Demystifying the “Native” English Speaker

In the 1990s, when I was still new to my career as an English language educator, the majority of the international students who attended our US-based intensive English program would state one of their main goals as “talking like a native speaker.” Furthermore, students would often complain that having to listen to “bad English” from their classmates was just “wasting time.” In recent years, I have found that very few students continue to mention becoming like a “native speaker” as a major goal, and I have also observed that the patience students show when trying to understand one another’s developing English skills has generally increased.  This change of attitude regarding the role of the “native speaker” reflects the expansion of “World Englishes” in the current global economy.

BB Kachru’s 1986 publication, “The Power and Politics of English,” provides a useful framework for understanding the expansion of English in the modern world.  According to Kachru, English speakers can be divided into three circles:  The “Inner Circle” includes “native speakers” from countries including the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.  The “Outer Cirworld-englishes-15-638cle” includes cultures impacted by earlier phases of the spread of English in non-native settings, and where the English language plays an important “official” or “second language” role in many of the country’s major institutions.  The “Expanding Circle” includes cultures that recognize the importance of English as an international language, although they do not have a history of colonization by members of the inner circle, and English does not hold any special administrative status.

While serving as director of an intensive English program that enrolled students from around the world, I would often use Kachru’s Model as a guide when discussing language learning goals with my students.  I would explain that the diversity of our program was one of its greatest asset, and that they would likely find that learning to understand English as spoken by one another was every bit as important, if not more important, than learning to understand and “sound like” a native speaker.

In short, these facts that Kachru underlined back in 1986 are even more true and relevant today:

  • Non-native English speakers far outnumber native speakers
  • Sole ownership of English no longer lies with native speakers
  • Language behaviors and expectations differ according to context
  • The goal of the learner should be to become an effective communicator, not a “native-like” speaker

For anyone operating in the global business environment, understanding and appreciating world Englishes has become increasingly critical to success.  Most global English speaker interactions will be with “non-native” English speakers, so learning to navigate a wide variety of Englishes is a great asset, even for “native speakers.” The Web can be an excellent resource for people looking for a starting place to actively expose themselves to world Englishes; for example, one might try listening to short news podcasts on a related story from a variety of countries around the world, or read articles on a related topic in the online versions of global English language newspapers.

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