Of native speaker denial

In reply to Marek Kiczkowiak’s tweets, where he questioned the distinction made in academic literature between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs), I asserted that there is a clear, measurable difference between them. Kiczkowiak has just replied, insisting that no such difference exists. Let me state my case a bit more fully.

Native speakers of language X are those for whom language X is the language they learnt through primary socialization in early childhood, as a first language. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs or NNSs because people vary, but there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to. For the last 60 years, the term “native speaker” has been used in the literature concerning studies of language learning, and one of the most studied phenomenon of all is the failure of the vast majority of postadolescent L2 learners to achieve what Birdsong (2009) refers to as “nativelike attainment”.

On the prevailing view of ultimate attainment in second language acquisition, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners. There are few exceptions to this generalization (Birdsong 1992).

Note that claims concerning the relative abilities of these two groups are of general patterns, thus not disconfirmed by individual cases. The claims, nevertheless, all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs, and the psychological reality of native speakerness. The specific claim that very few postadolescent L2 learners attain nativelike proficiency is supported by a great deal of empirical evidence (see, e.g., reviews by Long 2007, Harley and Wang 1995; Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson 2003; Patkowski 1994).

As I said in my last post, 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. When monolingual speakers are presented with 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?

When trying to explain why most L2 learners don’t attain native competence, scholars have investigated various “sensitive periods”. It’s widely accepted that there is a period of peak sensitivity which lasts from from birth until approx. age six (see, e.g., Hyltenstam,  1992;  Meisel,  2009;  Morford  and  Mayberry, 2000).

There follows an offset, perhaps lasting five or six more years where the acquisition of native-like phonology, lexis and collocations is concerned, and until the mid-teens for grammar, during which progressively fewer learners will achieve native-like abilities. After closure of the Sensitive Periods, a small minority of learners may achieve near-native abilities, and a tiny group may be able to pass for native on a few areas and/or tightly constrained tasks (e.g. Donaldson, 2011; Marinova-Todd, 2003; van Boxtel, 2005), but no-one will be able to achieve native-like abilities across the board. …….

Native-like pronunciation of an L2 or dialect is most likely (not guaranteed) for those with an age of onset (AO) between 0 and 6 years; still possible, but decreasingly likely, with an AO occurring during the offset period from 6 to 12; and impossible for anyone with an AO later than 12. ….

 Native-like morphology and syntax are most likely (not guaranteed) for those with an AO between 0 and 6 years; still possible, but decreasingly likely, with an AO during the slightly longer offset period from 6 to the mid-teens (15, plus or minus two); and impossible for anyone with an AO later than that. Beyond age 16 or 17, the degree of grammatical accentedness will, again, depend on such factors as L1 and L2 exposure and use, language aptitude, motivation, and metalinguistic knowledge, and so will only be indirectly and weakly related to AO.

The position for lexis and collocational abilities is less clear, chiefly due to the scarcity of studies to date. However, such research findings as there are suggest that acquisition in this domain, too, is subject to maturational constraints. (Granena & Long, 2013).

When I refer to the difference between NSs and NNSs, I refer to it in the context of this area of research, where the difference is clear, operational, and the focus of an enormous amount of empirical research. Attempts to explain the phenomenon of non-nativelike attainment by most L2 learners are ongoing and there are still lively debates about putative sensitive periods, but the phenomenon itself is, pace Kiczkowiak, surely worthy of more research.

Which brings me to Kiczkowiak’ criticisms.

Argument 1

Kiczkowiak refers to “studies which shed serious doubts on Sorace’s findings” (about grammaticality judgements ).

For example, Birdsong (1992, 2004), Bialystok (1997) and Davies (2001) also studied judgments of grammaticality and all concluded that statistically there was no significant difference in the judgments made by ‘native’ and proficient ‘non-native speakers’. In other words, both groups have very similar intuitions about the language. And it is important to add that they all focused on adult learners who were well past the critical or sensitive period.

Three points:

  1. The three sources Kiczkowiak cites all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs.
  2. As noted above, Birdsong states that, with few exceptions, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners, an assertion that Bialystock agrees with.
  3. The different findings on grammaticality judgements say nothing about findings regarding pronunciation, morphology or lexis and collocation. They don’t, that is, seriously challenge the claim that few, if any NNSs achieve native-like abilities across the board. Nor does it argue against the distinction between the two groups.

Argument 2

Next, Kiczkowiak tackles the question of critical/sensitive period. He refers again to the studies on grammaticality  and says

they show that ultimate attainment is possible even for adult learners.

What they actually show is that a few NNSs perform as well as NSs on such tests. This doesn’t refute the claims I refer to above, nor, again, is it an argument against the distinction between the two groups.

Argument 3

Kiczkowiak says

there all those ‘non-native speakers’ out there who are virtually indistinguishable from a ‘native speaker’.

True, there are some NNSs who are “virtually indistinguishable” from NSs, but, once again, it doesn’t support the argument that the distinction between the two groups is “imaginary”.

And just by the way, Kiczkowiak’s example of the wonderful writer Conrad ignores the fact that Conrad had a noteable NNS accent when speaking English.

Argument 4

Kiczkowiak then quotes Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2003, p.580)

the highly successful L2 speakers that we have characterised as having reached ‘only’ near-native proficiency are, in fact, native-like in all contexts except perhaps in the laboratory of the linguist with specific interest in second language learning mechanisms.

That some L2 speakers achieve such high levels of proficiency is a caveat which doesn’t alter the conclusion that

nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners

and, anyway, yet again, it’s not an argument that the distinction between NSs and NNSs doesn’t exist.

Kiczkowiak concludes:

So linguistically speaking, is there a difference between the two groups? There might well be. And the word MIGHT is important here.

He’s quite simply wrong: there IS a well-established difference; no “might” about it.

Still, Kiczkowiak’s main argument is this:

…we need to look beyond language proficiency as the defining characteristic of a ‘native speaker’. In fact, it is quite ironic that in the opening sentence of his blog post Geoff calls Russ Mayne (Evidence-based EFL) a “cheery cherry-picker of evidence”, when he himself has cheerfully cherry-picked the evidence limiting the discussion to SLA research, completely ignoring wider sociocultural issues that are also at play…. So I’m not saying the evidence Geoff presented is wrong. However, it is very limited. And thus questionable.

I didn’t cherry pick evidence. I limited the discussion to SLA research, and in particular, to psycholinguistic research that adopts a rationalist methodology based on the twin principles of logical argument and empirical evidence, because that’s where, in my opinion, the best work is being done to understand second language learning. In this necessarily limited domain, the distinction between NSs and NNSs is a real one, which is all I’ve ever claimed in this debate.

But Kiczkowiak wants to question this limited approach. He says:

As Block (2003, p.4) says, SLA has for a long time dealt with “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”. Who the ‘native’ or the ‘non-native speaker’ under study really is has very rarely been problematised in SLA. However, Block’s (and others’) calls for a more socioculturally oriented SLA have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The possible reason for this is exemplified really well by one of Geoff’s Tweets where he referred to what I’m planning to engage in the rest of the post as “sociolinguistic twaddle that obfuscates a simple psychological reality”. But wouldn’t the reverse hold true as well? Namely, that the psycholinguistic twaddle obfuscates a rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality?

Well, no, it wouldn’t. While psycholinguistic research has led to a better understanding of the well-defined phenomena investigated, sociolinguistic research has had less success. What is this “rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality” that Kiczkowiak refers to? The only source he cites is Block. What “reality” does Block describe? How does it help us to understand language learning? What does Block’s description of SLA research mean? What are “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”? I suggest that Block’s description of SLA research, and indeed the whole of his published work on second language learning, does little to persuade anybody that a more socioculturally oriented SLA is needed. There are, of course, better advocates for a sociolinguistic approach to language learning than Block, but even if Kiczkowiak had given a better account of such an approach, it would do nothing to rescue his denial of a clear difference between NSs and NNSs.

The clearly-defined difference between NSs and NNSs is useful when studying SLA. This has absolutely no implications for the fitness of NNSs as teachers, and I support those who argue reasonably for an end to the absurd demand that teachers in ELT be native speakers. The fight against discrimination against NNSs isn’t helped by Kiczkowiak’s unnecessary denial of a difference between NSs and NNSs.


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8 thoughts on “Of native speaker denial

  1. Thanks for the reply. Just for the record – I don’t think I ever insisted that no measurable difference between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ existed. Certainly not in my post. You seem to have completely misunderstood me. So let’s quickly clarify things. I did acknowledge that there might be such a difference in my post and never denied it. However, my main point is that especially in ELT the difference between the two groups has little to do with any measurable differences in proficiency, but everything with power, privilege and ideology. It’s a pity you don’t really address the sociolinguistic factors I refer to in my post. We seem to be talking about from two completely different paradigms.


    • Hi Marek,

      Above all, let’s be amicable. I support the work you’re doing and I apologise for any silly personal remarks I’ve made.

      My only, very limited, very specific claim is that there’s a difference between NSs and NNSs. I agree that that this has little to do with your main concerns and I agree that the real issues are to do with power, privilege and ideology.

      I don’t think we’re talking about two completely different paradigms, because there is NO paradigm, properly speaking, of research into how people learn a second language. There are lots of different approaches, and, as I think I’ve made clear, I have serious reservations about how those in the field of sociolingusitics go about their research. Never mind: you have every right to float that boat.

      Let’s just agree that when it comes to evaluating claims made by anybody, we’ll let rational argument and empirical evidence guide us.

      I sincerely wish you well Marek.



      Liked by 4 people

      • Hi Geoff,
        Apologies accepted 🙂
        What strikes me in your reply is that it doesn’t reflect the content of your post, which I think also to an extent misrepresents the main thrust of my original argument. You don’t have to edit the post if you don’t want to, but I want to make clear also for those who stumble across it here what the main problems are.
        First, as I mentioned before, I never insisted that the psycholinguistic difference between the two groups didn’t exist. I did cast doubt on it in my post, but that’s difference from a complete and insistent denial which I seem to have engaged in. This clearly misleads the reader and misrepresents my own argument and post to which you’re replying.
        Second, while you addressed the arguments I used in the first part of my post concerning SLA research, you choose to ignore over half of the original post about the sociolinguistic differences, which was the main thrust of the argument. So I’m all for the rational evaluation of claims and arguments you suggest in your comment, but you fail to do so in the post. I appreciate that you might have reservations about sociolinguistics, but this shouldn’t lead you to ignore the arguments and evidence from the field.
        All in all, when someone reads this article, they might have the impression that a) my post was some sort of insistent denial of SLA research on differences between the two groups (which you had also previously suggested on Twitter) b) all the arguments made in my original post have been thoroughly addressed (you ignored the main thrust of the argument), c) I don’t explain the sociocultural factors at play.
        I sincerely wish you well too, Geoff, but I find parts of this blog post rather puzzling bearing in mind your critical approach and the claims made in your comment – “the real issues are to do with power, privilege and ideology”.
        Re the paradigms, perhaps it isn’t explicitly stated in SLA, but it seems to me that it’s heavily reliant on postpositivism. On the other hand, the main thrust of my post and argument was more constructivist in nature. In other words, while there might well be measurable and objective differences between the two groups that can potentially be applied to all their members (postpositivism), the reality is often much less clear cut, but much more subjective, so an individual’s experience of their ‘nativeness’ is socially co-constructed (constructivism). Perhaps this is why we seem to fail to come to any agreement?


      • Hi Marek,

        I’m glad you accept my apologies.

        1. I said in my post that you insisted on denying that there was a clear and measurable difference between NSs and NNSs. The title of your post, the insistence that there only “might” be differences, and your tweets to the effect that the differences were fuzzy, ill-defined, subjective, imagined, abstract, theoretical, ideological, and refuted by as many studies as supported them, was what led me to write the post.

        2. I thought I had addressed the sociolinguistic issues you raised, but I’ll certainly go back, read your post more carefully, and respond.

        3. Your suggestion that SLA psycholinguistic research is heavily reliant on “postpositivism” rings bells with a post I did on Research Paradigms in reply to Steve’s Brown’s similar suggestin recently. https://criticalelt.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/research-paradigms/ I think you’re right to say that if you take a constructivist approach to understanding SLA (and if I understand what you mean by that) it might explain why we fail to agree.



  2. hi all

    i was reading something that struck a parallel with me [https://fredrikdeboer.com/2017/04/10/disentangling-race-from-intelligence-and-genetics/]: the author was describing how he believes that intelligence (as measured by IQ) is significantly genetically influenced yet he believes that any differences in demographic groups in intelligence are due not to genetics but rather socioeconomic and environmental inequalities;

    both Geoff and Marek agree that “power, privilege and ideology” are the major issues in native speakerism; Geoff argues that the difference between speakers X and speakers Y are psychologically real, Marek argues this difference is less a psychological difference and more a socially constructed one

    i see Marek’s position is misplaced in the sense that he is confusing a “real” psychological difference with how that difference is embedded in the environment of “power, privilege and ideology”; and he is aiming like Holliday at the wrong target it is not SLA at fault but how any SLA findings play out in society e.g. the test-publishing nexus are happy to keep churning tests & publications based on some conception of native speakers (they can claim is from SLA work) whilst happily ignoring other SLA work (e.g, interlanguage) which contradict their bottom line



    • Hi Mura,

      Just to be clear, I agree with Marek that “power, privilege and ideology” are the major issues when fighting for the rights of NNESTs. I agree with your view that Marek’s position is misplaced; it seems perilously close to the views of those in the field of sociolinguistics, including Block, Lantolf, Markee, Firth, Wagner, Holliday and Larsen-Freeman these days, who blame those who take what they call a “positivist” (or “postpositivist”) approach to research (and who display “science eny”) for not concerning themselves with social issues. There are many doing psycholinguistic research in SLA who are activists in the fight against state power, privilege and post liberal ideology, but they keep it separate from their research.



      Liked by 1 person

      • Hello,
        Mura – First, I think we have to acknowledge that by placing ‘nativeness’ at the centre of its enquiry, without really aiming to problematise the concept, SLA has in its own way contributed to entrenching the view that a) the NS is a well-defined, objective and value-free category b) the NS is the ultimate goal of second language acquisition and learning (albeit a forever unachievable one). Mind you, I’m not saying this was the intention. To me it seems a bit counterintuitive that the goal learners’ progress should be measured against in SLA is the NS. After all, it seems that most SLA researchers agree that it’s an unachievable goal. Furthermore, the second in SLA suggests to me that we should be looking at proficient L2 users of the language, not L1 users.
        Geoff – a concern with social issues is not what I mean by a more socioculturally oriented SLA. What I would like to see is that SLA stops treating the NS as a well-defined and objective entity. For example, when you say that “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”; this refers to a lab-like situation, not the real world. In reality, there would be important sociolinguistic issues at play, which we shouldn’t ignore, and which I outlined in my post. For example, the speaker’s appearance or race might lead some to deny or doubt their ‘nativeness’. A sociolinguist would tell you that it is far from certain whether we will know a ‘native speaker’ when we meet one.


  3. Since I can’t directly reply to your previous reply above, Geoff, I’ll do it here. And let’s definitely bury the hatchet 🙂
    1. Insisting that there might be a difference (as opposed to definitely is) is quite different from insisting that there isn’t. As per my Tweets, I thought this post was written in response to my blog post. At least that’s what’s stated in the introduction. In any case, I never said on Twitter that there were no differences between the two groups. I simply doubted them and pointed out that if sociolinguistic research is taken into account, these differences become blurred and subjective.
    2. In your post you say: What is this “rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality” that Kiczkowiak refers to? I’d encourage you to read the second half of my post where I explain this clearly with appropriate references. To me it seems like you’ve only read the first half of the post, and skipped the main thrust of the main argument (sociolinguistics). Or read it, but ignored it? Or didn’t feel like addressing the arguments there? Or perhaps you only wanted to focus on SLA. In any case, this blog post comes across as if you thoroughly and completely refuted all my arguments presented in the post, which we both know isn’t the case. You did refute the points I made about SLA, but didn’t address any of the other evidence I presented.
    3. Possibly.

    I was also wondering how an SLA researcher would define the NS (be it in terms of proficiency or other factors). I’m also quite curious to know how this definition is used to sample participants for SLA studies.


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