A critical discussion of a postmodern approach to the concept of the native speaker

Term Paper, 2009

10 Pages, Grade: A



A critical discussion of a postmodern approach to the concept of the native speaker


Main characteristics of the postmodern turn

Deconstructing the native speaker: definitions and intersections



A critical discussion of a postmodern approach to the concept of the native speaker

This paper argues for the prominent influence of the postmodernist paradigm on the evolution of the concept of the native speaker and, focusing on one particular postmodern theory, proposes to examine several views of the concept that offer alternative definitions that could be suitable for all speakers who do not fit neatly in the clear-cut categories represented by the terms native and non-native speaker.


Rising from the ashes of the Middle Ages and its superstitions and religious constraints, the modern era was based on ‘optimism, reason and progress’, and in this era, these values ‘became the dominant discourses and the foundations of knowledge’. The ‘rational man was believed to have the capacity to uncover a singular knowable reality - a reality that would not be subject to question…’ (Grbich, 2004). The nation-state was central to the modern era, with its idealised standard version of the official language, its educational system that actively promoted the use of that standard language and often strongly discouraged the use of regional dialects, its language planning programmes and institutions aiming at encouraging nationalist sentiments and unifying ‘particularistic and diverse subgroups’ (Fishman, 2003; Billig, 1995) its study of ‘the Other’ and its colonial ambitions. The postmodern turn questioned the modern era’s stereotypes.

Main characteristics of the postmodern turn

A child of modernity, the notion of postmodernism is an elusive one because postmodernist theories and attitudes come in many forms and have many meanings; an experimental style of representation in the arts and architecture, a historical epoch that follows the modern one and varieties of social theory. There is no single theory called Postmodernism, but from Foucault to Derrida and others, according to Dean (1994, p.4), they are all characterised by a ‘scepticism toward long-cherished concepts and modes of thought, an unwillingness ‘to accept taken-for-granted components of our reality and the ‘‘official’’ accounts of how they came to be the way they are’ (cited by Rubdy, 2007), as well as an awareness of the contingent, particular and shifting nature of categories inherited from the modern era (Pennycook, 2006). The modern era’s metanarratives, dichotomies and its nation-state leave the postmodern thinker incredulous (Lyotard, 1984; Grbich, 2004). Indeed, the postmodern thinker discovers several models of order, and perceives knowledge as local and contextual. Colonial and post-colonial systems of thought gradually give way to globalisation and multiculturalism, the centralisation of power decreases, the voices of minority groups and scholars from former colonial territories are increasingly heard (Grbich, 2004; Chakrabarty, 1992).

Deconstructing the native speaker: definitions and intersections

The notion of the native speaker fits the modern idealised concepts of a standard language and a unique truth, perfectly. According to Ferguson, ‘linguists . . . have long given a special place to the native speaker as the only true and reliable source of language data’ (Ferguson, 1982, p. vii). Indeed the concept fulfils the appeal for models and norms that characterises the Western modern world’s tendency to study and classify (Jeffers, 2006; King, 1999; Tuhiwai Smith, 1999). The concept of the native speaker can be scrutinized through this lens of postmodernism (Rubdy, 2007), and within the postmodern theories, this paper uses Derrida’s deconstructionism for this scrutiny.

Derrida's deconstructionism is provocative, if not subversive, in questioning the self-evidence, logic and non-judgmental character of dichotomies we live by’ (Rawlings, 1999).

It does not necessarily offer solutions, but dissects ‘texts’[1], and the concept of the native speaker can be viewed as one such ‘text’ to be undone. Like everything else, it is socially constructed (Davies, 2003; Rubdy, 2007) and can therefore be de-constructed. This particular theory seems ideal as the aim of this discussion is to understand what being a native speaker entails, rather than to search for a single and all-encompassing ‘truth’, insufficient to account for the complexities involved in the real world.

The notion of the native speaker has greatly evolved since its first appearance ‘in medieval times’ (natale idioma or lingua native meaning language of birth or innate language). At the time ‘it was commonly believed or suspected that language was in some way biologically inherited’ (Christophersen, 1988). It is now commonly accepted that ‘no human baby is born with an innate knowledge of any particular language’, but that they ‘learn the language of their environment’ (ibid). Apparently only the English language uses the term ‘native speaker’; other languages and cultures offer concepts that are dissociated with the notion of birth. For example, in Polish the term that comes closest to the English one is jezyk ojczysty (sic), which can be loosely translated as ‘father tongue’ i.e. language of the fatherland; in Russian, nositel jazyka (sic), or carrier of the language; in Chinese, country language (sic) (Radwańska-Williams, 2008) while in French, the concept of the mother tongue is preferred (langue maternelle). In Duala, a Bantu language of the Niger-Congo group (Ethnologue.com), such a definition is not even considered, the only interest being to know in what language(s) an individual can communicate.

In English, tentative definitions of the concept have been offered. Bloomfield who prefers the term ‘native language’ defines it as the ‘first language a human being learns to speak’ and excludes from that definition all languages learnt later; Chomsky, taking the focus away from a binary distinction between native and non-native, looks at language development as part of all human development, and states that ‘everyone is a Native Speaker of the particular language that the person has ‘grown ‘in [their]… brain’. Chomsky’s native speaker construct, a member of an idealised homogeneous speech community[2], is taken as the authoritative and reliable source of grammaticality judgments indicative of linguistic competence (Radwańska-Williams, 2008). Halliday (1978) choosing to use the ‘mother tongue’, recognises that it requires clarification and states that ‘no language ever completely replaces the mother tongue’; he suggests that ‘certain kinds of ability seem to be … difficult to acquire in a second language’ but considers the possibility of acquiring native speaker level in a second language. Davies (2003), who argues that the native speaker is determined by attitude as much as language ability and knowledge, offers step by step characteristics of the native speaker; he states that the native speaker acquires the language during childhood, has grammatical intuitions, a capacity to produce fluent spontaneous discourse, to write creatively in his or her language (from jokes to epics, metaphor to novels) and to translate into the language of which she or he is a native speaker.

These characteristics quite clearly exclude a great number of native speakers worldwide; it seems obvious that not all native speakers can translate into their language as it implies a good knowledge of the source language they are translating from, let alone write novels as that entails writing skills that many laymen do not have. Another interesting concept is that of the home language (Mbassi-Manga, 1973); it is prudent, because it does not make any claims whatsoever as to the level of proficiency or expertise of the speaker, but just signals the fact that it is the language spoken at home, probably the language of intimacy but not necessarily the one in which the speaker will have the best writing skills for example.


[1] According to Derrida, "Everything is a text; this is a text," he said, waving his arm at the diners around him in the bland suburban-like restaurant, blithely picking at their lunches, completely unaware that they were being "deconstructed." (Cuddon, 1991)

[2] Davies offers three definitions of the speech community (2003); the one referred to here, a blend of some of his criteria, is ‘a group of people all of whom speak the same language’ and who share a common acceptance of which language code is to be used for what purpose.

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A critical discussion of a postmodern approach to the concept of the native speaker
Theory and Methodologies of the Social Sciences
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ISBN (Book)
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Postmodernity, Deconstruction, Native Speaker, Foucault, Derrida, First language, Home language, Mother tongue, Language competence, Speech community, Language affiiation, Primary language, Birth language, Multilingualism, Colonial languages
Quote paper
Constance Mbassi Manga (Author), 2009, A critical discussion of a postmodern approach to the concept of the native speaker, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/135422


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