The Grand United Duchy of States

Editorial: Stop treating native speakers like language experts

Look at these people. I bet more than half of them are trilingual. Photo: JackKPhoto / Shutterstock

Look at these people. I bet more than half of them are trilingual. Photo: JackKPhoto / Shutterstock

People hugely overestimate the language skills that “native speakers” possess, and I’m surprised that Luxembourg--polyglot central--is the worst offender of anywhere I’ve lived.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s space opera Shards of Earth there is a special class of human being, known as an intermediary, whose brain has been extensively modified--at the cost of freakish side effects--so that they can navigate spaceships through a kind of horrifying para-reality that exists between galaxies. Nobody but an intermediary (or “int”) can do the job, which means every crew has to have one. They’re special, rare and in sharp demand: many an alien mobster would coerce and kidnap just to get its hands on one.

This description corresponds, in an admittedly poetic sense, to how “native speakers” of English are classed in Luxembourg. The lingual knowledge possessed by the native speaker is untouchable. The writing skills of the native speaker outstrip those of any other. Strength of idiom, sense of word order, authority on accent and punctuation--the native speaker lives and (literally) breathes a primally flawless embodiment of the English language. Why not get one for use around the office?

And yet nobody takes into account whether the native speaker in question has had any particular training or experience in the language arts. Nobody considers, deeply considers, whether the native speaker in question is perhaps a simpleton.

“The text doesn’t need to be reviewed by the marketing department,” said a manager in a firm in Luxembourg where I once worked, “because it has already been proofread by a native speaker on our team.” Listen, pal, just because one of your junior tax advisors grew up in Dublin that doesn’t make him an expert writer. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, but, well, shit. He’s a tax advisor.

It’s not a college degree  

I don’t assert that native-level knowledge of a language is a myth, nor that the average learner can easily match the fluency and fluidity of the native. But the respect accorded to “native speakers” is nevertheless exaggerated to an absurd point in the grand duchy. In the world as it exists on a CV, the hierarchy of language proficiency is clear and simple: “native” is at the top, which means that everything else is garbage. (Even “native equivalent” looks dirtied by concession. Equivalency is something you claim, while native is something you are.)

Indeed, being “native” tends to masquerade as a kind of accomplishment on CVs, promising abilities that, I’m sorry to say, not every native speaker possesses. Language and writing skills--which, like anything, take years of study and experience to properly gain--become conflated with a biographical detail of birthplace. And this is damaging to entire professions. Jobs like teacher, writer, editor or translator are cheapened in the public imaginary by the lazy idea that every native speaker should excel in these fields. In parallel, people doing these jobs in a second tongue are unjustly thought of as second-rate, when often they are more talented by dint of having real perspective on the workings of the language. And that’s especially true in Luxembourg, where people are speaking second languages to degrees of fluency that are downright spooky.

A quick lap around the internet reveals that many, if not most, private language institutes in Luxembourg employ the word “native” directly and prominently in their web copy: Inlingua, Berlitz and Cap Langues not only mention it when introducing their respective staffs, but also have it as the first or only adjective. Prolingua and English World list it as the first criterion sought for prospective hires, while the tagline on is “English language services from native speakers.”

This isn’t to name-and-shame anybody. It remains ambiguous whether these schools use the word because society expects it, or if society expects the word because places like these schools keep using it. Certainly, it’s both. But the ultimate correlation is obvious: being native is considered an important prerequisite for teaching a language.

The part where I wrack my brains

But why? The only argument I can dream up is that English instructors who barely speak English are out there, scamming clients with their lack of basic competence. To this I have three rebuttals. First, Luxembourg is too full of polyglots and gurus and foreigners for such a ruse to last long. Second, surely it’s a weakness of advertising if you’re only writing “native” to convince people that your school isn’t fraudulent. And third--coming to the point--why should being “native” be a guarantee of competency anyway? Have you gone to Baltimore and asked people on the street when to use a gerund and when to use an infinitive? Or when to use the perfect tense? Or what the perfect tense even is? I haven’t either, but I can promise you it would be an idiotic use of time. We don’t walk around, in the USA, talking about goddamn gerunds.

But in Luxembourg, people actually do! At least, more so than in other places. That’s what surprises me about this whole thing. If you wanted to learn, say, German in southeastern Michigan, I could better understand wanting to find a native-speaking teacher because they’re probably hard to come by. You do run a risk of learning from someone without, themselves, thorough fluency or a passable accent. This is not Michigan, however. This is Luxembourg, a country full not only of languages but also of language mastery. Luxembourgers speak German and French to a frankly insane standard, often Portuguese and/or Italian and/or Spanish and/or English too, and honestly the average non-Luxembourger here isn’t doing too badly either. Being bilingual or even trilingual is nothing special. So shouldn’t this culture, of all cultures, be better prepared to accept that a language can be legitimately and wonderfully inhabited by a speaker who didn’t learn it from birth?

It should but it isn’t. Instead, “native tendencies” (to quote a different manager from my old firm) are held at a premium. I can accept that people are insecure about their abilities or image, and thus want the most “authentic” source from which to learn or benefit. But I think it goes deeper than that. I think there is a general misunderstanding, a wrongful diminishing, of the arts and humanities. Not everyone gains speciality in economics, medicine, law, etc., whereas everyone learns to speak and read and write. These latter skills are therefore considered standard yields of secondary education. We all learned grammar back in school, right? But for anyone who has been a teacher or an editor, that idea is laughable. Sure, high school is a great place to start. It’s also where most people stop. So, no, I don’t reckon that tax advisors will have a nuanced and professional-grade sense of grammar, punctuation, flow, style, paragraphing, tone, lexicography, irony, subtext, etc. Nor that random adult Baltimoreans could, on the whole, effectively deliver lessons about verb tenses, irregular verbs, reported speech, modals, word order, pronunciation and so on.

Freakiness where freakiness is due

Some native speakers are indeed freaks of language: they know things and can be treated like writers or teachers, almost certainly because they are. But that doesn’t cheapen the wares of “non-native” teachers and writers, who will also be far more knowledgeable, freaky and eloquent in their executions than the average native speaker. And Luxembourg should be specially well-placed to see the value in people who speak second languages in ways more creative, thorough and useful than many “natives” for whom language is simply a conduit for everyday interactions. (“Baltimorons”?)

So, by all means, recruit/kidnap an expert deep-space navigator for the crew of your spaceship. Just make sure to get yourself a real, honest-to-god freak, all right?

The author would like to apologise to the residents of Baltimore, which was chosen as an exemplary city without reason.