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Review of  The Native Speaker Concept

Reviewer: Ayaz Abdullah
Book Title: The Native Speaker Concept
Book Author: Neriko Musha Doerr
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.2856

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The book under review is divided into five parts. Part I is a general introduction to the book, which presents background of general theories and common constructs. There are two chapters in this part; the chapter by Neriko Doerr introduces the “native speaker” concept as a “language ideology” (pp. 15 and 47) and later examines it by talking about a few related ideologies. The chapter by Robert Trains traces the development of the ideology of “standardization” (p. 49) through an in-depth look at data from the history of Latin’s codification since the times of the Roman Empire.

The chapters in Part II focus on the involvement of “nation-states” in language policies. This part also discusses the responses of people on “personal levels”, because they relate to the idea of the “native speaker”. Authors such as Michiyo Takato and Yuku Okubo discuss the importance of “native speaker” from the perspective of common speakers in certain milieu. The authors in these chapters comment on and evaluate the system and significance of language policies, power and authority, and a number of socio-cultural phenomena which heavily motivate linguists to mull over language policies. The readers are also informed of the theoretical shortcomings of certain language theories which speak about language planning, politics, etc.

Part III deals mainly with language standardization processes in a number of environments and conditions. It also talks about how these language standardization processes affect the understanding of people regarding “native” and “non-native” speakers. Victoria J. Baker, the leading author in this part, discusses standardization impulses in specific institutions. The author, who conducted fieldwork in South Africa, discusses the use of language policies in a broader sense, as well as in certain language classes and communities at the school level and in highly paid jobs in the city. According to the information given by the author, there are hybrid languages spoken by speakers of that particular city in South Africa. Baker discusses a lot of issues faced by parents and language teachers. On a related note, Doerr says “Parents and teachers support “mother tongue education” as part of respecting one’s heritage and appreciating acceptance of code-switching at school for the sake of communicability” (p. 135). Respecting one’s heritage has become a widely accepted notion among the speakers of hybrid languages. Later, the author opines that the overall structure of employment opportunities mainly requires speakers to be competent in the use of standardized languages - mainly English - which is namely based on the notion that language is homogenous. The also author speaks about standardization issues faced by critics and language planners. In a nutshell, Baker, in this context, opines that parents in certain South African townships are ambivalent about the use of hybrid heritage languages or Standard English. As such, parents are challenged to decide which language to use in different contexts.

The chapter by Susan E. Frekko, with its intensive matrix of constructs, explains standardization impulses of the Catalan autonomous government. Based on her fieldwork and ethnographic analyses in Spain, she believes that the Catalan autonomous government has decided on a set standard of “correctness” in fostering the return of Catalan to the public sphere. The Catalan government’s plan to encourage the people to use the “correct” form of language may be somewhat critical in the eyes of language planners. In the words of Doerr, “Frekko illustrates how some “native” Catalan speakers with limited experience in educational institutions have to struggle to come to terms with their marginalization due to a gap between their Catalan speech learned in daily life and the normative Catalan taught mainly in educational settings” (p. 135). Moreover, Frekko explains that here, “native speakers” who mainly talk in a “non-standard” variety seek to be standardized for government employment, also learning their “native language” side by side with middle class “non-native speakers” and “often being marginalized in relation to them” (p. 135).

Later in this part, the chapter by Doerr compares, by highlighting several specific differences, standardization impulses, which were once planned but not worked on, in the English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom in the United States of America to that of daily life in Japan. Doerr suggests, after a lot of debate on certain language standardization issues, the existence of another native speaker ideology that assumes homogeneity of non-native speakers of English from the same nation state. Moreover, she highlights the importance of heterogeneity and standardization processes and suggests a lot of ideas to address the solutions of certain language related issues.

The Part IV investigates diverse notions of “competence”. These notions involve the “native speaker” concept, which is considered critical under certain dimensions, and illustrate how these concepts develop in discursive ethnic and racial politics, language revitalization, and global online communication, in a broader sense. Almost all the chapters in this part provide diverse ethnographic backgrounds and paint a variety of streams through which certain language speakers claim “competence”. The authors in these chapters also talk about the socio-cultural conditions which play an important role in the development of competence in the individuals of a community. This, most importantly, provides justification for change in socio-cultural conditions.

Anne Whiteside’s chapter explains the “politics of claiming”, or exhibiting “competence” in Maya and English (among Maya speaking immigrants). The author “connects these Maya speakers’ reluctance to claim competence in Maya and thus their “native speaker” status to the history of colonization in the Yucatan peninsula, where Maya was treated racially and culturally inferior to Spanish.” (p. 211). Furthermore, the chapter by Ryuko Kubota illustrates a range of related ideas which show that “native speaker” status in language instruction is not an attribute. Kubota uses the word “attribute” in a broad sense, meaning it does not provide absolute power or superiority in any circumstance. To a certain extent, she opines that such interactions are created with other social, cultural and political components in a particular time and space and in a specific power relation. She then introduces her fieldwork at a high school in the Southern United States. Here, Kubota examines a “non-native speaker” of Japanese with insufficient Japanese language proficiency; the author says that such speakers are being hired over “native speakers” of Japanese. Kubota analyzes a number of cases and certain reasons for their fixed proficiency in Japanese and illustrates a lot of points where readers may find controversy between the notions of “native speaker” and “non-native speaker”. In the same part, the chapter by Shinji Sato observes the online practice of blogging by a student. This learner of Japanese-as-a-foreign-language happens to appear in class activities in the United States. The author believes that the student has been very much active in communication in online networks. The student performs actively in the development of new works, projects, multiple subject positions, etc. Moreover, the author asserts that online communication, especially blogging, provides learners with certain ways to be active language users.

The Part V of the book, highlighting and addressing a lot of theoretical ambiguities, summarizes certain discussions and findings of the book and later situates them within current debates in second language learning. These chapters are written by Yuri Kumagai and Doerr and suggest certain ways in which current theoretical developments can be incorporated into second language teaching. The authors suggest motivating language learners to enhance context-sensitive abilities and skills. These specific skills help learners to improve in a number of ways. The authors also believe that these skills are needed to maneuver among different linguistic forms, while maintaining a careful awareness of the notions of ideologies and the specific politics of “language standardization”.


Overall, readers will find this edited volume a well-written, well-researched, and insightful book. The book presents an amazingly rich pool of information about a lot of theories and notions of “native speaker” and “non-native speaker”. It addresses a lot of issues which have long-since been emerging in language science debates. All the chapters in this volume have a cohesive and coherent presence, which pave the way for a finer understanding for the reader.

Moreover, the compelling ideas in Part III, which will be a favorite for readers, invite them (especially language scientists) to comb for standardization-related issues in their own native languages. These chapters can offer us a lot of answers which could help us better understand language related issues and they also paint an accurate picture of existing language standardization issues in the modern world.

On the whole, “The Native Speaker Concept” is an outstanding addition to language science, especially sociolinguistics and ethnography. It is very clear in its style, which makes it entirely accessible to anyone who is concerned with theories of language change and ethnography.
Ayaz Abdullah graduated from Forman Christian College University, Lahore in 2003 and mastered in English from University of the Punjab in 2006 and MPhil in Applied Linguistics from University of Management and Technology, Lahore in 2010. Currently he is Lecturer in University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore KSK Campus. His research interests are in general linguistics, sociolinguistics and morphology.

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