What’s wrong with “native speaker”? Plus ESL, ELL, EFL…alphabet soup!

What’s wrong with “native speaker”? Plus ESL, ELL, EFL…alphabet soup!

In reality, a “native English speaker” means people who are from a Western English-speaking country. The term is used to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit into that group, no matter a person’s actual English abilities. So what can we use instead?

Many people say “native English speaker” to point to a person who speaks English fluently. But it’s not quite so simple. Let’s take a look at why the term is not ideal and consider alternatives like EFL, ELL, ESL and ESOL (I’ll explain that alphabet soup!) and “multi-language author.”

What’s wrong with “native speaker”?

A friend asked what a “native English speaker” meant to the average person.

My answer: someone who speaks a Western English fluently.

▶ The term masks racial and cultural (e.g., East/West, North/South) hierarchy.

In the real world, “native speaker” means someone from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, or South Africa. Western and, frankly, white.

To get jobs as editors and English/international school teachers calling for native speakers, you often had to have a passport from one of those countries.

The term masks the hierarchies where West is better than East, North is better than South, and white is better than other colors.

▶ The term is exclusionary.

“Native speaker” is often used to exclude people who speak non-Western Englishes—Indian, Filipino, Nigerian, Singaporean, etc.—and those who may not have been born into English but speak and write it fluently.

I wasn’t born in a Western English country, nor do I have a passport from one. I learned English when I was 4 years old. So does that make me a native speaker? Some might say “no.”

▶ Being a “native speaker” doesn’t relate to language ability.

If you want to talk about language ability, “native speaker” is a useless description. You could be born into a language, but it doesn’t mean you will have a high command of that language.

I’m a native speaker of Japanese but couldn’t write academic papers in Japanese for the life of me! So the term is meaningless.

What can we say instead?

It’s convenient to use the terms “native” and “non-native” as shorthand. That’s probably why people continue to use it.

And I have no moral authority here! I used those terms too on this site until recently (and still find spots where I have to change it!).

But words have real-world power. And I’m learning that if we want to make the (English-speaking) world more respectful and inclusive, we need to use words that are more respectful and inclusive.

What about EFL, ELL, ESL, etc. etc.?

It’s not easy to find the right words. I’ve seen various terms suggested in editor groups as alternatives to “native speaker,” so this is what I’ve been learning.

(These are used as adjectives to describe a writer. But they seem to be commonly used in educational settings and are from the perspective of the teacher/school, so they might not work as adjectives.)

(Also: I am not an expert on these terms; I’m jotting these down to try to understand what I’ve heard. Please leave a comment if I’ve gotten any wrong 😊)

EFLEnglish as a Foreign LanguageThis term doesn’t include people for whom English is a first language. And by English, I mean all kinds of English including non-Western ones.
ELLEnglish Language LearnerApparently, this is used commonly in some educational circles. But aren’t we all English language learners, even if we’ve been speaking English all our lives? And I can’t imagine calling my (very professional) clients “English-language-learner” writers—that would be insulting.
ESLEnglish as a Second LanguageThis term is somewhat outdated (it originates from a US school context, where English is the presumed first language); more people recognize that English might not be just a “second” language to some.
ESOLEnglish for Speakers of Other LanguagesThis is a way to refer to an English course; if we were to focus on the speaker, it would “speakers of other languages who also speak English”? I don’t think we’ll be seeing that being used anytime soon 🙂
Some of the acronyms to describe “non-native” English speakers…

Not one of these terms is a good fit to describe all the people I work with.

  • Some have grown up speaking one language at home but English in school—both languages are their “first” language.
  • Some others have learned English in school as a second or third language but now use it as a primary professional language.
  • Others may simply speak a non-Western English as their primary language and use some words and writing conventions that differ from the West.

An imperfect solution

My choice was to switch to “multi-language author.”

Could “multi-language author” mean someone whose primary language is English too? Yes, it could.

But since there’s no strong alternative, I like that multi-language author is inclusive and focuses on a person’s abilities instead of their lack.

In the end, the points are:

  • Some writers need more syntactical or grammatical help than others.
  • I love working with authors from many cultures and backgrounds.

So I will try to put aside this alphabet soup and focus on providing the services that my clients need.

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