A student of mine recently said "I thought I was speaking to a native Chinese."

I would always say "I thought I was speaking to a native Chinese speaker" or "I thought I was speaking to someone from China."

My first instinct was that his sentence sounded strange and unnatural, but then I started having doubts. Are either of the phrases "a native Chinese" or "a native Chinese person" commonly used by native speakers?

  • "a native denonym person" is certainly normal for almost any denonym, but weirdly "a native denonym" doesn't sound natural at all to me for denonyms ending in "ese". For example, "a native Korean", "a native Slovak", "a native Scot" all sound fine to me, but "a native Chinese", "a native Sudanese", and "a native Maltese" don't. I can't find any denonyms that don't end in "-ese" that sound unnatural to me, I wonder why that is. – Sellyme Dec 20 '17 at 19:10
  • And of course I realise immediately after the comment edit time limit expires that I can't spell "demonym"... Whoops. – Sellyme Dec 20 '17 at 19:25
  • @Sellyme You can however edit answers as often as you like... – ColleenV Dec 20 '17 at 23:00
up vote 0 down vote accepted

The word "Chinese" is mostly used as an adjective, or as a noun to denote the language. (We might also use "the Chinese" to mean "Chinese people in general", but I think this is a special use of the adjective: we can do the same with "English".) "Chinese" can also be used to mean a takeaway meal from a Chinese restaurant.

However, it can also be a noun meaning a Chinese person. E.g. in Merriam-Webster:

a native or inhabitant of China

In my experience, this usage is uncommon, but it's nevertheless correct English. So yes, you could say "a native Chinese"

I would always say "I thought I was speaking to a native Chinese speaker" or "I thought I was speaking to someone from China."

I think you are correct. In many countries, "native" means indigenous. As an example, "native Taiwanese", "native American", "native Australian" all do NOT refer to the majority of people who are now living in that country. In certain cases, eg. "native Indonesian", the term "native" would not be used since Indonesia is a vast archipelago with indigenous people, migrants over many centuries, not to mention interacial mixing of the two.

For what it's worth I recommend three approaches for today's world:

My friend is from China
This simply states the person was born in China and is most likely of Chinese descent.

My friend is ethic Chinese or My friend is of Chinese descent
For native English speakers this helps describes the race or ethnicity of the person, without having to go through exactly where they are from. This is helpful, for example, for ethnic Chinese where they could be from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.

My friend is a native Chinese speaker
Makes the most sense if talking specifically about language. Again, native Chinese speakers can be from outside China, and usually are ethnic Chinese (but obviously not exclusively so).

Well there's no particular meaning of "a native Chinese person" just like there's no particular meaning of "a native Italian person". Usually such terms like native are omitted because it is implied.

If I refer to a Chinese person, it is implied they are of Chinese origin. This is true of any nationality. Perhaps this is also the reason why "a native Chinese speaker" seems a little verbose and isn't heard often. To say so explicitly is to give particular meaning to it.

But it may be useful to make a distinction, such as:

"I met my two friends. One lives in China but is not a native Chinese speaker, and the other is a native Chinese."

Otherwise, the meaning is simply implied. You can also say "mother tongue" to refer to anyone who was born and raised knowing a language, and this refers to language, not nationality, even if in this case, they are one and the same.

"I have a friend who is an English mother tongue."

  • 2
    Maybe I misunderstand you, but "I have a friend who is an English mother tongue" doesn't make any sense. I would say that English is his mother tongue, but not that he is "an English mother tongue". – stangdon Dec 20 '17 at 15:27

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