Which of the following options is the correct or the acceptable?

"He is an English native speaker"


"He is a native English speaker".


7 Answers 7


I can't see any good reason for supposing that either version is "correct" (or by implication, that the other is "incorrect"), but there's certainly a big difference in prevalence...

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I can't see any way to justify the possibility that one sequence might actually mean something different to the other1. They seem to net down to the same thing to me...

He's an English speaker. What kind? A native English speaker.
He's a native speaker. What kind? An English native speaker.

1 EDIT: Thanks to comments from @ErikE and @psmears below, I must admit that once it's pointed out to me, I can naturally parse an English native speaker as someone from England. But unless context strongly forced a perverse interpretation, I'd take it for granted that meant an Anglophone, since there's no such thing as an English passport or an officially "naturalized" Englishman. To be English you really have to be born and brought up in England, which pretty much dictates that English will be your mother tongue.

  • 4
    Why do you think an answer to the second question can't be A native English speaker? I don't think people would say "He's a native speaker" so often because it doesn't mean anything. All the people in the world are a native speaker.
    – user24743
    Feb 11, 2016 at 17:25
  • 2
    @Rathony: I think we've been here before. You're trying to impose logic on the usage of English to a degree that many if not most native speakers are either unwilling or unable to fall in line with. Perhaps this is an almost inevitable consequence of the fact that you're much involved in trying to teach English. So obviously you want to be able to say This is how it works, whereas the reality is often considerably more complex / messy (in practice there are always many exceptions, and areas where "preferred usages" are ill-defined). Feb 11, 2016 at 18:19
  • 10
    I completely disagree with this. An English native speaker is someone from England, and does not state which language he's a native speaker of. Consider: " I know an Australian. He's a native speaker of English." That makes him an Australian native English speaker. Realizing that, if you say, Australian native speaker, it is really unclear what you mean! The correct answer to "He's a native speaker. What kind?" is "A native English speake." or "A native speaker of English.
    – ErikE
    Feb 11, 2016 at 19:48
  • 3
    I agree with @ErikE: unless there were some contect to suggest otherwise, I would understand "English native speaker" to be someone from England who is a native speaker (of some language, most likely English), whereas a "native English speaker" would most likely be a native speaker of English, or (less likely but also possible) a native English person who happens to speak (some language).
    – psmears
    Feb 11, 2016 at 19:54
  • 3
    You might want to add "native speaker of English" to the ngram. It's clearly higher than the alternatives. Feb 11, 2016 at 23:24

I think the first sentence involves a lexical ambiguity due to the fact that the word "English" can mean (at least) two very different things:

  1. (noun) A language spoken in the UK, the United States, India, etc. e.g. I speak English.

  2. (adjective) Specifying that someone or something is from England. e.g. I am an English person.

"He is an English native speaker"

This is ambiguous. It could mean "He is a person who speaks the English language natively," or it could mean "He is an English person who speaks an unspecified language natively."

Here is an illustrative related sentence:

He is an American native speaker; he is not an English native speaker.

This sentence happens to describe me; I am not English, but I am a native speaker (of some unspecified language). The lexical ambiguity is avoided in the above American part because there is no American language.

"He is a native English speaker".

This provides no ambiguity. "English speaker" can only refer to the language, and not the nationality. (Now technically, I suppose this could also mean "He is a native, who is from England, who speaks about unspecified things from time to time," but using "English speaker" in such a way is quite odd. I think that kind of possible meaning would only occur to an AI attempting to parse natural language, or something strange like that.)

I think the ambiguity in the first usage is why @FumbleFingers ' n-gram plot favors this latter construction. There are many Scottish native English speakers, and Indian native English speakers, etc.

  • 1
    I don't think there's really any reason to parse either one one way or another. Both would be ambiguous were it not for conventional usage and context: "Jim's an English speaker, but he's foreign. Abu's a native English speaker. He'll be able to help with local customs." Abu's native language is not English, but he's a native of the country they are in, and speaks English.
    – DCShannon
    Feb 12, 2016 at 6:05
  • 1
    Certainly. I agree that either way is correct, and one can think of lexical ambiguities for both usages, especially in particular contexts, as your example shows. However, the first usage has two obvious ambiguities to my ear, while the second usage has only a single obvious meaning to me. Other people may have different "gut" reactions than I; I only mention it because @FumbleFingers showed a great n-gram but (at the time) wasn't sure why one construction seemed preferred. I completely agree that my gut reaction may not coincide with other people's gut reactions.
    – ngb
    Feb 12, 2016 at 16:05

As others have posted, the correct answer is a native English speaker, not the inversion an English native speaker.

This is because you're not listing two adjectives that describe speaker, you're actually describing an English speaker who is also native.

[native [English speaker]]

Others have brought up the idea of an English/English(man) distinction. I would have to encounter a very twisted sentence in order to think of this noun phrase ever meaning a person from England who is a native speaker of a language that is not English.


Lets see... how to remember this...

1) What are you looking for?

a speaker of English

What about the speaker of English?

a speaker of English who is native

search results will give you native English speaker

2) What are you looking for?

English speaker

search results will lead you to this interesting article:
Why native English speakers fail to be understood in English

But to continue, What kind of English speaker?

native English speaker

search results will get you back to native speaker of English

3) What are you looking for?

English native speaker

search results will get you a definition for native speaker which would indicate that English native speaker is someone who is English and a native speaker of something.

So it would seem native English speaker is more useful than English native speaker since in order of importance being English speaking is more important than being a native speaker of any language which is probably the case because you're interested in English, and then within the group of English speakers the native ones are the ones you are interested in

By pure definition, a native English speaker could be someone who grew up in a nonEnglish speaking country but, for example, went to English speaking schools and had English speaking parents and primarily used English to communicate (think: foreign posted military family)

  • 2
    I happen to agree with you that "English native speaker" is either non-idiomatic or flat-out incorrect, but I think your answer could be improved with some explanation of why you've chosen these answers, and why other answers aren't as good, rather than just answering questions your own particular way.
    – ErikE
    Feb 11, 2016 at 19:46
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    This answer is... hard to read. I don't really follow what you're doing here.
    – DCShannon
    Feb 12, 2016 at 6:01
  • Arbitrarily bolding parts of your answer makes it difficult to follow what you're saying. Bolding can be an effective way of summarizing (I use it in e-mails all the time) but you have to make sure that folks can read just the bold parts and still be able to understand your point. Otherwise there's a lot of backtracking to try to figure out why "foreign posted military family" was so important, then confusion when it turns out it wasn't important at all compared to the rest of the sentence. It's Almost As Bad as the Arbitrary Capitalization marketing folks adore.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 16, 2016 at 18:55

This is a question about which compound noun is better when combined together between native speaker and English speaker.

People are all native speakers of one specific language (sometimes two depending on the country where they live), but English speaker is more specific than native speaker as it means only those who speak English.

Therefore, it is more idiomatic for the adjective native to modify English speaker than the other way around. The linked Ngram Viewer clearly favors native English speaker.

It doesn't necessarily mean that "English native speaker" wouldn't make any sense. It makes sense, but less idiomatic than "native English speaker".

  • 3
    I think English native speaker make sense but doesn't mean what you're suggesting in your last paragraph. To me, that is someone from England and does not state which language he's a native speaker of. Consider: " I know an Australian. He's a native speaker of English." That makes him an Australian native English speaker. Realizing that, if you say, Australian native speaker, it is really unclear what you mean! The correct answer to "He's a native speaker. What kind?" is "A native English speaker" or "A native speaker of English.
    – ErikE
    Feb 11, 2016 at 19:48

I would probably rephrase it to something like "English is his primary language". In a different context, we could use "can you find someone who speaks English as a primary language?" It's somewhat longer than "can you find a native English speaker?" but avoids the ambiguity.

I really don't think anyone would misunderstand either of your examples unless they were being deliberately obtuse, but neither seems very natural to me, despite English being my primary language. I can just imagine a case where I'm in France looking for a native who speaks any English at all, and someone thinks I'm looking for someone who primarily speaks English. But it seems likely the context would make my intent clear even in a contrived situation like this.

  • If both of them sounds to you naturally does it say that you used to hear them equally? Feb 20, 2016 at 0:56

As mentioned by FumbleFingers, a native English speaker is much more common than an English native speaker. As many point out, it may also a bit more clear.

That being said, should we say: a native English speaker or a native speaker of English? I keep thinking there's something a little odd about the former.

As I understand it, people use either expression to highlight the fact that English is someone's native language, as opposed to a language acquired later in life.

That's why saying a native English speaker still seems slightly off to me. It seems to me we'd have to stress the word native to make our point and convey what we really mean. But even then, it's still not perfectly clear: are we talking about the person's background and nationality or about the English language? English is a confusing word in that matter (especially regarding the UK and nationalities.)

So saying a native speaker of English sounds a lot clearer to me. It states clearly, unambiguously, that we're interested in what the person's native language is.

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