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During the time I’ve studied Chinese, I’ve come a cross enough examples of people overstating the importance of being a native speaker to lead me to think that it’s a general trend and not an isolated phenomenon. For instance, people are embarrassed when I know words in Chinese they don’t (“I’m a native speaker, why don’t I know this word?”) or they can’t understand why I have a category in Anki for Swedish words (“You’re Swedish, why do you need to learn Swedish words?”).

This attitude is so bizarre it left me baffled the first few times. At first, I thought that people who said this were just more ignorant than average, but I’ve come across this so often that it can no longer be dismissed as coincidence: people really seem to think that native speakers know everything about their own language, although it should be obvious that they don’t. This also means that most native speakers over-estimate their own language ability, especially when it comes to meta knowledge involving why rather than just what.

Disclaimer

This article might sound a bit harsh, and therefore I want to state clearly that my goal is not to bash native speakers or to elevate my own ability in any way. I’m a native speaker of Swedish and having taught Swedish to foreigners, I know there are lots of things I don’t know or can’t explain (and I’m a teacher!). There will always be, but that’s part of the fun. I’ve also learnt English, Chinese and French which means I can approach the subject from those angles as well. I’m also grateful to a lot of native speakers, so this article should in no way be regarded as diminishing their contribution to my own learning.

Instead, my goal here is to point out that people generally think that being a native speaker is the same as being really good in all areas of a language, and that I think this is mostly false. I also want to point out that someone who masters a language as a second language will have different skills from someone learning it as their native language. This is not good or bad; it simply is that way.

There are native speakers and then there are native speakers

The first mistake people make is to lump native speakers together in one single group. There is a huge difference between a native speaker who reads a hundred books a year and has a  PhD, and a native speaker who dropped out of school at the age of fifteen and spends all his free time playing baseball. Native speakers learn their own language to whatever extent is required of them, which means that the baseball player above will probably have a very weak grasp of formal and written language.

Of course, the opposite is also true, the PhD will know less about baseball. Still, pursuing a career which is heavily based on language (anything even remotely academic)  is bound to increase your vocabulary enormously, so thinking that native speakers are a homogeneous group is just stupid. Research suggests that the number of words that are used in everyday conversation is indeed very low; advanced vocabulary is only needed when discussing something specific or reading something on a decent level of complexity or abstraction. If you do that everyday for a living, you will learn a lot more about the language than if you don’t.

Native speakers, second language learners and teachers

Different people are good at different things. When you read the items below, keep in mind what you can learn from native speakers and what you can learn from other second language learners. For instance, if you want someone to practise conversation with or judge how well you communicate in Chinese, nothing beats a native speaker. However, if you want to know exactly how to change your pronunciation or why something is A rather than B, you need more professional help, preferably from a teacher.

  • Native speakers have a very good grasp of all practical aspects of their own language, but most of them have a fairly weak grasp of theoretical aspects (such as grammar, phonetics and so on). Just because a Chinese person can speak Mandarin for ten hours straight with perfect communication results doesn’t mean that the language he uses is 100% correct. Reading student essays in your native language is a good way of proving to yourself that not everybody masters their own language, not even students at university. This is of course particularly true for the written language, which has much stricter norms than the spoken language.
  • Native speakers pronunciation is usually far from any kind of standardised pronunciation (a very low percentage of China’s population speaks perfect Mandarin), which of course isn’t wrong per se, but might be something to keep in mind as a second language learner. If you plan on teaching the language in the future, this might be very important. Having a regional accent is fine if you live in that region, but I don’t think it will earn you any extra points if you look for a teaching job (or any employment) anywhere else. Heavy accent is usually a sign of a low education level and few people want that. Teachers usually have very good pronunciation and that’s usually the best way to learn proper pronunciation.
  • Teachers and second language learners can usually answer why questions better. There are many aspects of Chinese that you have to study to learn (try asking random Chinese person how to use 了 and see what happens). Advanced second language learners and teachers are usually better at answering questions about why something is the way it is or why A is right whereas B is wrong. This is sometimes very, very helpful, but it shouldn’t be overdone.

Why is this important?

This insight is important when you learn a second language from native speakers. Don’t think that their knowledge of their own language is infallible just because they are native speakers! For example, I’ve come across many people in Taiwan (some even teachers), who cannot explain the third tone in Mandarin properly. They think that they are accurately describing how they pronounce a given sound, but in reality, they are doing something else and their explanations go against a vast body of empirical research and what is considered established fact by researchers.

This is not to say that second language learners in general know more than native speakers (that’s quite rare, especially in Chinese), but rather that just because someone is a native speaker it doesn’t mean he’s superior to a second language learner in all areas. Thus, finding second language learners at a more advanced level than yourself is a good idea. Trusting native speakers to always to give you the right answer is also bound to create problems.

Also, native speakers can’t always agree on what is correct in Chinese. What happens quite often is that I get corrected by one native speaker, only to have another one correct me in the other direction. This isn’t necessarily because one is right and the other one wrong, it’s just that Chinese is like that sometimes, it depends on region, the background of the speaker and so on.

Some suggestions and final comments

If you teach your own language, be open and admit that there are lots of things you don’t know. That’s okay and nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn and develop further. You will be right most of the time, but thinking that you will be right every time is a sign of ignorance and hubris.

If you’re learning Chinese (or any other language), be aware of the fact that native speakers vary greatly in their own language ability and also in their ability to explain grammar, pronunciation or anything else you might be interested in learning. Listen to your teachers, but don’t be surprised if they’re wrong occasionally.


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8 Responses to Native speakers and native speakers

  1. [...] they must be parts of general trends rather than ramblings of individuals (such as the notion of native speakers being perfect). Since some of these ideas are quite interesting and might affect your learning process negatively [...]

  2. [...] should know that native speakers differ very, very much in their language ability. All of them are of course very good at the language they are using, but you should be aware that [...]

  3. Baron-Jon says:

    “The first mistake people make is to lump native speakers together in one single group. There is a huge difference between a native speaker who reads a hundred books a year and has a PhD, and a native speaker who dropped out of school at the age of fifteen and spends all his free time playing baseball.”

    As soon as I read that statement, I knew you were on to something with this article. Great point of view.

  4. F I MacIllFhinnein says:

    The strange thing is that “native speakers” do tend to be idolised by learners who should know better – or rather, one particular “native” speaker.

    It’s worth remembering something a good friend of mine said years ago: “We’re all learners, but some of us started learning earlier.”

    That hits the nail on the head! No-one pops out of the womb with the capacity to hold a conversation, and in fact it takes years full of many errors for any so-called native speaker to reach the level of holding a very simple conversation.

  5. Chris says:

    Good points, Olle. I think, as you imply, you have to have reached a certain level of proficiency/fluency before this insight is even available to you. Living in the North i.e. in the heartland of supposed “standard” Mandarin Chinese makes one even more likely to take taxi drivers and random university classmates as authorities on their language.

    My own experience was different. I learned Chinese in Nanjing and Suzhou where the many Wu dialect(s) are the language of everyday communication. Even as an upper-intermediate speaker living in Jiangsu I know in talking to my girlfriend’s 83 year old grandmother who uses literally two verbs for everything (搞 and 弄) when she speaks Putonghua, says 跑 to mean 去, asks me if I’d like to 吃茶 when I come over, and frequently asks my girlfriend or her mother or even me occasionally how to say the name of a fish or a vegetable in Mandarin, that I can’t go to her for the proper use of 尽管. This has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence or cultured-ness. She simply never, ever speaks Putonghua in her daily life. I am literally the only person she speaks it with.

    In short I think one can be disabused of the idea that native speakers know everything much more quickly if one studies in the South, or in East Central China or in Western China, or really anywhere other than Harbin, Beijing, Jinan, Tianjin etc… and even in those cities one should be hearing enough Jinan hua or Tianjin hua to realize that “native speaker of Mandarin” often translates to “native speaker of a local dialect, trained speaker of standard Mandarin” for a lot of the people you are going to run into at the pool hall or the basketball court. This is not to say that Mandarin speakers in non-standard dialect-regions are incapable of speaking excellent Putonghua. In fact my current teacher walks into class most days talking loudly in Chongqing hua on her phone and then promptly switches to flawless Putonghua as soon as class begins. It’s a skill she has acquired though, not something heaven-sent or as we‘ve learned to say in Chinese “天生的.”

    • Olle Linge says:

      Living in the North i.e. in the heartland of supposed “standard” Mandarin Chinese makes one even more likely to take taxi drivers and random university classmates as authorities on their language.

      Excellent comment! It’s also the case that many people in the north (read: Beijing) don’t know the difference between standard 普通話 and 北京話, thinking that they are one and the same. For example, I’m currently taking a phonology research course with a teacher who has worked as an examiner for the pronunciation exams taken by teachers, news anchors and so on. She said that some Beijingers have the attitude that “I’m from Beijing, therefore everything I say is 100% standard and correct”. Making oneself the reference point for what is correct is ignorant and a bit arrogant (and it would be so in any other language as well). It also makes it hard for some people to understand why they fail the exam even though they supposedly speak perfect standardised Chinese.

      After having taken linguistics courses with mostly native speakers as classmates, it’s also striking how different their intuition for the language is. It’s not uncommon for half the class to approve of one way of saying something and the other disapproving of the same sentence (obviously, only tricky cases are dealt with in this way, but they are too common to make me comfortable).

  6. David Feigelson says:

    This discussion reminds me of the disbelief many of my fellow high school students felt when they were presented with grammatically-correct English sentences in our grammar book. They simply could not believe English was written in such awkward phrasing. My point is that the spoken language and the grammatically-correct language have huge variations and truth be told, the oral language takes precedence over the academic view because language is only relevant when it is used for daily conversation. If one only uses language a certain way in an academic situation, it will not find itself being used often enough to be considered “standard” for purposes of oral conversation.

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