Never Trust a Native Speaker

03 Jun 2014

A better title for this post would be “never trust a native speaker completely.” We all know instinctively that the mind of a native speaker is an essential resource for learning a language. Put enough of these native speakers together, and you can create the immersion experience which all learners crave in order to truly level up their fluency. But as for an isolated, individual native speaker… there are a few issues to keep in mind.

Below I’ve summed up the three big reasons why you can’t trust native speakers (completely), and then rounded it off with some advice:

#1: Ignorance

Put simply, most native speakers don’t know their language inside and out. Sure, they can speak their native language, and maybe even write it well. But when you start asking them more “meta” questions, many native speakers will struggle to give a straightforward or meaningful answer.

The kinds of things native speakers often struggle with when queried on their native tongues:

– Why is this wrong?
– What is the difference between these two words?
– How do you express this obscure idiomatic phrase from my language in your native tongue?

A lot of times, the native speaker honestly wants to help, but they’re just not equipped to do so. Being masters at their own native tongue does not make them qualified to answer your metalinguistic questions. They may even refuse to answer your crazy learner questions (and in some cases, they may be well justified, since we learners tend to over-analyze at times).

So while it sounds strange to call a native speaker ignorant of his own language, when it comes to the “meta,” most native speakers are.

So to address the types of questions mentioned above:

– Native speakers don’t normally have to identify why something in their language is wrong. If something they say ever comes out wrong, they can fix it, based on their intuition. But they don’t ever have to say why they had to fix it. “It sounded weird” is the furthest they ever need to go down that line of thinking. (You don’t actually need to know why either, just as babies don’t need to know why. But sometimes you really want to know, and it can save time.)
– Native speakers know how to use similar words differently, but it’s not likely to be conscious. Or the differences they are conscious of (like “they’re, their, and there” in English) seem painfully obvious to even half-way diligent non-native speakers. (Having these types of questions answered well can often save you a lot of time spent on trial and error learning.)
– If the phrase from your language is obscure but this person has learned it, it’s possible that they learned it specifically because it was hard to translate. There’s a big chance they’ll fall back on a stock explanation for this that eclipses the myriad of untranslatable nuance. (This kind of question is typically not something you really need answered anyway, though.)

When it comes to the problem of ignorance, this is where language teachers have a huge leg up on the average joe. Especially experienced language teachers will have addressed the “why is this wrong” and “what’s the difference between these two words” many times, and will have gotten good at them. They might even be so good that they can give simple answers that enable you to grasp the essence and move on, instead of needlessly delving into endless minutiae.

[See also: Olle’s take on this at Hacking Chinese.]

#2: Cockiness

OK, some some native speakers do have some meaningful metalinguistic insight into their own language. They might be language teachers, or translators, or just people that like to reflect on the peculiarities of their native tongue. These people are super helpful, and likely even enjoy answering your questions, so they’re great to have around.

The problem can occur when these people get a little cocky and start trying to make sweeping claims about their native tongue. They’re like the over-eager cop outside his jurisdiction. Allow me to illustrate with a little story from my own English-teaching past. (Oh yes… I was the cocky bastard in this story.)

fac-24

Learning English from a cocky teacher

When I first started teaching Chinese English majors, I noticed they were really bad at informal spoken English. One particularly glaring example was that the only greetings that they could handle were “hello” and “how are you?” I quickly banned those two, forced them to start using “hi” and “hey,” and taught them these greetings:

The “how greetings”: How’s it going? How are you doing?
The “what greetings”: What’s up? What’s new? What’s going on?

When a few of my students wanted to say “how are you going?” I made quite clear that this was wrong (bad English), and they were not to say it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Australians regularly say “how are you going?” To make matters worse, some of the students I taught were preparing to study abroad in Australia!

I meant well (and those students seriously needed to learn some new informal greetings), but I presumed to speak as the authority on the entire English language (at the ripe old age of 24, no less), as an American, without even having substantial contact with non-American English. And that was just overstepping my bounds. I was cocky.

It’s surprisingly easy to do this as a teacher, though, even if you’re pretty sure you’re not cocky at all. There will always be weird exceptions and unfamiliar dialects, as well as new expressions coming into vogue. Teachers do their best, I know, but it can be difficult to play the role of “language authority” without buying into the vastness of one’s own “enlightened native speaker” knowledge at least a little.

#3: Impossibility

This is what I was alluding to at the end of the last section: it just isn’t possible to know everything about a language, even if you’re an educated native speaker. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences between similar words. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences in dialects of your native tongue. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just what words are falling out of common usage (becoming outdated), and what new words and phrases the kids are using these days. But what you can’t do is all of those things, in one lifetime (and definitely not by the age of 24).

In Linguistics 101 in college I was intrigued by the the concept of the ideolect, the idea that no single person uses the entirety of a given language, and no person uses the language they do use in exactly the same way. The entirety of a language exists as the sum of all speakers’ ideolects. It is inherently distributed (across the minds of speakers), and can never be fully centralized (except maybe by SkyNet some day?). This pretty much blew my mind.

And so linguists and language teachers will make efforts to see beyond their own ideolects, and to see the fuller picture of the language they are trying to understand. But the human brain can only hold so much, and there’s only so much time. A language is a big thing.

So… what now?

I hope I’ve convinced you that native speakers are fallible, and they cannot help but be so, when it comes to perfectly representing The Ultimate Truth about their mother tongues. But each has the most insight of anyone into his own ideolect.

No, you can’t trust a native speaker. But you can trust native speakers, as a group.

If it’s an important or tricky question, always get a second opinion. Better yet, if you’re an advanced learner, present conflicting evidence collected from multiple native speakers to those native speakers. This can produce fascinating insight for learners, and often for the native speakers themselves.

Here’s one simple experiment for Chinese learners which can reveal the multiplicity of opinions native speakers can hold: ask help from Chinese native speakers in choosing a Chinese name. For best results, ask for suggestions from multiple native speakers as well, and add those to the list. Then ask lots of different Chinese people what they think of the different Chinese names. Here’s what typically happens:

1. Some names will sound bad to almost everyone
2. Some names will sound fine to almost everyone
3. A few names will produce wildly different reactions

When I went through this process myself, years ago, I expected to find the “perfect name” that everyone agreed was awesome and perfect for me. That didn’t happen. I still remember quite clearly the dissenting opinions on the name I eventually chose (which got mostly positive feedback):

1. It sounds like a peasant’s name
2. It sounds like a monkey’s name

(I chose it anyway, because enough people thought it was a decent name, and I liked it.)

Whether you’re a learner or a metalinguistic advisor on your own native tongue, though, my advice is the same: Stay humble. Stay curious. And talk to lots of native speakers.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I’d like to add a comment about the problem with trusting intuitive answers, something which is common for most native speakers of any language. People who have studied linguistics have a better chance of understanding the variability of a language and are less inclined to equate their own feel for the language (語感) with actual knowledge.

    Such an equal sign is very dangerous, because we know much less about our native language than we think, unless we’ve been through training that clearly shows us that we don’t know as much as we think.

    Let me illustrate with an example. I recently had a question regarding the placement of 了 in a sentence and asked several people what the difference would be depending on where I put the 了. When I asked “normal” native speakers, they gave various answers. When I asked my classmate (who is also a native speaker, but in the same graduate program for teaching Chinese as a second language as me), she replied “I don’t know, let me check a corpus for similar sentences and I might get a better idea”.

    The point is this: Most normal native speakers just say whatever comes to their minds. This might be correct or it might not, but it’s almost certain to be over-confident. The same sentence structure with different worsd revealed that most of the intuitive answers were based on things unrelated to 了 and ths the intuitive answers were almost useless here.

    Someone with some training, though, realises that simply relying on one’s own intuition typically isn’t enough. This also means that I trust my own intuition in my native Swedish less and less and tend to give much more guarded answers when asked about English language usage as well (even though I do have more developed meta knowledge about English since I’ve learnt it as a foreign language). It’s not that my proficiency has deteriorated, it’s just that I’ve become more aware of how vast and diverse languages are and how little I know.

    • Good point, Olle. This is one of the insights provided by corpus linguistics in relatively recent times: there are certain features of natural language that are counter-intuitive to native speakers, and only by looking at language empirically (in corpora) can we make these discoveries. Modern linguists (like your classmate) recognize this.

  2. What’s your Chinese name? Mine’s 叶大鹰, and I’ve also had varying reactions. Some of my Chinese teachers have said that it’s enjoyable to say and even that they liked calling on me because of it. On the other hand, I often get a 真的吗? reaction when I tell it to people, which I assume comes from the blatantness of the meaning (“big eagle”).

    • My Chinese name is 潘吉. Most people seem to find it “normal,” although possibly a bit 土 (not the kind of “cool name” a Chinese boy would pick for himself).

      • Can I just say your Chinese name is not ‘土’ at all? I am a native Mandarin speaker and I actually think there is something ‘foreign’ to it, as we sometimes use 吉 to phonetically translate foreign names, brands, country names, etc. BTW, I find your posts very informative!

    • konporer Says: June 14, 2014 at 3:55 pm

      i believe the “zhen de ma” comes from your name being too “grass root”, hardly anything near a name of a foreigner

  3. I like this post, thanks. I have learnt that when asking native speakers you need to be aware of their context: their generation, where they come from, and education. A common issue out west is that some people are unaware of the distance between their accent or local words and Standard Chinese.
    BTW I say ‘how ya going?’ all the time. Its very common.

  4. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a native speaker was from my Japanese roommate in college. He said, “Never ask me why. Ask me how.”

    In the year and a half we lived together he never failed to tell me how to say something in colloquial Japanese. And once I stopped worrying so much about why the phrases he gave me were correct, I started internalizing them a lot more quickly.

  5. Also, maybe you weren’t cocky enough. Thanks to Hollywood, English speakers the world over can understand mainstream American speech. Aussies say some weird @#$@, though 😀

    Honestly, I think it’s good for a learner to model just one speaker at the beginning and then branch out later. Churning out a bunch of mini-Johns wouldn’t be a bad thing because if they were able to understand and speak a large percentage of the English you do, they’d undoubtedly be able to adapt after moving to Australia, Ireland, Texas, etc…

    • Stavros Says: June 3, 2014 at 7:51 pm

      I’m an Aussie, and yes Mark, we speak our own special blend of English – even though we are embarrassingly Americanized. To get that special blend of English grab Australia’s leading author Tim Winton’s latest book “Eyrie”, and you will certainly experience some serious language weirdness.

  6. Alejeather Says: June 3, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    2 reminded me of an experience I had. A non-native English speaking friend really enjoyed English language music and would ask me about things he had heard in the songs. He had listened to the song “Dancer” by the Killers and asked me what ‘Are we human or are we dancer?’ means. Not having heard the song myself, I was certain he had not heard it correctly. Turns out those are the lyrics…

  7. Luke Howard Says: June 4, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Very insightful article, thanks John.

    I’m an Australian and just had my own very humbling experience in realising how little I know about the English language.

    When reading your sentence above “How are you going?”, it sounded just as wrong to me as it did to you. Far more common is the greeting “How ya goin?”.

    But then I spent some time analysing how I say that and realised that my lips do actually move into position as if I was going to say “are”, but then I just never vocalise it, and quickly move onto “ya”.

    It’s fascinating, and demonstrates quite clearly that native speakers can not only get a lot of basics wrong about the English language as a whole, but also lack fundamental knowledge about their own dialect!

  8. jon byrne Says: June 7, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    ” How are you going “,is perfectly normal greeting for an Irish person . humphh . But a great post and extremely accurate as both my wife and myself often find it hard to explain our respective language’s finer points . I have always told my wife that ” just because i speak it , does not mean i can teach it”. She never really believed me….so thanks for posting this as she can now read the truth for herself .

  9. thanks for your advice for this post ‘ Stay humble. Stay curious. And talk to lots of native speakers. ‘ i’m in the process of learning chinese and your advice gonna help me go through the journey of learning.

  10. I recall reading in the US government’s language proficiency descriptions that there are 5 ILR levels, and a native speaker will typically reach ILR 4 (superior) in high school and should be in ILR 5 (distinguished) during college.

    My experience is that the educated native speaker will always be effective at providing a good explanation of anything in the language that someone in high school should be expected to master. But native speakers can’t be expected to necessarily be correct about anything in the language above this level, especially since many terms have a technical dimension that an ordinary person won’t completely comprehend.

    One can usually count on an incorrect answer if you are getting a native speaker to translate into their second language for you, as between Chinese and English. The accuracy is inherently limited.

    Chinese internet vocabulary is a very good example of how different population segments speak Chinese differently. 人品 to younger generation means “luck” whereas to older generations my experience is that they interpret it to mean “character” and many will have never heard of other usages.

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