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"Native speaker" and/or "English": a problem of nomenclature?
Thread poster: Neil Coffey

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:54
French to English
+ ...
Feb 25, 2011

I'm wondering if in some countries where English is widely used as a second language there might be a discrepancy between the common interpretation of "native speaker" compared to how it would generally be understood, say, in the UK.

Linguistically, it's hard to give a precise definition. But for the practical purposes in translation, I think a working definition would be that the writing of a "native speaker" of English is indistinguishable in its core grammar and vocabulary from the writing of a typical adult speaker who has been exposed to "English" continually from birth into their adult life. And by "English", I and clients probably have in mind the standard variety of a country to which English is the predominant native language, such as the UK, US, Australia etc.

But it's clear that some ProZ members are declaring on their profile and in answers to job postings that some colleagues are using the term "native speaker" differently. I've seen several colleagues describe themselves as native speakers, whereas their actual use of English demonstrates otherwise (at least according to my definition above)-- they appear to be either second language speakers, or possibly native speakers, but of a creole or variety of English significantly different from a "mainstream" variety.

I stress that I say this without prejudice, but merely from the pratical viewpoint of the variety of English that clients are probably expecting to receive.

Have others noted this, and is there genuinely a nomenclature problem, or simply from people dishonestly claiming to be "native" speakers when they know that with the likely intended interpretation they're not?

[Edited at 2011-02-25 17:54 GMT]


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 14:54
English to Croatian
+ ...
Unfortunately, I've seen some.. Feb 25, 2011

... with quite good but nonetheless nonnative English claiming English as native language in their profile.

I don't think it's nomenclature problem. IMO, either they have an illusion they indeed sound as native speakers in their writing, or they have an illusion native speakers ( and trained nonnative speakers) won't be able to spot nonnative nuances and clues. In both cases, these illusions in themselves reflect their lack of competence in English.


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Ambrose Li  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 08:54
Chinese to English
+ ...
Nomenclature is part of the problem Feb 25, 2011

Personally I’d say nomenclature, even if it’s not the problem itself, is part of the problem. ProZ is being quite vague about what being “native” means, and I do think this vagueness (when combined with what a native language declaration does on ProZ) at least contributes to the confusion. I can at least attest that it is a problem for me, since I have no trouble declaring my native language on Wikipedia but I still can’t figure out how I should declare it here.

If being a native speaker means my writing shall be indistinguishable from a “typical” adult in the “mainstream” society speaking the language in question, then maybe I’m at least somewhat justified in feeling that I probably cannot declare any native language, at least not on ProZ under this vague system.

(So, in an officially multicultural society like Canada, what does native mean? In other words, what does it mean to be a “typical” adult, and what is the “mainstream” society? Actual mainstream Canadians do not even generally use the word “mainstream”. For me, if you are born in Canada, I’d consider your English native. Even if you think it’s some kind of “creole” or a variety different from the mainstream kind.)



[Edited at 2011-02-25 19:24 GMT]


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 06:54
English to Spanish
+ ...
Not Unusual Feb 25, 2011

It is not at all unusual on this site to see "translators" who make inflated claims regarding their ability, claiming to be "native speakers" when they are obviously not, and claiming to be able to translate from and into a long list of language pairs... anything to impress. Knowing how much it takes to become a good translator, I have serious doubts about such people.

Here we complain a lot about doubtful agencies, but I'm sure that there are even many more doubtful "translators" out there, which does not help the image of our profession at all.


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Werner Maurer  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 05:54
Spanish to English
+ ...
native vs. alien Feb 25, 2011

Obviously a native speaker will have greater fluency and overall command of the language, and likely be more articulate, but where the nuts and bolts are concerned, i.e. grammar, spelling, punctuation, and perhaps even syntax to a degree, those who have learned the language in a classroom are often better trained.

As for me, I speak somewhat better English than my mother tongue (German), so I call myself a native speaker of English because I grew up in an English speaking country, though German born. I speak it with 100 percent native-like proficiency and that's what makes me a native speaker. Technically I'm a native speaker of German, but not practically, not where the finger hits the keyboard.

Going by the EU standard of language proficiency, a.k.a. CEFR, I bet more people are a C-2 in an acquired language than in their own.


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Ambrose Li  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 08:54
Chinese to English
+ ...
CEFR and the like Feb 25, 2011

I definitely think a system like the CEFR classification or even Wikipedia’s Babel is more helpful than the binary “native”/non-native classification here. In practice there might not be a difference between true native speakers and people at C2/EN-4 proficiency, but if the only choice is “native” or not then it takes courage for a C2/EN-4 to say “native” (especially if the person in question can read French and has read the French version of the FAQ here).

I know we’re actually talking about the opposite problem. I guess I should shut up now.

[Edited at 2011-02-25 20:32 GMT]


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veratek
Brazil
Local time: 09:54
French to English
+ ...
another question to ask Feb 25, 2011

How about turning the question around? Maybe native would be someone who makes mistakes like other natives, and non-natives, well, like non-natives. They are often different sets of mistakes.
As Li said, do you call someone who has always lived in the US, speaks only English, but writes poorly, as someone with native English? Yes, but that's professionally not what people want to know.


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xxxmediamatrix
Local time: 09:54
Spanish to English
+ ...
Back to basics Feb 25, 2011

Neil Coffey wrote:

I think a working definition [of “native speaker”] would be that the writing of a "native speaker" of English is indistinguishable in its core grammar and vocabulary from the writing of a typical adult speaker who has been exposed to "English" continually from birth into their adult life. …


Therein, methinks, lies the problem.

If UK government statistics are any guide (or, indeed, stats from any other English-speaking country), Neil’s “typical adult speaker of English” does not have a firm grasp of grammar, and has a very limited vocabulary, despite having been “exposed to English continually from birth into their adult life”.

Any further comment from me would no doubt get me banned from the forum – not for sloppy use of my mother tongue but for talking politics.

MediaMatrix


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 15:54
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Native service Feb 26, 2011

What if you are not really native, but provide native service with the help of a native colleague? Remember we should always use a second opinion (4-eyes-principle) if the client does not use editors and cannot judge the result themselves.

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Jan Willem van Dormolen  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 14:54
English to Dutch
+ ...
Poor understanding of term Feb 26, 2011

Probably, people who claim to be 'native' in a language and who are clearly not, speak the language so poorly that they simply do not understand what the word 'native' means. They probably think it means something like 'very well'. And then it becomes a matter of interpretation in stead of definition.

This makes the problem hard to solve. These people are not liars - they simply don't know what they're saying.

[Bijgewerkt op 2011-02-26 10:17 GMT]


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 14:54
English to Croatian
+ ...
4 factors Feb 26, 2011

Generally, four factors are considered to comprise full proficiency:

Fluency, accuracy, complexity and appropriateness.

I've seen some people displaying the first three factors but not appropriateness, for example. They will say a thing that is not appropriate for a situation ( for instance, they won't be able to balance how they should say something and when they should stop speaking).


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Jan Willem van Dormolen  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 14:54
English to Dutch
+ ...
Linguistic? Feb 26, 2011

Lingua 5B wrote:
I've seen some people displaying the first three factors but not appropriateness, for example. They will say a thing that is not appropriate for a situation ( for instance, they won't be able to balance how they should say something and when they should stop speaking).


Is that really a matter of linguistics? Or rather, social ineptitude? Some members of my family have autistic traits - they totally fit in what you describe: excellent command of language but no clue as to what is appropriate when and where.


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 14:54
English to Croatian
+ ...
Yes, it's linguistic. Feb 26, 2011

Jan Willem van Dormolen wrote:


Is that really a matter of linguistics? Or rather, social ineptitude? Some members of my family have autistic traits - they totally fit in what you describe: excellent command of language but no clue as to what is appropriate when and where.


No, not like that at all.

This concerns linguistic features. For instance, this person will use plenty of idioms where it's not needed at all, because they believe they will sound more authentic this way ( while they will not of course, they will sound odd). Their English is like a study-book copy. Very robotic, no flexibility, no natural flow. They may nonetheless have the first three features.


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Miriam Neidhardt  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 14:54
English to German
+ ...
Near native? Feb 26, 2011

Having an English proofreader would be a great idea for people who write "Since 20xx I work as a freelancer" in their CV. Some even claim to work as a teacher at a "gymnasium".
However, I have also read articles by real native speakers of English with "Do's and Dont's" in it.
My mother's mother tongue is Finish, but after 40 years in Germany her German is much better than her Finish - and much better than that of many Germans. Could she claim to be a native speaker of German?

Have a nice weekend,

Miriam, native speaker of German with an English proofreader (for my translations. Not for my posts)


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Roy OConnor
Local time: 14:54
Member (2009)
German to English
A difficult issue Feb 26, 2011

A delicate question – when is a native not a native. As a native English speaker working in Germany I have to work hard to keep my English pure. Having an English wife and listening to UK radio helps to keep me up to date with language trends.
Most professional Germans speak English quite well, but not perfectly and they make the same mistakes all the time. Eventually if you are not careful, you end up not knowing which form is correct. So my point is that native speakers living abroad or with/amongst foreign people must be careful not to become "contaminated".


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