I am going to say “multi-language author” instead of “non-native English speaker” from now on.
Recently, I was introduced to the term “multi-language author.”
Recently, in a teaching workshop on grading rubrics, conversation was about essays written by students whose first language is not English. Somebody referred to us as ‘multi-language writers’, and I just can’t thank this person enough for using this empowering and inclusive term.— Ignacio Escalante (@RandallIgnacio) February 17, 2020
Until now, I’ve been using “non-native English speaker” to describe writers whose first language isn’t English—but only because I couldn’t find a better phrase. (“English-as-a-foreign-language” isn’t much better. It’s too clunky, and I refuse to use an acronym on my own website 😉)
Using “non-native English speaker” emphasizes a person’s foreignness and their limitation. It hints that they are somehow less than native speakers. Using the phrase made me feel uncomfortable because it felt like I was looking down at the other person.
I was lucky to learn English at a very young age—young enough that English grammar rules were embedded in my brain like for any first language. And my accent is completely American (specifically, from an area New York City people call “upstate”—but it’s not really upstate 😉).
And yet, when I moved back to the US as a teenager, I’d get comments from my classmates like “your English is really good” and “your English really has improved.”
Yes, they were meant as compliments. But would you say these things to someone you considered your equal?
I felt it was condescending and am always reminded of it when calling someone a non-native English speaker.
And what is a native speaker anyway? Do I even count as a native speaker? How old/young do you have to be when you learn a language to be considered “native,” 1 year old? 2? 3?
An empowering alternative
So “multi-language author” is a refreshing alternative.
It celebrates a person’s abilities. It recognizes that they can speak English in addition to other languages. It doesn’t focus on their presumed imperfect English skills. It’s empowering (even to me, who considers herself a native speaker).
I’ve updated the phrasing on this website and will be checking my blog posts too.
I used to have a nagging sense that something wasn’t quite right. Now, I feel so much lighter! What a difference a few little words can make.
Thank you, Randall Ignacio, for sharing this, and to whoever it was that said it in their workshop!
- Rivard, Becky. “Working with Multi-Language Authors.” ScienceEditor, Annual Meeting Report of the Council of Science Editors, 31 July 2020.
- Romero-Olivares, Adriana L. “Reviewers, Don’t Be Rude to Nonnative English Speakers.” Science, 3 October 2019.
Multi-language (and mono-language) authors: If you would like to discuss whether we might be a good fit for your scholarly writing project, please send me details via the contact form or email me at email@example.com.