Is using "native" as a noun to refer to native speakers of a language (as opposed to people native to an area) incorrect, potentially offensive, or both? For example:

It's ok to start speaking in [Hindi/Maori/Mongolian/English/Japanese] with the natives from day one.

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    In English,native does mean "person born there" (she's a native of Paris) but it has been used so often in popular culture with reference to headhunters and cannibals wielding "native weapons" and engaging in "native rituals" that it has come to have the connotations "primitive" and "tribal". So the word's racist baggage makes it very likely that someone would take offense. And yet the phrase "the natives are restless" has become such a part of British and American culture that it survives in face of the concerns. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 8 '16 at 10:51
  • books.google.com/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 8 '16 at 10:51
  • @TRomano Would those comments be more on-topic on the related question I linked to? – Andrew Grimm Apr 8 '16 at 10:53
  • The comments are no less apropos here, since in this question you raise the question whether the phrase "the natives" is potentially offensive. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 8 '16 at 10:57
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    With languages like Maori (spoken by indigenous people in a colonized area), there are going to be a lot of cultural subtleties to the word "native" (as a noun) that wouldn't be present if you were discussing, say, Londoners speaking English. With languages like Maori especially, it would be safer to say something like "the native speakers", "the locals", or "the Maori". – Ethan Kaminski Apr 8 '16 at 12:04
up vote 11 down vote accepted

I don't recommend you speak this way. I can't say it's "incorrect", but it's certainly a poor choice.

Calling someone "a native" can be interpreted as conflating the place you were born with the language you spoke from birth. There are, for example, native speakers of Japanese who were born outside Japan, and thus are not "Japanese natives" by the usual definition of the word native. If you say you're a "Japanese native", are you talking about the place you're from or the language you speak? It's unclear.

Worse, if someone interprets it as referring to nationality, ethnicity, or heritage, it's possible they may take offense. This depends on the person, the social context, and how they expect to be addressed. I don't think it's likely to be offensive in most contexts to most speakers, but it does have that potential, and that's another reason to avoid it.

I recommend always using the phrase native speaker, and if you want to specify what language, writing out native speaker of English. This avoids any possible ambiguity or offense.

  • I'd write native English speaker, not native speaker of English. – Tim S. Apr 8 '16 at 12:11
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    You can, but I don't recommend it. This pattern leads to ambiguity. Try saying "native American English speaker", for example. To express yourself clearly, you should say "native speaker of American English" instead. – snailboat Apr 8 '16 at 14:45

I'd agree with the other answers that using native isn't the best choice.

But how about locals?

It's ok to start speaking English with the locals from day one.

Locals just means the people that live there, they could originally be from anywhere.

The basic definition of native that applies here would be:

3) related to one as, or in connection with, the place of one's birth or origin" ⇒ one's native land, one's native language"

So as I was born in America, I could say I am a "native American".

As for language, for example my parents were German immigrants, but being in America only speaking English in our house was allowed. As children, even when all the relatives got together for some holiday, us kids had to sit at the kids table, so the adults could discuss stuff away from us (in German).

So I am a "native speaker of the English language". My parents would be "native speakers of the German language". It does not address where we are.

As for your example:

It's ok to start speaking in [Hindi/Maori/Mongolian/English/Japanese] with the natives from day one.

Here native means persons born in the country you are referring to (you could substitute local people for natives without changing the meaning).
Unless you are on an Pacific Island where nobody ever arrives or leaves, native location and language may not be the same.

Also the word natives (used by itself) has been used a lot (especially by Hollywood) to describe primitive peoples in a fictional setting (such as a jungle), who are usually cast as inferior to the (usually white) educated protagonists. It is possible some people might be offended.

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    "So as I was born in America, I could say I am a "native American"." => You -could- say that, but it didn't work out so well for Elizabeth Warren. :-) I'd not advise new English speakers that "born in America" = "native American" is a conventional usage of the wording...capitalization notwithstanding. – HostileFork Apr 8 '16 at 12:45
  • @HostileFork No, that's "Native American". In context it should not be an issue unless someone make it so on purpose. The difference is a historical heritage issue, not where one was born. – user3169 Apr 8 '16 at 16:57

I think it's generally OK to speak of "a native of ", however the phrase "the natives" can sometimes carry overtones of colonialism and looking down on native populations. Because phrases like "the natives are restless" remain in common (although jocose) usage, these overtones are somewhat closer to hand than they might otherwise be. The same thing works in the opposite direction. "Native speaker" is very much part of modern English, and if you're talking about "speaking like a native" this will be the context that's closest to hand.

Sometimes the fact that you're using a word correctly won't be a defence against someone taking offence. For example, many people will take offence if you use 'aborigine' to describe someone whose people lived somewhere "from the beginning". It's perfectly correct, but it carries baggage. In the case of 'native', the defence of being correct is even thinner. A colonist who was born in the colony wouldn't usually be described as a native, so it ends up being a proxy for the local race.

So use 'native' when appropriate, but be careful.

Natives means two things - person born in a particular place or country and someone having mother tongue of some language (precisely, the native speakers).

So, it is all about...

Context!

If you mention 'speaking' and some 'languages' followed by the word 'native', it is understood that you are talking about 'native speakers' of that language.

Compare:

Though she's French, she speaks English like natives

But mentioning no language to speak gives us an idea of talking about 'native to a specific area.

She was amazed by the art of the natives

  • The first example should be "she speaks English like the natives". Unfortunately it's too small an edit, so I can't fix it, but it is incorrect as it stands. – Dominic Cronin Feb 19 '17 at 10:46
  • Or better: "like a native". – Dominic Cronin Feb 19 '17 at 19:18

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