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I think this particular phrase creates a lot of concern in English learners. From general conversation to posts here, we see native speaker a common usage when talking about a person who speaks English by birth. So according to this definition, inhabitants of all the countries considered as English speaking countries should be considered as native speakers. But herein lies my confusion. Would we conclude a random inhabitant of these countries to be a native speaker (as there is a chance of them to be a English speaking person)?

Also, I think Native speaker can also be one whose mother tongue is not English but uses English a lot in day-to-day life. For example, I don't speak English by birth, but as India is a country full of diversities, I have to use English daily for at least 5 hours a day in my normal life. So can I consider myself as native because I use it frequently?

UPDATE 1 - From Googling, I could not find any dictionary sites explaining this phrase. The results only include different forum answers. So I thought of asking the question here and perhaps wise users here can help me out with the actual meaning.

UPDATE 2 - Later I thought it is worth adding that Anglo Indian families (and some purely Indian families too) who are born and raised here in India, speak English from birth and their first language is English and English is their primary means of communication although I cannot admit they fully abide by or understand all English cultural values like a British or an American. So what can I call them? Are they native?

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    See this answer on ELU: english.stackexchange.com/questions/14582/… – Jim Feb 11 '13 at 3:36
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    'Native speaker' is a ludicrous term, with no scientific backing. No-one is BORN speaking anything. There are NO native speakers, only FLUENT speakers!!!!!! – user3913 Jan 13 '14 at 13:45
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    @user3913 - The term simply means it's your native language... not your language at birth, but your language from birth. More specifically, it refers to the environment where you grew up. Did you grow up in a home speaking English? Or was English a language you learned later? Also, words like this don't need to have "scientific backing" ~ as OALD says: native (adj.) associated with the country, region, or circumstances of a person's birth. That doesn't mean a person is speaking the language out of the womb, it refers to a language commonly spoken in one's country of origin. – J.R. Jan 13 '14 at 14:06
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    A really important note to get across. Being a native English speaker (for example) does not mean I speak proper English. It just means I learned English first. It is quite common for any native language speaker to know more about their "regional" language and it's idioms, then the "proper" form, while a fluent speaker is generally taught proper forms. This site is a good example. I see "which is better?" type questions where the choices are nothing that I would ever use in a conversation. i.e. Unscrew v.s. Loosen when I would choose open ell.stackexchange.com/questions/59654 – coteyr Jun 19 '15 at 12:20
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    @pazzo Two and a half years after the fact it probably doesn't make much difference whether the question is open or closed; but I disagree. NS vs NNS is a recurring element in the questions here, and a cause of considerable misunderstanding and anxiety. I think it's a good idea to know what exactly the terms mean and may properly taken to imply. – StoneyB Jun 19 '15 at 14:20
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I think we need to clarify a couple of definitions:

  • Native English speaker – A person whose first language is English (they learned English from birth or as a very young child), and for whom English is the primary means of communication.

  • Fluent English speaker – A person who learned English later in life (i.e. as an older child, teenager, or adult), and who is very proficient in both spoken and written English.

There is nothing wrong with not being a native English speaker, and many non-native speakers have far better English skills than myriads of native speakers.

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    @Mistu4u "English Language" and "English cultural values" are totally different. It is totally possible to be a native speaker of English, having been born in Nigeria, India, Singapore, or indeed anywhere – jsj Feb 11 '13 at 12:57
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    many non-native speakers have far better English skills than myriads of native speakers. Guilty as charged, Your Honor! – Kaz Feb 11 '13 at 17:52
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    Native speakers, as mentioned, "learned English from birth or as a very young child". This learning is from mimicking parents and family members, or others in their usual environment. That language will be the one that becomes native for the child, including accent and regional variations. – user485 Feb 12 '13 at 6:23
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    This seems like the best answer. But I'm surprised none of the answers seem to be addressing the language the person thinks in. I wouldn't consider someone a native speaker of a language unless they think in it. – DCShannon Jun 5 '15 at 19:41
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    You bring up the point that "native speaker" and "fluent speaker" are not the same thing at all. One can be a native speaker and not fluent or a fluent speaker and not native. If I was hiring someone for a job that requires English, it would make good sense to say I want a fluent speaker. Whether the person is a native speaker probably doesn't matter much. – Jay Jun 8 '15 at 2:45
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First some facts:

  • no one knows language 'from birth'. The first language you learn is pretty fluid up until you're (very roughly) 3 years old (sure you can learn all sorts of vocabulary in one language before then, but if you switch at that time, it is not noticeable in your language acquisition. Actually, as long as you learn a language before puberty, even if it is your third or fifth, people won't be able to tell from your accent because you won't have one. Of course, it seems like you knew it from birth because so many people only learn their parent's language under the age of 5.

  • Language is not race. The language you grow up with and have the easiest time communicating in is not the same as the language anyone of your parents speak. Of course, that is often the case, because we tend to have both parents speaking the same single language as the surrounding community. But that is not guaranteed to occur (your parents may speak two (or more) different languages and you may grow up with friends speaking a third, and then the official school language something else.

  • Language is not culture. Sure, it is one part of culture, they affect each other quite a bit, but there are quite a few other things in culture that are not determined by language (and the other way around). Consider Polish and Spanish Catholics; at least on religious grounds they are very similar, but their languages are distinct.

Now to the question, what is native, what is fluent and what is the difference. First 'fluent'.

Being fluent means that one doesn't have to think to speak in the language (you don't have to 'translate in your head as you go along'), and people understand you perfectly well, and your grammar is nowhere near jarring (you may have a rare grammatical error, but that's about it).

Being native means you have absolutely no accent at all (um... no foreign accent, more on that in a bit) and make no mistakes. If you have an accent you can't be native. If you make grammatical mistakes you can't be fluent.

Someone who is a native speaker must be fluent (they may, through lack of use, have forgotten a lot of vocabulary and have acquired an accent of the main language they're speaking). Someone who is fluent may speak better (more educated, better vocabulary, more standard, more able to make a coherent sentence, with more ease) than a native speaker, but someone who is fluent is not necessarily native, and if the word fluent is used, it is assumed that they are not native because if they were then you would say 'native'.

So what about accent? Most English speakers in London think that Scots, Indians, -and- the French have accents, but these are not the same kind of accent. The Scots -natively- speak English, the French do not speak English at all natively. Indians on the other hand are somewhere in between. The majority of Indians do not learn English at home, but only when they start school. But that is at such an early age that many (most?) Indians are fluent in English. But is their variety of English like the Scots or like the French? I think the current understanding is that the quality of expression is more like Scottish English (no question of fluency, interesting sound, set grammar patterns) if the speaker learned English early enough.

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    Flawlessly expressed! I guess we'll have to account you a "native speaker". I'm not convinced it's helpful to call Indians "native speakers" if without realising it they routinely commit what other Anglophones universally recognise as grammatical errors. Unless it's in respect of specific contexts recognised as "valid Indian English", and even then I have my doubts as to the usefulness of such a label here on ELL. Who would want to learn "Indian English" in preference to "standard English"? – FumbleFingers Feb 13 '13 at 2:33
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    @FumbleFingers If millions of people make the same "error" then it's not an error. The only error is that the people writing grammar books failed to recognise a valid form. – jsj Feb 13 '13 at 3:22
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    @FumbleFingers numbers absolutely do confer correctness, in fact numbers are the only measure of correctness. Grammar texts should describe the language not prescribe it. Now that is not to say that being able to speak "Standard English" is not a valuable skill. It is an essential skill if you don't want to sound uneducated, just as wearing a suit is essential in a job interview. However, I would not insist that jeans and a t-shirt are "incorrect attire", just because they are not the most formal type of attire. – jsj Feb 13 '13 at 5:50
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    Native speakers do make mistakes. No one communicates perfectly, and if I accidentally out a word or two, it's not because I on purpose. – snailcar Feb 13 '13 at 10:55
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    @Mitch: Scottish is primarily an accent, not a dialect with it's own special grammar. And despite the impression you'd get from dictionaries (who love to include every antiquated Scottish dialectal word they can find), it doesn't really have it's own special vocabulary either. Not to mention which, apart from the accent itself, Scots on average are much more "carefully spoken" than Cockneys. – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '13 at 5:00
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Would we conclude a random inhabitant of these countries to be a native speaker (as there is a chance of him to be a English speaking fella)?

Not necessarily. There can exist areas within English speaking countries where languages other than English are used primarily so that some people may not develop proficiency in using English. While portions of Quebec within Canada would be an obvious example here, there could also be portions of cities where other European or Asian languages are used regularly and thus one may have difficulty finding English speakers within that neighbourhood.

Also, I think Native speaker can also be one whose mother tongue is not English but uses English a lot in day-to-day life. For example, I don't speak English by birth, but as India is a country full of diversities, I have to use English daily for at least 5 hours a day in my normal life. So can I consider myself as native because I use it frequently?

No, mother tongue would be a synonym for Native speaker. You could be a fluent English speaker for using it so often.

5

For me, native English speakers are only those whose parents speak English natively, no matter where they were born. There is a difference between "native language" and "first language". Your primary language doesn't have to be your native language and you can be more fluent in it than in your native language.

Let's look at some examples:

  1. A person who was born and lives in the UK, his/her parents are British and everyone around them speaks English — native speaker
  2. A person who was born and lives in Spain, but his/her parents are British and speak English at home — native speaker
  3. A person who was born in the USA, but his/her parents are from Mexico and speak Spanish at home — non-native speaker
  4. A person who was born in the USA, but his/her parents are from different non-English speaking countries and have different native languages, so they speak "broken" English or English with a foreign accent at home — non-native speaker
  5. A person who moved to an English-speaking country from a non-English speaking country at any point of his/her life — non-native speaker
  6. A person who learned English as a foreign language in a non-English speaking country — non-native speaker

Second-generation Americans whose parents were originally not native speakers, but speak English without an accent and use it at home all the time, can be considered native speakers.

4

Like many terms, I wouldn't get hung up trying to give precise definitions. Rigorous definitions can be useful in science and mathematics, but not so much in common speech. If I asked you if you know what a shoe is, you would probably say yes. But if I asked you to give a rigorous definition of a shoe, you would likely have trouble, and we could get into endless debates about hazy cases. Is a sandal a shoe? How about a boot? If I attach a block of wood to my foot with rubber bands, is that a "shoe"? Etc. Lawyers make big money analyzing legal definitions and arguing that their client does or does not meet some technicality.

So in general, a "native speaker" is someone who grew up speaking a certain language. If you were born in the United States to English-speaking parents and your teachers spoke English in school and your friends all or mostly speak English, you are a native English speaker. If you grew up in France to French-speaking parents and your teachers spoke French in school and your friends mostly spoke French, and then when you were 30 you started taking classes in English, you are not a native English speaker.

One could endlessly debate hazy cases. What about a child who was born in France but whose parents are Americans expatriates who spoke English at home and who attended private schools where the teachers used a mixture of French and English? What about a child born in the United States to Spanish-speaking parents who goes to a school that teaches in English but who mostly uses Spanish with his family and friends? What about someone born in India where many people use English as a second language, etc etc. Maybe there's some international standards organization that has rigorous definitions to cover such cases, but frankly, I don't care. It doesn't matter. In real life, there are many cases of clear, unambiguous native speakers of a language; clear, unambiguous, non-native speakers; and some number of people who are borderline. If someone declares that they have a job that pays $200,000 a year but you must be a native English speaker to qualify, then I guess they'll have to nail down a definition to distinguish the hazy cases.

That said, I suppose English is a harder case than most languages, because of the existence of India where English is an official language, where many learn to speak it from childhood, but it is not their only language and in many (most?) cases not their primary language. I haven't checked the statistics but I'd guess that there are more English-speaking people in India than in Britain, Australia, Canada, and the US combined, so you can't just dismiss India as "a few special cases".

2

The English Language and British / American culture are different concepts. It is totally possible to be a native speaker of English, having been born in Nigeria, India, Singapore, or indeed anywhere. Take a look at this List of countries where English is an official language.

Of course, Nigerian English is quite different to British English. Some people insist that English usage must stick to pre-defined rules (rather than writing "rules" that reflect actual usage), and these people would probably have a heart attack in Nigeria after hearing one too many people say "off the light" instead of "turn off the light". However I am of the opinion that if enough people use it, then that is valid English.

I use Nigeria because it is a good example of a country of Native Speakers whose English is very different to British / American English. Indian English is the same - different to the "standard" but totally valid.

My personal distinction between a Native Speaker of English and someone for whom English is a second language, is whether they acquired English fluency as a child, or as an adult. Note that I agree with Bill Franke's comment on the OP, as his child speaks English but is not fluent - that doesn't really count as a native speaker. It really needs to be fluency acquired in childhood.

  • -1: Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but I think the type of Nigerian English you're talking about is a Pidgin and/or creole. The vast majority of its speakers aren't actually "native speakers" of the pidgin, which in any case is not a fully-developed language with established grammar. And I doubt there will ever be enough "native speakers" of it (who only have that "mother tongue") for it to become a full language. – FumbleFingers Feb 13 '13 at 2:21
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    @FumbleFingers That's one way of looking at it. I would say that West African Pidgin has influenced Nigerian English, rather than that all deviations from British English used in Nigerian English are instances of the speaker using Pidgin. Nigerian English and African Pidgin are different languages. – jsj Feb 13 '13 at 3:27
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I have been thinking about this very question for a very long time. As the answer directly applies to me. I am fluent in 3 languages. And I was not born in an English speaking family. I am also a Canadian. Having lived here for 20 years (out of my 36) my main language of communication is English. While I am fluent in two other languages, one of which is the one my parents speak, the language I think in, write in (I am a writer/poet), read in, and consider my own, is English. I do have an accent, which does not make me less of an English speaker than anyone who doesn't. I consider myself a Native English speaker. As this is my first language - the one I can communicate most proficiently in, and my primary means of communication. That is, the language I can and do express myself best in. And even though I know and am fluent in two other languages, I not as proficient in them in reading, writing or verbal expression as I am in English. Even though one of them is the language I have spoken from childhood. This particular language, I can only speak in, and not to well at best, I cannot write or read in it properly at any time. And even when I do speak it, it is littered with english words and expressions.

Now, most people think that a Native Speaker of any language is someone who is "born speaking" it. Or whose parents speak it at home all the time. Conversely, if someone has learned the language later in life, even as a teen or a young adult, it is necessarily a second language, and thus not Native.

In reality, if you look at people who were first exposed to, say, English, as teens or young adults, most of them are as proficient in it if not more so than a lot of the so called "Native Speakers" who were born to it in the first place. One of the reasons why, is assimilation into the culture and society they are a part of. In other words, they want to be part of the culture they are living in, and have a healthy fear of being the 'outsider' who stands out and who society frowns on. Another, is that young people internalize language and the culture it is such an integral part of, very quickly. This is not so, however for most older adults. Yet another reason is that the media they use and are steeped in every day, such as the internet, social media, music, books, movies, television etc... are in English, and the more proficient they are in the language and culture of English, the more they can get and give in and through these different media in their day to day lives. Including online friends and groups, real life friends off the internet, better understanding of other young people around them and the culture they are all part of.

So my answer to the question asked above is this: You state in your question that you have to use the English language daily, for at least 5 hours out of every day "I have to use English daily for at least 5 hours a day in my normal life." in your words, but you do not say in what language you think, and communicate best? And as you mentioned, culture is also important as part of language, as language itself is part of culture. How good is your understanding of the culture, which the English language is part of? I'll give you an example: In my own life, I know and understand the cultural values that English as a language is steeped in, I do not only speak the language, but also know and understand the different cultures that surround it (British, Canadian, American etc..). What this means is that I can relate to the mores and expressions in these cultures and people's daily experiences in them. In short, being a Native Speaker of any language is more than just being perfectly knowledgeable and proficient in it's grammar and punctuation. And having to use it a certain number of hours per day every day. It's also more than simply being born into a family who speaks that language, since, as you said, some Anglo Indian people, are "born" speaking English, but may not be versed in the accompanying culture - or as you have put it: "Anglo Indian families (and some purely Indian families too) who are born and raised here in India, speak English from birth and their first language is English and English is their primary means of communication although I cannot admit they fully abide by or understand all English cultural values like a British or an American.". Which means that if, for example they were to come to England, America, Canada etc... They would have to adopt to the new culture, which they are not familiar with, even though they may and probably are proficient in english.

So having said that: I think, the answer to this complicated question is more than just the dictionary definition of 'Native Speaker', which is what I have tried to explain above. I think that you and the other people you described are not Native Speakers of English. In order to be that, the understanding and internalization of cultural values is necessary as well. So, as a last example, if someone used an expression or a more while speaking to you in English, that people in say, England or America or Canada etc... would understand and know for what it is, or means, in the culture, and be able to respond to appropriately, and you only understand the English, but not the deeper cultural meaning, you are not a Native Speaker. Cheers

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This is a forum for the discussion of language usage, and discussions of language usage are haunted by the specter of presumptuousness. Who is to recommend any particular phrasing as better than another? Can’t anyone talk just however he likes?

Well obviously. But we are drawn together on this website to discuss the sort of English usage to which we aspire. What makes some usages more admirable than others?

The “native speaker” category is step toward understanding this distinction. We presume that British and American people might want to speak carefully without ever wanting to speak more like one another; while presumably nobody has come to this site specifically to emulate people who learned English as adults. Of course some native speakers speak badly too, and none of us would be satisfied to speak like just any native speaker. But we might all prefer characteristically native patterns to characteristically foreign patters. That said, we might prefer educated and refined speech to coarse speech, and we might have other preferences about formality and style and so on.

So you post a list of dozens of countries and ask: “Would we conclude a random inhabitant of these countries to be a native speaker (as there is a chance of them to be a English speaking person)?” It seems to me that this question presents a confusing mixture of considerations. So I think that the answer to your question is “no,” but for various reasons.

First, of course, countries might present regional variations. Inside of each of these countries there are many people with no desire to lose any of their regionalisms. But if someone posts a question here about English usage; and one answer to this question would be correct in America and a different answer would be correct in Akrotiri; and no answers call attention to this regional variation; what then? Does the questioner probably want to come away speaking (unknowingly) in the American fashion or in the Akrotiri fashion? My guess is that once we agree that “native speaker” is somehow related to normative usage, we move on to the assumption that not every country “where English is a de jure official language” can claim equally to be normative on the international stage. In the event of such a distinction more people would probably disparage the Akrotiri forms (rather than the American forms) because they would never have heard of Akrotiri or their forms.

Second, you say that “there is a chance” that the person we chose is an English-speaking person. This seems to confuse the issue. Of course a person who speaks only Chinese cannot be considered a native speaker of English no matter where he lives. A native speaker of English must be a speaker of English.

And third, if we set aside the question of differences between the countries on your list, and limit the discussion to English speakers from these countries who grew up speaking English and no other language; then while this whole class would be “native speakers,” not all would speak admirably. So they are not “native speakers” in the sense intended.

So to put it briefly: I think “native speakers” on this site means “normative speakers.”

0

Apart from the obvious, such vocabulary, pronunciation, using the right words in the right context etc. I believe that one very important aspect is 'speaking incorrectly but in generally accepted patterns'.

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