A few days ago, that cheery cherry-picker of evidence, Russ Mayne, retwittered this gem from Adrian Holliday:
I no longer review research that compares ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers as though the groups are real and not imagined.
I think Dr. Johnson’s reply to Berkley will do here: Kick Holliday in the shin and say “I refute you thus”.
As usual, nobody took any notice of my smart alec reply, and Holliday’s tweet has so far got 44 “Likes” and has been re-tweeted 26 times. It provoked Marek Kiczkowiak, he of TEFL Equity Advocates, to say:
I’d also question whether we know what a NS is and what essentially makes them different from a NNS. Clear cut definition difficult I think.
Also questionable why learner’s progress should be compared to or rated by a NS, e.g. raters in pron research mostly NS
By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species, each with a set of immutable characteristics
I made a few comments on these tweets and promised to reply on this blog with my reasons for stating that pace Holliday and Kiczkowiak, there’s good reason to distinguish between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NSSs). Here they are. My thanks, once again, to Mike Long.
The psychological reality of native speakerness is easily demonstrated by the fact that we know one, and who isn’t one, when we meet them, often on the basis of just a few utterances. On a more objective level, when monolingual speakers are presented with (even very short) recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNs and asked to say which are which, the judges are always very good at distinguishing them, with inter-rater reliability typically above .9. How do they do this, and why is there so much agreement if there is no such thing as a NS?
What distinguishes them has been well documented in over 100 published empirical studies in the literature on age effects and maturational constraints. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs, or all NNSs, of course – for the simple reason that people vary. However, there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to.
For good examples of the numerous studies comparing NSs and NNSs, we may consider Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) and Granena & Long (2013).
If we take Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) first, we may note what they say at the start:
… what appears to be more compelling evidence for adult-learner nativelikeness can be found in studies that have focused exclusively on late, high-proficiency L2 speakers who have been preselected, or screened, for potentially nativelike verbal behavior. Characteristic of these studies is that they have employed quite sophisticated techniques for linguistic scrutiny, either through (a) great stringency and detail of the analyses, (b) demanding tests and tasks (e.g., through the choice of unusual target-language structures that are known to be difficult for learners), and/or (c) the use of multiple-task designs covering various linguistic domains rather than one or a few isolated structures, phenomena, or domains. These methodological features will be illustrated next through a review of a sample of studies.
and at the end
Our primary interpretation of the results is that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners and, furthermore, is much less common among child learners than has previously been assumed.
Here’s the conclusion from Granena & Long (2013). Note that “SP” refers to “Sensitive Periods” (sometimes referred to as “Critical Periods”) and “AO” refers to “Age of Onset”.
The evidence from this study, plus findings from previous research by others, leads to the conclusion that there is an SP for phonology, its offset beginning at age six, and possibly earlier (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than five, and larger mean differences between the groups), probably closing by age 12. There is an SP for lexis and collocations, its offset beginning around age six (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than age nine, and larger mean differences between groups), probably closing between ages nine and 12, earlier than the SP for morphology and syntax. There is an SP for morphology and syntax (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than 12, and larger mean differences between groups), its off-set beginning at age six, and closing in the mid-teens.
Unlike phonology and grammar, lexical and collocational knowledge continues to develop throughout the life-span in both NSs and NNSs, but with explicit learning playing an increasingly important role, as the human capacity for implicit learning, especially for implicit item learning, gradually declines with age. It is for that reason that language aptitude can play a mitigating role, modifying the negative effects of increasing AO and age in general, in the lexical and collocational domain.
Just to deal with Kiczkowiak’s assertion
By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species,each with a set of immutable characteristics
No-one has ever suggested such a thing. NSs continue to add bibs and bobs to their repertoire throughout their lives (most obviously, but not only, lexis and collocations), and often lose stuff with increasing senility or after a brain injury. NNSs obviously do the same. Not different species, but measurably different.
NSs and NNSs are measurably different. I rest my case.
Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2009). Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny. Language Learning 59, 249-306.
Granena, G., & Long, M. H. (2013). Age of onset, length of residence, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment in three linguistic domains. Second Language Research 29, 3, 311-343.