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The Questionable Simplicity of the Native Speaker

By: Kevin Chan

Photo by Juri Gianfrancesco on Unsplash

As an English teacher, I deal with a lot of questions in my lessons: questions that I ask and that students ask me. It’s an aspect of the job that I really enjoy because it helps create a much more relevant learning experience. These questions usually run the gamut from the simple – ‘What’s your name?’ – to the more controversial – ‘Do all Canadians love hockey?’ (and this Torontonian would say that the correct answer is yes, always yes!). While I mostly love answering questions, there’s just one question that I dread having to answer. 

Are you a native speaker of English?

At face value, this question seems fairly mundane; after all, it should be pretty straight-forward, right? Many would define a native speaker as someone who uses the language as fluently as they would their mother tongue. But this definition runs into issues with individuals who, for whatever reason, stop using their mother tongue and eventually become more fluent in another language–which then becomes their native language? Are you allowed to be a native speaker of two different languages? Another way of looking at it is by using ‘nativeness’ as a rank of proficiency. But that too can not be the whole story; I have been teaching English professionally for years, and still have no idea what the words ‘sus’ or ‘yeet’ are supposed to mean. 

So, the million-dollar question: am I a native speaker?

I don’t have the answer to this question, or to a lot of the questions I get asked, and frankly, that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is that the questions get asked, questions that open up opportunities for conversations that would otherwise never happen. And I think my students who ask me all those hard-hitting questions, about hockey and what my name is, would agree with me. I like to think that they’re asking questions not only to get answers but also to, simply, ask questions–questions that will lead to opportunities, and then to conversations, and then, if we’re lucky, to more questions. 

Oh, did I mention that I enjoy questions?

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