September 2014
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Aya Matsuda, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA

I was born in Tokyo and grew up speaking Japanese. Since my first exposure to the English language in the 1st grade, English was always my favorite subject. When I was 17, I participated in a year-long study abroad program and attended high school in rural Wisconsin, where I remained to finish high school and then the first 2 years of college. After that, I returned to Japan and completed my undergraduate work at International Christian University, where the majority of courses I took were in English though Japanese was the dominant language outside classes. I then returned to the United States for graduate studies and have been working at U.S. universities since then. In terms of my language repertoire, the two languages I use on a daily basis are English and Japanese. And if I were to use the notion of NS to describe myself, I consider myself to be a native speaker (NS) of Japanese and nonnative speaker (NNS) of English.

Here, I am using the term “native speaker” rather casually and loosely to refer to “someone who has spoken a particular language since they were a baby, rather than having learnt it as a child or adult” (Cambridge, 1995, p. 939). In applied linguistics, this type of definition of NS has been heavily challenged, particularly in relation to multilingual users and their complex relationship with languages. If a person spoke Language A with the mother and B with the father, where C is spoken outside the home, is she a native speaker of all three languages? How about Language D that she learns in school, which eventually became her strongest language? The traditional definition of NS does not adequately capture a situation like this, and scholars have tried to revise the definition so that it can better reflect reality. For example, Davies (2003) suggested some “reality definitions” (p. 214) of NSs than can be applied even to L2 users of a language. Other scholars (e.g., Liu, 1999; Brutt-Griffer & Samimy, 2001) criticized the dichotomous conceptualization of the NS and the NNS and redefined it as a continuum.

While I share their concerns and appreciate their efforts to redefine the concept, that is not where my current interest lies, because the concepts of NS no longer have a legitimate place in my thinking of ELT. I do think that it is a powerful concept. It still influences all aspects of the TESOL profession, from hiring practices to our identity construction. But it doesn’t have to be. And I’m not interested in refining the concept that I do not plan to use to describe the future of ELT or who I am. There is something that I am interested in doing, and that is deconstructing the idealization of NSs. (Kramsch, 1997), or how we associate characteristics, qualities, and abilities—such as high linguistic proficiency, rich cultural knowledge, certain appearances, or teaching abilities—to this loosely-and-vaguely-defined group of people called NSs. I find it highly problematic that some important decisions regarding hiring are made based on such associations and assumptions rather than on the actual qualifications of the person. The idealization of NSs is what I hope to challenge, problematize, and deconstruct in the next few paragraphs, using my own stories.

The first assumption I would like to challenge is the idea that if you are an NS of a particular language, you would be proficient in that language. When I was first invited to give a talk at a symposium in Japan, the talk this article is based on, the first thing I asked was if it could be in English. It wasn’t because the symposium was about English, or because the participants were multilingual (which turned out to be the case, though it was not my initial concern). I prefer to speak in English because that is my stronger language for scholarly activities. Of more than 40 publications and 50 conference presentations that I have given in the past, only one each was in Japanese, and they were the hardest to prepare for because my academic Japanese is much weaker than my academic English. My vocabulary and discourse knowledge is limited because I do not read Japanese publications or attend Japanese conferences regularly. I am not part of Japanese academic communities, where I could have learned all the subtleties of how Japanese scholars use Japanese. All of my training as a scholar has been in the United States, and in the so-called “international” community where English is accepted, or at least tolerated, so I have been sharing my work in English. Between two languages, I still feel that Japanese is stronger overall, but there are a few areas in which I am more comfortable and competent in English: scholarship is one of them.

At the same time, the fact I am writing this article in my L2 suggests that you do not have to be an NS to be a successful user of the language. Preparing a presentation or article is a complicated task, but there are many professionals who do that successfully in their L2s. There are creative writers who write in their L2s. These examples show that a person’s status as an NS does not necessarily tell us everything about the person’s language proficiency. If we are interested in the person’s language proficiency, it’s more accurate and efficient to ask him or her about his or her knowledge of the language and experience using it than asking if he or she is a native speaker of the language.

Another assumption often made about NSs is that they are knowledgeable about cultural practices in a country or community where the language is spoken. People often assume that I know everything about Japanese culture just because I’m from Japan and speak Japanese as my first language. But what’s interesting in my case is that, when it comes to knowing about the things adults do—how to pay taxes, how to make a doctor’s appointment, how to buy a house, or how to communicate with my child’s teachers—I am much more knowledgeable about “American ways.” It is so because the last time I actually lived in Japan was when I was in college, and all my postschool life and life as a parent has taken place in the United States. That alone shows that the idea that you are knowledgeable about your “native culture” is a myth.

Another illuminating example is from two summers ago, when my daughter, who was born and grew up in the United States, attended school in Japan for the first time. I had many questions about the Japanese school system these days, and my old friends who are now parents were, of course, helpful. But the most valuable resource turned out to be an American friend who had her daughter attend elementary school in Japan and the United States. Although she was not originally from Japan, she had intimate knowledge of school culture in Japan and, on top of it, she could explain it in relation to how things are done in the United States, which was my reference point. So, in this particular case, someone who was not originally from Japan was more knowledgeable about this particular type of Japanese culture than I was, and was more informative than her native Japanese counterparts, contrary to the common-held assumption that an NS of a language is a better cultural resource than an NNS of the language.

What these stories suggest, particularly in relation to hiring ESL/EFL teachers, is that using NS status as a hiring criteria is a risky way of recruiting. You may assume that candidates will come with certain qualities, but there is no guarantee that they do. What I advocate for, instead, is to define the criteria in terms of what we want our teachers to know and what they can do. If it is an academic writing class, for example, we’d probably want someone who knows enough English to write an effective academic paper and perhaps who has attended college or university in an English-speaking environment, where he or she successfully used academic English and gained some first-hand knowledge of English-speaking academic culture. And someone who knows about pedagogy of writing, ideally with a track record of being an effective L2 writing teacher. On the other hand, if it is a business English class, we might look for someone who knows and has used English in business settings. Once we start thinking about teacher qualifications in terms of what teachers know and what they can do, it becomes clear that we can skip the idea of NS status all together. It also becomes evident that not requiring “nativeness” does not mean we would settle for someone who is less than. In fact, being more precise about what we need may end up raising the bar. This “what-they-know and what-they-can-do” criteria helps us reach out directly to teachers that match our needs instead of wondering if the NS applicants actually bring all qualities we hope they do.

This article is based on the feature talk presented at Tamagawa University ELF Symposium on 28 February 2014 in Tokyo, Japan.


Brutt-Griffer, J., & Samimy, K. K. (2001). Transcending the nativeness paradigm. World Englishes, 20(1), 99–106.

Davies, A. (2003). The native speaker: Myth and reality. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

Kramsch, C. (1997). The privilege of the nonnative speaker. PMLA, 112, 359–369.

Liu, J. (1999). From their own perspectives: The impact of non-native ESL professionals on their students. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non-native educators in English language teaching (pp. 159–176). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Native Speaker.(1995). Cambridge international dictionary of English. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Aya Matsuda is associate professor of applied linguistics at Arizona State University, USA. Her research focuses on the use and status of English as an international language and its pedagogical implications, and her work has appeared in several leading journals as well as a number of edited collections. She currently serves on the TESOL Board of Directors.
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