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.
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.
- The three sources Kiczkowiak cites all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs.
- As noted above, Birdsong states that, with few exceptions, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners, an assertion that Bialystock agrees with.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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