Who is considered a native speaker of English? I am a little confused by the various answers found online.

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    @Bogdan: What's the bounty for? This question appears to have a satisfactory answer. You may add a comment (or even edit the question) to explain what it's there for.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 12, 2011 at 20:29
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    the given answers just scratch the surface. There were even books about this subject Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 18:59
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    @Bogdan: How many other answers on this site are book-length, exhaustive screeds?
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 12:02
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    @simchona than convince us the answers given are the objective ones.(see this for a start) EL&U is not an exact science-some subjects have thin boundaries. Even if it were exact science, you could approach a problem from various perspectives. Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 22:20
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    @Bogdan: It seems that the meaning of the word word "native" is pretty obvious in this context. It means you grew up speaking the language. Even if you attain a faultless mastery of the language after you're out of the small-child stage of learning, you are not a native speaker; you are a fluent speaker tips hat to RegDwight.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 15, 2011 at 19:45

3 Answers 3


A "native speaker of English" refers to someone who has learned and used English from early childhood. It does not necessarily mean that it is the speaker's only language, but it means it is and has been the primary means of concept formation and communication. It means having lived in a truly English-speaking culture during one's formative years, so that English has been absorbed effortlessly as by osmosis.

One can have been born and grown up in a country that lists English as one of its official languages and not be a "native" speaker. For example, Canadians from Quebec cannot automatically be considered native English speakers even though many speak English quite well; they were brought up speaking French as a first language and think in French (or Canardien, as I have heard unkind Parisians refer to it). But the rest of Canada does largely consist of native speakers of English.

Speaking "like a native" of any language means more than just knowing vocabulary and grammar. Many educated foreign speakers speak better formal English than, say, many Americans or British or Australians. But formal English is only one aspect of the language. Knowing instantly what slang means, what cultural references mean, how to reduce syntax to a bare minimum and still convey precise meaning — all these things, and more, are what constitute native speech.

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    +1 for "canardien". I've not heard it before, but it made me laugh :-)
    – psmears
    Commented Mar 5, 2011 at 20:04
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    @timur: Canard is French for "duck" — it implies that the Parisians think Quebecois French sounds like ducks quacking.
    – Robusto
    Commented Apr 8, 2011 at 15:09
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    I know this question is old but... @Jasper Loy: In his answer, @Robusto said that many non-native speakers speak better than native ones. Now... That doesn't make those people native speakers. You're a native speaker when it's your first language, when you speak it "natively". So no matter what level I will reach with English, I won't never be an English native speaker.
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 23, 2011 at 16:40
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    Unfortunate to assume / presume that "the rest of Canada" are native English speakers.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Aug 16, 2011 at 2:10
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    @Benjamin: You're right. I hadn't considered the indigenous peoples. Sorry if I offended.
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 13:00

It's apparent that different people have different notions of what a "native speaker" is. To a linguist, the term generally implies that a speaker has "internalised" the language through "natural acquisition", rather than through deliberate instruction/learning.

A "native speaker", as opposed to an extremely proficient second language speaker, can often make instant judgements about whether sentences "on the fringe" of the language's grammar sound grammatical. So for example, native speakers can probably instantly make judgments about whether the following sentences of English "sound normal":

Which students did you think had done their homework?

Which students did you wonder whether would turn up late?

These are the parents affected by the measures.

These are the parents baked a cake by their children.

It appears that a non-native speaker, even an extremely proficient one, will tend to make a judgement about these sentences much less readily.

There are other, essentially non-linguistic, definitions of "native speaker", e.g. "the language that I speak most and have the most cultural attachment to" or "The language that I acquired first". An issue which I'm actually currently discussing on another forum with fellow translators is that there are people claiming to be "native speakers" of English who write sentences such as "I have experience of translator since 4 years". I personally think this is an unuseful definition of "native speaker", but it shows how much confusion/variability there is.

  • I expected you to write “of their children”. Commented Aug 12, 2011 at 21:08
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    +1 for "I have experience of translator since 4 years". I've just been astonished to find many, many Google hits for "I am native speaker". The ultimate self-contradictory (oxymoronic?) statement, I feel! :) Commented Aug 15, 2011 at 19:03
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    I've met many native English speakers whose grammar is very poor. You can't automatically assume that someone has a good grasp of a language just because it is their native language. I'm sure there are many non-native speakers of a language who use it better than the natives.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 16:15
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    Jay - it's important not to mix references here. When you say a native speaker's "grammar is poor", you're referring to their use compared to some arbitrary prescribed usage which you would like them to follow (but which they have absolutely no obligation to do). That's not the same as what range of usage actually defines a "native speaker". Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 1:33

Literally, a native speaker of English is somebody that learned English as their first language.

In reality, I would say that a native speaker of English is a speaker of English which also thinks primarily in English and which other native speakers of English would recognize as such. It's certainly a circular definition but I think that that's a key part of any definition. Trying to leave it out caused me to give an incomplete definition earlier.

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    I often catch myself thinking in English (despite being Swedish) but I would not count myself as a "native speaker". I would reserve that term for someone who learned English as their first language.
    – PaulRein
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 8:56
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    So "correct" English is whatever the native speaker uses. Not sure I agree with you here, just because a native speaker considers something to be correct, doesn't make it so. You'll need some kind of consensus among native speakers. I suppose it boils down to what you consider "correct". And there are constructs often used by native speakers which can't really be considered 'correct English', like 'aint', as in "It aint none of your business", or 'them' when used in "Go pick up them toys". Or even better, 'good' where 'well' should have been used.It may be native English, but hardly correct.
    – falstro
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 12:12
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    @roe: most academic linguists avoid the word "correct" in this context for just that reason. "Correct" is usually used to mean "what the authorities or pundits prescribe" even when nobody at all speaks that way. This is a social issue, and not really a linguistic one (though sociolinguistics treats of it). Linguists generally are more interested in what people actually do with their language rather than what some authority says they should do.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 12:45
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    "Ain't" is not "lazy" and it is not a "misspelling". It is a variant form of speech (probably originally for "haven't" and "amn't" and later for "isn't") which today is not part of the standard language, and is regarded as "incorrect" by those who insist on applying this social judgment to language. In the 1880's it was acceptable in upper-class speech in England, though I don't know whether anybody troubled over whether it was "correct" or not.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 14:20
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    @advs89, in that case I suggest you read some of the literature on the subject. A book I've found very useful is The Bilingual Family, by Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley, published by Cambridge University Press. Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 21:33