EDI director Luke Finley and community director Vanessa Plaister explain why the CIEP is calling time on the terms ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’.
What’s the problem?
The phrases ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ are still common in our field and related areas such as translation and ESL teaching. But there’s a strong argument that they are unhelpful at best and that at worst they perpetuate assumptions about language competence that have an exclusionary effect.
The CIEP has been keeping up to date with that thinking. Increasingly, those of us writing as the CIEP have instead used more precise phrases. Now, we’ve decided to make that decision formal: the CIEP style guide will ask its authors not to use ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ to differentiate English speakers according to where they’re from, where they’re based or which variant of English they use.
Why are we doing this?
Whether we mean to or not, when we identify someone as ‘non-native’ we relegate them to an ‘out-group’ – we other them. And, beyond geography, the word has possible connotations about what else that person is excluded from, including rights, status and language.
Does an accident of birth make a language – particularly when that language has myriad global variants – inherently more ours than someone else’s?
Many of us would answer ‘no’ – yet when we don’t consciously reflect on it, it’s all too easy to position those Englishes hierarchically or competitively. British and US English vie for first place based on their respective histories; Australian, Irish, Canadian, New Zealand and South African English follow on closely – and the rest straggle along at the back. It’s no coincidence the winners in that race are mostly majority-white, ‘Western’ nations – the nations that colonised and imposed English on the others, or the ones in which those colonisers settled.
In fact, while we may consciously reject vehemently the idea that English language competence is tied to racial identity (or presumed racial identity based on skin colour), it’s worth reflecting candidly on the mental picture that forms when we use the words ‘native English speaker’. Even if you genuinely think of someone from the Punjab, the words can act as a dog whistle to others who think they know what you really mean. And that’s an unacceptable risk in the context of the CIEP’s global membership.
If it ever did – because it is a language formed over centuries of global influences – English no longer belongs inherently to one geographical community. It’s the language of global communication, spoken fluently by more people than any other. And that fluency can come from acquiring English as a first language or from learning it more formally.
As all editors learn, being fluent in a language is far from enough to make you a good editor. Significantly, those who learn it as a second or other language often have a better, more systematic understanding of its grammar and how to describe it than those who’ve used it all their lives. And while fluency may imply that a person has a more instinctive way of choosing their words, a larger vocabulary and a comfort with slang or idiom, is that necessarily always an advantage? These things may make a language richer, but they don’t necessarily allow us to communicate clearly, quickly or as widely as possible within a global marketplace.
What’s the alternative?
As is so often the answer: it depends.
When we see the words in context, we will think about what our writers really mean.
In many cases, the solution may be to refer to people using English as a first language or as a second or other language.
But even then, this might be tied up with an ill-founded hierarchy of competence – with assumptions about who can speak, and edit, English effectively. Perhaps we mean simply a multilingual author or someone still learning the language. Perhaps we’re talking specifically about the linguistic foibles or needs of that individual.
Or it could be that the phrase just marks out the subject as someone from a different background to the writer. In such cases, it may be that not only the words ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ but the distinction itself is unnecessary. In those instances, we might decide instead to delete the words.
In short, the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ are imprecise, potentially racially loaded and fraught with issues of ownership and power – of who gets to define what is a ‘good or bad’, ‘correct or incorrect’, use of a language. This is why, as an association of members centred in the UK but spread across the world, those of us responsible for positioning the CIEP securely within that global editing community have decided to stop using them.
About Vanessa and Luke
Vanessa Plaister has been the CIEP’s community director since 2018. Luke Finley became the CIEP’s first equality, diversity and inclusion director in early 2021.
About the CIEP
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Photo credit: globes by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
Wow, this is the best piece of news I have read in a decade. Or should I say century.
For years, as an editor from India, I have struggled and cringed every time I came across the term only native English speakers required.
The discrimination sucked.
But, we Indian editors graciously smiled, either accepted our fate or fought to prove the writer wrong by editing a free sample.
Often, one cynically questioned, if having learnt the language from the English, who colonised our country for 150 years shouldn’t make us native English speakers.
This article written brilliantly brings a smile and a sigh of relief.
Awaiting the day when not just CIEP, but the entire world will shed these terms native and non- native English speaker.
Cora, it grates that in order to prove themselves (to whoever decides what what is acceptably native), English language editors have had to jump through hoops. I am so glad that this will make a difference to the editing community worldwide.
At last, someone sees the light. Even in writing colonial history, we’re mindful about the use of the word “native”, preferring “indigenous” instead.
Excellent news. I am delighted to hear this!
Bravo! I’ve been using “multilingual” for a couple of years now.
I have heard from some colleagues who read this blog post, and they want to know what nondiscriminatory terminology employers and project managers should use when they need to hire or contract with editors who are fluent speakers of US English, British English, Australian English, etc. Or is such a description exactly what should be used?
Thanks for your comments, Katharine. ‘Fluent speaker of X’ seems OK to me. Although we did question in the blog post whether it’s the best/only measure of language ability, it doesn’t discriminate between people on the basis of how they acquired the language or where they’re from or based.
Another (maybe more formal) option might be ‘high level of proficiency in X’, which is a valid job requirement for an editor and not guaranteed just because a person has spoken a given language (/variant) from birth.
Thank you so much for this very essential step. I hope we as a community of editors can find a way to push more publishers to adopt this mindset. Far too often, just having a non-Christian name is enough to be labelled a non-native speaker, and saddled with the baggage of a range of assumptions regarding skill, competence and even basic intelligence – all this before you even have your first conversation!
Let’s all share this article widely to reach as many people in the industry as we can.
Yes, absolutely agree about the ownership issue of English today. I work in the TEFL/TESOL field and for some time I’ve been using Silvana Richardson’s ‘bilingual teacher of English’, though ‘multilingual’ could easily substitute ‘bilingual’. To indicate the degree of proficiency, we could use ‘I am a fluent/proficient bilingual/multilingual speaker/user/teacher of English’ as appropriate.
The values and sentiment behind this decision are very positive, kind, and the kind of thing the world needs more of. But the devil is in the detail.
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment (since I am the first person to be a little on the fence about this article, so far) … sometimes one adjective, rather than a lengthy description, is exactly what is required. One example is mentioned by Katherine, above. Prospective employers often need a concise way of saying they are looking for someone with an instinctive feel for a particular language (whether or not they have deliberately considered and explained their corporate values), so they choose “native”/”non-native”. This happens with languages other than English – a quick trawl on LinkedIN for editorial and proofreading contract work brings up “native [Dutch/French/German/Russian/Arabic – pretty much any language, if you care to look]” fairly quickly. Personally, these adverts don’t offend me. They just make me think, “I’m not Dutch, French, German, etc., so maybe not the contract for me, but I will contact them to find out anyway”. Often, when I have done this, the “native” part hasn’t mattered – the employers were looking for someone with a high level of English and an instinctive approach to making changes, and when I won the contract/tender, not once did my clients ask to see my passport. 😉
My point is, sometimes it is worth looking beyond the language and probing not just the apparent assumptions of the person writing/using the term, but also your own assumptions about what that person intends/is thinking. It only takes a few questions to know for sure.
This will seem a little tangential, but please bear with me:
I live in The Netherlands, and here people (apparently) think that children who don’t speak Dutch at all at home, yet learn to speak it pretty fluently within 2 years at a Dutch school (like my daughter did, as well as a number of her friends), will never be as good at the language as “native” children. It is likely that this prejudice plays out quietly in other countries too – including the UK, US, and all the other English-speaking countries – because “native” language testing in primary schools (and perhaps secondary level too – we haven’t got that far in NL yet) is not sophisticated enough to allow for the nuanced ways in which “non-native” children pick up the local language. For example, there is too much emphasis on being able to demonstrate vocabulary in a vacuum. In Dutch language exams (Cito’s), children are expected just to “know” what is in the examiner’s head, using only a picture prompt. Even I remember acquiring my own language by deducing meaning from an entire phrase or sentence, if I did not know one of the words within it, so why can’t “non-native” children be allowed to do so as well? The ultimate result is the same – an excellent level of the local language. This type of innate prejudice cannot be fixed by simply swapping a potentially loaded adjective (“native” or “non-native”) for something that lacks brevity or clarity. The real revolution in how people (and their potential) are seen by those who think they know better starts with education.
My child (and her friends) will grow up “bilingual”, but there are plenty of people who won’t describe her as such. She will know it in herself though, and she will be taught to challenge people’s assumptions of her abilities, if she knows they have only glanced at a verbal description of who she is and decided that they know what she can do.
So, in essence, I agree with and support your ideas and values, Luke and Vanessa. What I disagree with (in part) is the fact that we can eradicate prejudice and bigotry via language alone. The challenge needs to be taken further – to those who research, write and review education policy and the education systems in individual countries.
Hi Rebecca, and thanks for your comments.
We aren’t suggesting for a moment that just changing a word will eradicate deep-rooted and often hidden and/or unconscious biases. It’s a part that process, not an end in itself, to reconsider how such things are reflected in the language we use. And what a person *intends* when they use these terms isn’t really the point for me. Many people use them with entirely innocent intent, but that doesn’t mean their prevalence has no negative repercussions – not so much in causing offence in this case as in the way they may contribute subtly to how society at large perceives and values different people’s language skills.
We’re not in a position to, and have no desire to, prescribe which words editors or anyone else should or shouldn’t use. We’ve made this decision in relation to our own publications, and we’ll consider, case by case in context, what the most clear and concise alternative is. As far as what happens beyond the CIEP’s own style guide goes, we can only hope this move makes a small contribution to wider conversations about positive, inclusive language choices. To come back to your final point, it’s through those conversation and the growing awareness they fuel that language choices can link to eradicating prejudice and bigotry, not simply by allowing some words and not others.
I’m sure we can find brief, yet non-loaded terms for it. “Fluent with English” is just as many words, and fewer letters, for example. “Strong English skills” is another.
Indeed Bhaskar. Those terms would also serve to cover proficiency in reading and writing, as well as speaking. As a person with two languages, I know I read and write my first language as well as I speak it. With my other language, I’m often taken for what people call a native speaker, but my reading is slow and my writing full of errors. I also know other people with the same additional language that read and write more proficiently than I do, but who speak it poorly. They’re different skills.
It’s “fluent in English” not “fluent with English”.
While I agree 100% with the principle, I see a problem in that whereas ‘native/non-native’ is a pretty much provable concept, the alternative terms suggested thus far rely on the opinion of the person concerned. This means that they’re not so reliable an indicator — we’ve all seen risibly inaccurate texts written by people who might well have confidently asserted that they’re fluent in English.
So as I see it there is a need for a more solidly provable term. Any ideas?
The only solidly reliable way to judge skill is to read. Native/non-native is most certainly not an indicator of that, although I and other editors from “non-native” backgrounds have suffered a good deal because of the assumption that “non-native”, usually code for non-white, is an indicator of skill.
On fluency, we need not take a person’s word for it – we can always read a fee paragraphs and decide for ourselves. And that’s sure how it should be. We judge by their actual output, not by any other attributes – country of origin, race, ethnicity, education level, age, socioeconomic status – that are connected to skill level more by bias/generalization/stereotyping than any exact correlation.
Bhaskar makes a very good point: ‘show not tell’. 🙂
I understand the point that the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ in this context are difficult to justify in this day and age. However, the opening sentence of the homepage of my website refers to me as ‘a native English language speaker based in the United Kingdom’ – this is because the reference to ‘native’ remains important in the world of translation. It goes on to say that I provide ‘precise and accurate translations of material from Swedish, German, French and Italian into English and an editing and proofreading service for websites and other written material in English’. My personal preference tends to be to refer to a person’s language of habitual use rather than their native language. This seems to me a more reliable indicator of a translator, proofreader or editor likely to produce language that does not jar in the sense of sounding odd.