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What is your definition of “native speaker” and why does it matter to you to have a definition?
Thread poster: Bernhard Sulzer

Bernhard Sulzer  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 02:50
English to German
+ ...
Oct 11, 2014

Propositions:

1. “Native speaker" is as a criterion based on which clients can filter/select translators on many translator portals. Opinions of translators and clients vary as to what a “native speaker” is. I propose that a clear definition for this term is necessary to prevent false claims or confusing opinions on the subject. If there is no definition, everyone can claim to be a native speaker of any language. Please share your definition and opinion.

I propose the following are not satisfactory definitions for the term “native speaker”:
a) simply declaring you are a native speaker
b) leaving the assessment of whether or not a person is a native speaker of a particular language to other native speakers of that language (without a definition for what a native speaker or a native language is)

I suggest that leaving it up to persons who simply claim to be native speakers to determine whether or not someone is a native speaker is not satisfactory for determining whether or not someone really is a “native speaker” because based on that reasoning, anyone can claim to be a native speaker. Whoever says he/she is a native speaker would be a native speaker and other persons who claim to be native speakers can verify it. This is circular reasoning.


2. I propose: that “native speaker of a language” (or “native speech” or “native language”) is an important criterion/filter used by clients in the translation industry to select translators; because of it, the definition matters and the meaning of “native speaker” needs to be as accurately defined as possible. Please give your reasons for why the definition is important and why it matters to you.



It is assumed: that many in the translation sector have similar opinions about what the term “native speaker implies and/or means;” to many, it seems quite clear whether or not someone is a native speaker; however, there are quite a few who have a different definition/opinion/concept or reject the notion/term altogether. Our discussion might help find a clear definition that can be accepted by the majority of participating posters and many others who read this thread.

I propose that there are many clients (arguably) who believe it is important to work with a native speaker of the target language. When someone is believed to be a “native speaker” (for example on a website or translator portal), clients should be able to trust that the person is indeed a native speaker as per a commonly acceptable definition. This is important because the client has certain expectations when he/she chooses a native speaker.


At this point, no definition for “native speech,” “native language” or “native speaker” is in place at Proz.com (or on many other translator platforms). Before portals install a verification process such as the one involving assessments by other native speakers, I suggest it would be helpful to first “define” “native speaker of a language” (or “native language” or “native speech”), and I would suggest to translator portals that they display the definition prominently so that clients and translators are well informed.

This will hopefully help prevent false claims of native languages on this and other portals and/or websites and help clients, translators and anyone else to better understand the concept of “native speaker.”


I propose that simply declaring one’s native language without a definition for what a native language or a native speaker is does not establish the fact that someone is a native speaker of that language or that the language is the person’s native language. I also believe it invites abuse (false claims) and arguably puts those at a competitive disadvantage who are well informed on the subject and have honestly reported their native language(s).


Before you post your comments, please keep all forum rules in mind.
See: http://www.proz.com/siterules/forum/12

I will monitor the thread as much as I can (but you will understand that I can’t be on here every hour of the day). Moderators will also have a look. Any violations will be dealt with by moderators.

I believe it’s important that we find an adequate definition and that a majority of participants will help find a satisfying definition or at least help define the concept. In addition, I ask everyone to discuss this topic fairly. Personal attacks will not be tolerated and moderators and/or Proz.com staff may take additional action for any violations of the forum rules.


Here are the main questions:
1. What is your definition of “native speaker of a language” (or “native language” or “native speech”)?
2. Why does it matter to you to have a definition for “native speaker,” (or native language” or “native speech”)?


For the purpose of this discussion, we will assume the following:

“Native language is only one factor that a client may consider when screening a translator or interpreter.” (Posted on Proz.com’s FAQ pages).

But we will assume that it is an important factor and that there might be important reasons to define it.

We will also assume that the purpose of this discussion is not to criticize Proz.com or any other similar platform since they are independent businesses and do business based on policies they put in place.

The discussion should help express our opinions so that Proz.com, Proz.com members and users as well as any other readers of this thread can make more informed decisions with regard to the term(s) “native speaker of a language” (or “native language” or “native speech.”) Suggestions for Proz.com are just that: suggestions.

Even if we don’t arrive at a satisfactory definition, I hope that the discussion will contribute to a better understanding of what the terms “native speaker,” “native language” and “native speech” mean.

If you want to read previous comments on a similar topic, go to:
http://www.proz.com/forum/prozcom_suggestions/227485-should_“native_language”_claims_be_verified.html


[Edited at 2014-10-11 03:46 GMT]


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 14:50
Chinese to English
Better not to have a definition Oct 11, 2014

I don't really believe in definitions in the first place. In this debate in particular, I don't think definitions are going to advance things. Colleagues from Hong Kong and Singapore aren't going to fit comfortably into any definition of native language. They're fed up with the whole debate because it's always going to feel exclusionary to them. (That's my reading of the situation, though I can't speak for them, of course.)

I am with you in that I do think nativeness captures something important, but if we're being honest, none of us knows exactly what it is. In the absence of clearer knowledge, attempting to nail down a definition is as likely to get that je ne sais quoi wrong as it is to capture it. When there isn't conceptual clarity, imposing hard-edged, binary distinctions isn't an honest way forward.

While I'm here, I'd like to say how I'd like the debate to advance. This is quite specific to my pair, but I think it's important.

Chinese-English is probably the biggest pair in the world these days. But the number of native English speakers who speak sufficiently good Chinese to be translators is still small (growing with increased emigration from China to English-speaking countries, but still small). Therefore there is a need to develop models for Chinese to English translation that use Chinese native speakers and produce good quality. This could presumably be copied in other pairs with similar shortages of qualified translators.

At the moment my best idea is the English native (E) translator+Chinese native (C) proofreader. Currently, the reverse model C+E is very common, and it's horrible. I think if we reverse it we could quite quickly achieve a better working equilibrium which recognises both the importance of a native language instinct and the realities of translator supply.

So that's what I think - sorry not to be more positive about the definition thing, Bernhard, but I don't think that debate is going to take us where we want to go.


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 02:50
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
Definition is easy but the term is nearly useless Oct 11, 2014

I think "native speaker" is pretty easy to define if painted in broad strokes--a native speaker is a person who has grown up speaking and learning a language in an everyday context.

No need to get into specifics about what "grown up" means in this sentence (its pedantic and useless to argue over whether a person needs to immigrate to a new country and start using its language at 6.95 years old or 7.35 years old to qualify as a "native") or about other specifics; if you have to ask yourself if someone is a native speaker they probably aren't, and moreover, if a person were to fall into some nebulous gray area between being a "native" and "non-native" speaker the term has already lost any usefulness it originally had.

Which brings me to my next point: "native speaker" is ultimately a useless term unless used simply to expedite/simplify the hiring process. A more useful term is "native-level speaker", and this where things get tricky. Any agency that uses "native speaker" as THE determining factor in their assessment of translators is either being obtuse or has made a calculated decision that they simply have too many applicants and need to find a way to narrow the field. Requiring a "native-level speaker" on the other hand is much more appropriate, though as has been mentioned before there are always exceptions to the rule (would anyone seriously rather have me, a Biology/East Asian Studies major, translate a physics thesis over Einstein's reincarnated ghost?).


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 07:50
Member (2008)
Italian to English
All the answers you could possibly need Oct 11, 2014

All the answers you could possibly need are here:

http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/14582/meaning-of-native-speaker-of-english


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 02:50
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
Another note: Regarding Phil's idea Oct 11, 2014

For the last three plus years I've used exactly the arrangement that Phil suggested for almost all of my Chinese to English translations, and have been quite happy with the results.

In fact, I've always been curious about how many other translators here use a "native-level" proofreader from the opposite end of their pair when translating? There has been a comment or two in the forums that almost makes me think some look down on this arrangement, but I really don't see why. Trading proofreading services (I proofread for my partner and she proofreads for me) ensures that I get accurate feedback on problem areas of every translation I do. And the entire arrangement is quite quick--I don't ask for a complete proofread of documents, just of the 5 or 10 places where I'm unsure/stuck. Sometimes these problems are my own in comprehension, and sometimes they are areas where the author is wrong or unclear, but I'm always glad to have the opinion of a native-level speaker in making this determination. The best part of all of this is that the constant feedback on those areas where my "non-nativeness" is most apparent has increased my comprehension and translation abilities immensely over these past 3 years.

My feeling is that many do use this arrangement, and others would like to, but are afraid to state it openly for fear that others will look down on their talents as linguists (I know this has been the case for me). What I've slowly realized is that this sort of fear by some and arrogance by others that holds back the entire industry as a whole. Returning to the topic of this thread, perhaps a better question for agencies to ask than "Are you a native speaker?" is "Do you have the capacity to ensure native level output for your translation? If so, please explain in detail".


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564354352  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 08:50
Danish to English
+ ...
A definition is useless if it stands alone Oct 11, 2014

Same old hat discussion, Bernhard, even if you raise a very leading question under a new thread.

What use is any definition of 'native speaker' if it stands alone?

What use is it for anyone to know that someone is a 'native speaker' of a language unless they also know (have proof, even) that the same person is 1. qualified to work into (or out of, for that matter) this mother tongue, 2. qualified to work out of (or into) any other language?


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 08:50
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
On whether a definition will help prevent false claims, and more... Oct 11, 2014

Bernhard Sulzer wrote:
“Native speaker" is as a criterion based on which clients can filter/select translators on many translator portals.


Yes.

Opinions of translators and clients vary as to what a “native speaker” is.


Yes.

I propose that a clear definition for this term is necessary to prevent false claims...


Logically, having a clear definition will increase the number of false claims.

If being considered "native" or not did not affect one's reputation or chance of getting more jobs, then perhaps having a definition would prevent false claims, since there would be no reason to claim falsely. But since being considered "native" does affect one's believeability in discussions and does affect how many jobs one gets, those who are moral will attempt to apply the definition as broadly as possible (so that it includes them), and those who are pragmantic about it will simply lie.

Having a clear definition of it will only help prevent false claims if there is some kind of checking involved, and we have discovered in the previous 100+ post long thread about this that the definitions that are easily, cheaply and reliably checkable are not the definitions that definitionists generally favour.

I suggest that leaving it up to persons who simply claim to be native speakers to determine whether or not someone [else] is a native speaker is not satisfactory for determining whether or not someone really is a “native speaker” because based on that reasoning, anyone can claim to be a native speaker.


You have a good point, but the camp rooting for "a speaker being native if he is regarded by other native speakers as a native speaker" is quite strong on ProZ.com. And if you get right down to it, it is actually the definition that most people use (clients too).

I understand the logical problem, of course: how to determine who the initial set of native speakers will be to vet all subsequent native speakers. But generally that is not a problem, since most languages are tied to a region.

[Edited at 2014-10-11 18:11 GMT]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 08:50
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
A proposal in reply, to solve the problem of the lack of a clear definition Oct 11, 2014

Bernhard Sulzer wrote:
I propose that [since] “native speaker of a language” is an important criterion used by clients ... to select translators, [therefore] the definition matters, and [therefore] the meaning of “native speaker” needs to be as accurately defined as possible.


Your second "therefore" is the same as the first "therefore".

Accuracy is only important if accuracy is possible and if accuracy is enforceable. Even if ProZ.com defines "native language", very few clients (or only those who come from a-retentive cultures) will actually read the definition of "native" before selecting the "native" option.

When someone is believed to be a “native speaker” (for example on a website or translator portal), clients should be able to trust that the person is indeed a native speaker as per a commonly acceptable definition.


Well, since there is no single commonly acceptable definition (not among clients and not among translators, and because a single definition is difficult to apply in complex situations), allow me to propose something in reply, that I have proposed in the previous threads:

I propose that clients should be able to see why a translator regards himself as a native speaker. That way, the client can decide for himself whether he believes the translator's claim of being a native speaker.

When selecting a native language on one's profile page, there should be a list of criteria commonly applied to nativeness, from which the translator can select one or more options. If none of the options apply to the translator but he still believes himself to be a native speaker, there should be a free-form text field in which the translator can type his reasoning. When clients view the translator's profile page, they should be able to see all of that in the profile page near the "native" language indication.

In other words, instead of one single defintion, allow multiple definitions, but be transparent about which definition applies to which translator.

[Edited at 2014-10-11 18:12 GMT]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 08:50
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Replies to Bernhards two questions, and tie-in with my previous proposal Oct 11, 2014

Bernhard Sulzer wrote:Here are the main questions:
1. What is your definition of “native speaker of a language” (or “native language” or “native speech”)?
2. Why does it matter to you to have a definition for “native speaker,” (or native language” or “native speech”)?


1. My defintion is this: a native speaker is a speaker that other trustworthy native speakers will regard as a native speaker.

2. It matters to me, for the reasons that you mentioned -- clients select translators, and translators give regard to fellow translators, based on whether they are a native speaker (among other things).

However, your reasoning seems to be: since clients select translators on nativeness, therefore it is important to have a single definition of nativeness. And that is self-restricted reasoning.

Allow me to broaden it for you: since clients select translators on nativeness, therefore it is important for clients to be able to determine (to their own satisfaction) whether a translator who is claimed to be a native speaker is in fact a native speaker.

So, take this list of reasons that people have given in previous threads about why they regard themselves as native speakers, and let each translator select one or more options from it, and let the client see what each translator selected, when he visits the translator's profile page:

* This is the language that I identify with as "my language".
* This is the language that other people think is "my language".
* This is the language that I speak and write best.
* This is the language that I spoke as a child.
* This is the language in which I did [...] years of school.
* This is the language in which I wrote all of my college exams.
* This is the language that I use the most, in public.
* This is the language that my parents used the most, when speaking to me.
* My parents and grandparents have always lived in a country where this language is used the most.
* If I were to visit a region where this language is used the most, I would be regarded as a native speaker.
* My spouse is a native speaker, and his/her family now regards me as a native speaker.
* I have lived [...] years in a region where this language is used the most.
* I believe this language became my native language after I studied it for [...] years.
* Almost all of my exposure to media is in this language.
* [Free-form text field of why I consider myself a native speaker]

For the purpose of this discussion, we will assume the following: ...


Yes, I agree with all of that.


[Edited at 2014-10-11 18:12 GMT]


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 02:50
Russian to English
+ ...
I hope people realize that it is almost an illegal term in the US Oct 11, 2014

I just had a chance to reconfirm my information--you are not even allowed to ask a US citizen, in many circumstances, if they might need an interpreter--even if some people speak with an almost incomprehensible accent, or are using strange-- non-standard grammatical constructions. You always have to try speaking English to them, and only if you see that they have real difficulties and suggest themselves that they would prefer to speak another language, you can ask them, or you can slightly imply it-- and only then you can get an interpreter for them. With non-citizens--you cannot ask them what their native language is either--just which language they are most comfortable with in speech or in writing--depending whether they will be required to read something or communicate orally.

So, I think it might be better to forget about the "native language' whatsoever in any circumstances other than research on language acquisition, or early childhood education (for which the term was invented--not for any work-related evaluations), because it is considered prejudicious in most other scenarios, at least in the US.

There would be nothing wrong, perhaps, with the term, if some lay people (without extensive education in linguistics) understood it correctly-- as 1. The first language, 2. The language of habitual use, 3. The language the person speaks most, 4. The language the person speaks the best, 5. The national language of the country where the person lives, 6. The language the person identifies with (it can be any of those), instead of wrongfully assuming that a native speaker of Spanish will be born in Madrid and his name will be Hernadez or Ramirez. Plus, they would look Spanish--whatever that may mean. (In accord with their idea of a Spanish look)
Everybody is free of course to have their own definitions of anything, but if they do not comply with the law, they cannot be used for any general purposes, especially work-related.

Another point, I think Samuel mentioned it--'native' ranges from the illiterate to the Law or Philosophy Professor.

[Edited at 2014-10-11 11:01 GMT]


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Post removed: This post was hidden by a moderator or staff member for the following reason: Removed per poster's request.
564354352  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 08:50
Danish to English
+ ...
Well said, Thomas Frost Oct 11, 2014

Now where is that 'Like' button again?

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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 08:50
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
On whether asking for native language is illegal in the US Oct 11, 2014

LilianNekipelov wrote:
I hope people realize that it is almost an illegal term in the US. I just had a chance to reconfirm my information.


I understand that it is illegal in the US to ask job applicants certain questions, and whether "native language" is among them depends on the resource that you check. For example, this page says it's illegal to ask if an applicant is "native born", but I don't think that that refers to language, unless your definition of "native speaker" is "person who is native born". According to this page, the reason why it is illegal to ask for native language during a job interview is that "native language" question is assumed to be a question about how a person attained fluency, and *how* you became fluent in a language is not allowed to be relevant for job applications in the US. That page as well as this one recommends asking "What languages do you read, speak or write fluently?", which may be used as a definition for "native language" here on ProZ.com also, if we can define "fluently". According to this page, however, the reason why it is illegal in the US to ask about native langauge in job interviews is because it can be construed as an attempt to find out what the person's nationality is (and it is not legal for nationality to be made relevant in US job applications).

I seem to recall that this was actually one of the suggestions in the previous long thread, namely that ProZ.com should ask whether a speaker is fluent instead of whether he is native. Fluency can also be measured (albeit subjectively) more easily than nativeness.

...you are not even allowed to ask a US citizen, in many circumstances, if they might need an interpreter -- even if some people speak with an almost incomprehensible accent, or are using strange -- non-standard grammatical constructions.


Can you give some URLs for this, please?



[Edited at 2014-10-11 18:13 GMT]


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José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 04:50
English to Portuguese
+ ...
A "native translator" definition would be about as good one for "safe driver" Oct 11, 2014

How would you define a "safe driver"?

Would it be someone...
... that has never had an accident? (I'm saying "had", not "caused", because s/he supposedly has successfully managed to prevent/avoid third parties' attempts too)
... who obdurately follows ALL traffic regulations and signs?
... who drives so carefully and slowly, that nothing bad can happen? (It takes them ages to get anywhere, though.)

There are some thoroughly reckless drivers who are so darn clever (and lucky!) in dong it, that their record is clean. Would these be "safe drivers"?

Well, that depends on the criterion adopted.
  • If a "safe driver" is someone who has had no accidents nor any traffic violation tickets (they have devices to detect in real time whether overspeed detectors are being used), yes.
  • The other stance is whether any passenger would sleep, when that safe driver were at the wheel, knowing that if anything happened, they wouldn't have a chance for a last prayer.

    On the latter point, there is a joke about an accident where a bus driver and a priest died. At the heavenly gates, they were separated. The driver was put in a very comfortable, air-conditioned room, while the priest was locked in a dungeon.
    The priest complained, as he had served the Lord all his life, while the irresponsible driver had been the one who caused them both to be there.
    St. Peter explained: "Reverend, everyone usually slept while you preached. On the other hand, everybody prayed fervidly whenever this chap was at the wheel of the bus. You sure can figure how it looks on our performance appraisals here."

    So IMHO this "native translator" definition is often useless. I'd prefer "ethical translator" as a requirement, though such trait is more often self-claimed than ascertained by third parties (they can't judge the possible outcome of a job an ethical translator declined).

    The Proz criterion is different from mine, which leads me to ranking myself as "native" in two languages, for the record here.

    On one side, I turn down translation requests into my 100% native L1 (PT-BR), if I feel that I am not adequate. For instance, I declined/diverted 4 jobs in medical translation last week.

    My L2 (EN-US) sounds 95% native, I began learning it 7 years later than I did L1, however I live in Brazil, so that should detract from my updatedness. Nevertheless, by sensibly accepting only what I know I can do properly, now and then I get unsolicited customer feedback like, "I only wish my graduate students at (famous US) University could write in English like you do."

    I think that a translator striving for the fullest possible awareness of their own shortcomings, and respecting them, is more significant than being (self?) labeled as a "native speaker".

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  • Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
    United Kingdom
    Local time: 07:50
    Hebrew to English
    Relevance for translators? Oct 11, 2014

    Samuel Murray wrote:
    the reason why it is illegal to ask for native language during a job interview


    Unless you work (or potentially want to work) in-house (a dying breed, especially here), when do translators ever attend "job interviews"?

    And

    Lilian wrote:
    you are not even allowed to ask a US citizen, in many circumstances, if they might need an interpreter


    This looks like a lawsuit waiting to happen.



    Edited to make it clearer that Samuel didn't say the second quote.

    [Edited at 2014-10-11 12:30 GMT]


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