Joseph Conrad wrote wonderful English, but he very probably had
editorial help.  So the issue really is:  How much editing is Erin, or one
of her assistants, willing to do (very little, I gather)?  Is there a
reasonable range of ability that one might insist on?  Fluency in speech
may not translate into writing that reflects "natural" English.  Those of
us in the second language teaching and learning field wrestle with these
issues all the time.  This ain't a "shit fight"; and for Erin, it's a
matter, I assume, of including authentic American English (of any dialect)
in the corpus.

Beverly Olson Flanigan
Associate Professor of Linguistics
Ohio University
Athens, OH  45701

At 04:32 AM 2/3/2004 -0600, Page Stephens wrote:
>If I were you I'd stick to your original criteria even for online
>publications since if you attempt to narrow it down you will only end up in
>a quibble over terminology or an academic shit fight which is even worse.
>The only caveat I have in terms online writing is that it is impossible to
>know whether an online writer meets these criteria but that would be true no
>matter what the criteria were.
>Plato is long dead as are platonic ideals. "American English" is an
>abstraction which does not and never has existed. Take it from an expert: If
>you attempt to restrict the criteria further you will inevitably get in
>Great project but just don't make more problems for yourself than are
>absolutely necessary.
>In other words ignore the idiots who make quibbling over terminology their
>raison d'etre and keep up the good work.
>Page Stephens
>----- Original Message -----
>From: "Erin McKean" <editor at VERBATIMMAG.COM>
>Sent: Monday, February 02, 2004 4:41 PM
>Subject: who's a native speaker?
> > ---------------------- Information from the mail
>header -----------------------
> > Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> > Poster:       Erin McKean <editor at VERBATIMMAG.COM>
> > Subject:      who's a native speaker?
> > --------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> > Folks  -- does anyone want to weigh in or point me towards sources
> > about who is or who isn't a "native speaker" of American English?
> >
> > We're trying to hammer out guidelines for people who want to
> > contribute their online writing to the American National Corpus
> > project (http://americannationalcorpus.org).
> > Right now, for some published authors, we're taking birth in the US
> > or working/writing in the US for more than X amount of time. This
> > seems to work because this published writing is heavily edited by US
> > copyeditors, etc.
> >
> > However, the same rule seems a little lax for online, unedited
> > American English, as it doesn't take into account home language or
> > anything like that. We don't want to be unduly restrictive, but at
> > the same time we don't want to get too much unrepresentative writing
> > in the corpus.
> >
> > Again, this is for WRITTEN material, not spoken, which means that
> > there will be, I would hope, fewer issues than with near-native
> > spoken American English, even though it is very casual writing.
> >
> > Any help would be appreciated.
> >
> > Thanks!
> >
> > Erin McKean
> > editor at verbatimmag.com

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