Why we should stop using native-non-native speaker labels

This blog responds to queries after my recent presentation at the BALEAP seminar at Nottingham Trent University. Why do we need to stop using the native-non-native speaker labels? Are they really neo-racist; and what does ‘neo-racist’ mean? Are there no occasion when these labels can be used?

One reason for not using native-non-native speaker labels is that we don’t need them and can do better without them. I do not believe that ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’ actually exist outside the particular popular and academic discourses that produce the labels. People who speak languages in different ways, with different histories, and with varying degrees of competence in different settings exist all around us. These labels can never do justice to this complexity. If we discipline ourselves not to use the labels we will be forced into a more thoughtful discourse in which some of the politics of how we think about the use of language might become evident. A lot of writing that I see would not lose anything at all and would indeed be enriched without the labels. Years of normalisation and reification of the labels has created an easy, uncritical shorthand that has got us nowhere but a between-the-lines encouragement of prejudice.

But what about the common-sense argument that the labels are common, innocent phrases in our everyday language which do relate to real types of people and language use that we recognise when we meet them? This argument is exemplified in the sentence, ‘If I want someone to teach my children Russian I will look for a native speaker because they know the real Russian language’.

I could easily have said that myself. But when I really think about the sentence I begin to see that ‘native speaker’ is not an objective category. When I search into what I actually mean, I discover some sort of idealisation. It should not be any Russian, but one who fits the image that I have in my mind – perhaps appearance, skin colour, class, accent, name, demeanour, or an image from literature or film. It relates to the branded, exoticised and packaged, ‘us’-‘them’ slices of so-called ‘culture’ that one can find in commercial textbooks and that we might have been brought up with since primary school.

Regarding academia, just because scholars have been using the native-non-native speaker labels for a long time is not enough reason for continuing to use them in the future. The established use of ‘native speaker’ as a sociolinguistic category comes from particular paradigmatic discourses of science and is not fixed beyond critical scrutiny. We would have a more thoughtful science if the labels were scrapped.

So what exactly is the ‘between-the-lines encouragement of prejudice’ that is implicit in the native-non-native speaker labels? Here we need to look at the native-speakerism argument – that the labels are underpinned by an ideology that constructs people who we label as ‘non-native speakers’ as culturally deficient. This ideology is widespread. It is forged in the everyday talk that touches on language and cultural identity and in the scholarly articles that represent an imagined objective ‘science’, and then celebrated in the supposedly innocent talk of language teaching professions.

The core element of that makes this ideology problematic is neo-racism. I have looked again at some of the literature from which I and others get this term. It refers to a deep and unrecognised racism that this both implicit and hidden in what seem to be innocent descriptions of national and ethnic cultural difference. That these descriptions often claim to protect and celebrate what is definitive about these ‘cultures’ drives the implicit racism even further between the lines. They are racist because they define, confine and reduce groups of people. Moreover, it is the critical literature about native-non-native speaker labels that shows us that they bring with them references to culture that evoke images of deficiency or superiority – divisive associations with competence, knowledge and race – who can, who can’t, and what sort of people they are.

It is therefore the case that the labels themselves are problematic because of what they evoke. The people who use them might have innocent intentions, as I did with my sentence about ‘native speakers’ of Russian; but there are racist implications between the lines that we cannot escape from no matter what our personal intentions.

One attempted solution has been to ban the use of native-non-native speaker labels when they are obviously discriminatory, for example in job adverts and employment practices. This is effective to a degree. The implication is that we can then go ahead with using the labels when they are not discriminatory. This doesn’t work though because of the between-the-lines nature of the issue all the other times that we use the labels. Also, thinking that we’ve solved the problem in one domain makes us more complacent in other domains.

Another attempted solution has been to find alternative labels. This also doesn’t work because the problem is with the nature of the difference that is being evoked, regardless of the words that are being used. One sure way of perpetuating the damage is to use acronyms (NNS, NS, NNEST, NEST and so on), or to shorten the labels to ’native’ or ‘non-native’. This serves simply to push the labelling even further into a normalised, reified discourse, where we are even less likely to reflect on their meaning, and where a technicalisation of the labels somehow makes them more legitimate.

We should only ever use the labels when we are critically discussing their impact as items of discourse, and never as though they refer to actual, real groups of people. This is not the same as using sexist labels for gender or the equivalent for other groups. What the native-non-native speaker labels refer to do not actually exist at all. The whole thing is either the product of or convenient material for native-speakerism.

Previous blogs on this topic are Stepping out of the convenient and What is behind the ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ labels.

See this response.

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