Illustration by Julia de Bres; research summary written by Veronika Lovrits, BM Luxembourg member and PhD researcher at the University of Luxembourg.

What does it mean to be a ‘native’ English speaker? The question might seem simple on the surface, but the answer is not easy for experts. While research continues to explore what the ‘native’ means and goes as far as to stating that the ‘native speaker’ is a myth, the general differentiation between a native and non-native speaker does have real and obvious effects in daily life.

Research over the last twenty years has found that reasoning by the ‘native/non-native’ categories is often used to suggest some kind of superiority of certain social groups over others. (Historically, the ‘native’ has not always had the upper hand, and the experiences of some British colonial officials in 19th century India are worth reading in this article.)

Inspired by the intriguing social ambiguity of ‘native speakerism’, a research project at the University of Luxembourg looked at stances towards the ‘native English speakers’ in one of the European Union institutions in Luxembourg.

Previous studies have focused on the unjust treatment of ‘non-natives’, but this new study centred on the experience of junior English native speakers working abroad in a multilingual environment. In 2018-2019, four ‘native English speaker’ trainees reflected on (dis)advantages, and perceived causes and effects of their ‘native English speaker’ positioning in a multilingual team. Researchers collected information through interviews as well as metaphor drawings and research observations in the workplace.

The results showed that multilingual communication was the norm in the workplace, but English was the most common language. There was also a special, although informal, ‘native English speaker’ role. However, this wasn’t all good news for the native English-speaking trainees. They had to proofread outputs, like texts, presentations, even important emails. Not only was proofreading not an official part of the job, it could take up to 30% of their work time. Some trainees really disliked this aspect of their work, finding it uncreative and boring.

Another negative side effect of their position was that they became representatives of the English language, which limited their communication to English only. Working in English was easy and comfortable, but it clashed with their own personal language learning goals and the desire to be seen as more cosmopolitan than a stereotypical monolingual native English speaker.

So, for the trainees, the ‘native English speaker’ status felt like a golden cage – they felt pigeonholed by their privilege, despite enjoying the comfort and social recognition it brought to them.

If you are intrigued and want to learn more about this project and its results, you can read a detailed report by Veronika Lovrits and Julia de Bres in the article ‘Prestigious language, pigeonholed speakers: Stances towards the ‘native English speaker’ in a multilingual European institution’ that has been published by Wiley in the Journal of Sociolinguistics.

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Further reading

  • Barakos, E., & Selleck, C. H. (2019). Elite multilingualism: Discourses, practices, and debates. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 40, 361–374. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434 632.2018.1543691
  • Davies, A. (2006). The Native speaker in applied linguistics. In A. Davies & C. Elder (Eds.), The handbook of applied linguistics (pp. 431–450). New York, NY: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Doerr, N. M. (Ed.). (2009). The native speaker concept: Ethnographic investigations of native speaker effects. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Garrido, M. R. (2020). Language investment in the trajectories of mobile, multilingual humanitarian workers. International Journal of Multilingualism, 17(1), 62–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790 718.2020.1682272
  • Jaffe, A. (Ed.). (2009). Stance: Sociolinguistic perspectives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Kabel, A. (2009). Native-speakerism, stereotyping and the collusion of applied linguistics. System, 37, 12–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2008.09.004
  • Lovrits V. & de Bres, J. (2020). Prestigious language, pigeonholed speakers: Stances towards the ‘native English speaker’ in a multilingual European institution. Journal of Sociolinguistics. https://doi.org/10.1111/josl.12431 [full text here]
  • Piller, I. (2018). How to end native speaker priviledge. Language on the Move. (website). [online:http://www.languageonthemove.com/how-to-end-native-speaker-privilege], 31.05.2018, last accessed: 27.04.2021.