What is a native speaker?
A native speaker is a person who has spoken a certain language from early childhood. Unless they moved to another country at a young age, this will be the language that he, she, or they are most comfortable with in adulthood as well. He, she, or they would be a native speaker of that language.
For example, suppose there is a woman named Sonia. Sonia was born and raised in the United States of America. Her parents’ native language is also English, and Sonia used English both at home and at school. She never lived in another country until adulthood. Sonia is a prime example of a native speaker of American English.
Now, let us take a look at another example. Randy was born and raised in the United Kingdom, but his parents are from India and their native language is Hindi. Randy uses Hindi with his parents but uses English with his older brother and at school. Then, is Randy a native speaker of English, Hindi, both, or neither?
Randy is unquestionably bilingual, but there would be debate whether his native language is English or Hindi. Some believe that your native language is the language you acquire first, some say it is the language associated with your ethnic background, and others argue that it is the language you have the highest proficiency at. Randy first learned Hindi as a baby and toddler and then promptly acquired English when he started school. If Randy continues his education and finishes university in the UK, he will most likely be more comfortable in English and his Hindi may be limited to phrases and expressions only used in the household.
In this case, the first language he learned is Hindi, but he is more proficient in English. Because Randy still can hold a conversation in Hindi with ease, he is fluent in both English and Hindi. Whether he is a native speaker of English, Hindi, both, or neither is based on opinion, but most would say his native language is his most fluent language, English, as he was born in the UK and schooled in English.
Some say your native language is the language you think and count in. There are, however, many people who can think and count in multiple languages with equal or very similar proficiency.
In general, and especially in the work environment, when someone asks you what your native language is, they are asking for the language you are most proficient at and comfortable speaking. Although rare, if you are equally proficient in multiple languages, you could say that you are a native speaker of those languages.
Typically, you can look at the age that a person started learning a language to determine if they are a native speaker or not.
If a person started learning the language in question within one of the age ranges below and continued using that language throughout adulthood, then their fluency will be that of the corresponding text next to the age range.
- Ages 0-8: native speaker
- Ages 9-10: depends on how active the person is in learning the said language
- Ages 11-12: non-native speaker who can become fluent with ease
- Ages 13-17: non-native speaker who can become fluent with effort
- Ages 18+: non-native speaker who can become fluent with much effort
For ages 9-10, if the person is active in learning the new language and no longer uses the language they used from ages 0-8 or 0-9, then they may become more comfortable in this second language they acquired in adulthood. If the person is unwilling to learn the new language, insists on sticking to the first language they learned, and only becomes friends with people who speak their first language, they may remain a native speaker of that first language and struggle a bit with the second language.
Lastly, if the person is active in learning the new language but also makes effort to use and preserve the first language they learned, they can become a perfectly balanced bilingual, equally comfortable and fluent in both languages. There are cases, however, of immigrants who moved to the US at age 10 and say that they are not truly comfortable speaking in English or the first language they learned.
Children tend to learn languages more easily and naturally because the plasticity of their developing brains allows them to use both brain hemispheres (left and right) to acquire languages. A person who learns a language in their early years will have a more holistic understanding of the language in both logical and social contexts.
Meanwhile, most adults primarily use their left hemisphere to acquire new languages in adulthood. Because the left hemisphere is associated with more logical, rational, and objective thought, these individuals tend to have less emotional bias but may not read social cues as adeptly in their second language.
Of course, everyone’s experience and natural ability to acquire languages is different, so the age ranges above may not apply in every case. A person could immigrate to the UK at age 13 and live there for the rest of their life, forgetting the first language they learned after not using it for decades.
Conversely, a person could immigrate to the US at age 8 but be homeschooled by their parents who are non-native speakers of English. This person may learn subjects in both their parents’ mother tongue and English but ultimately remain a native speaker of their parents’ first language, as their parents will teach and explain more difficult concepts in their own native language. There are also people who learn three or more languages while growing up and/or move from country to country during childhood. These types of cases would be highly variant and would not look like the cases above.
What is a "Non-native Speakers"?
A non-native speaker is a person who learns the language in questions later in childhood or in adulthood. If you started learning a language after the age of 10, you are most likely a non-native speaker of that language. While you learn the language, you filter it through your native language. You use your native language to help you process and grasp this new language.
Being a non-native speaker does not mean you cannot be fluent in that language. A person can start learning a language later in adulthood and still become fluent, regardless of accent, tone, or pronunciation.
For example, let us take Randy’s parents from the previous example. Randy’s parents immigrated from India to the UK in their mid-twenties. In India, they lived in a Hindi community, were schooled in Hindi, learned English as a second language in class, and knew a bit of Marathi. Because they were taught all school subjects in Hindi and spoke to their families and friends in Hindi until adulthood, their native language is Hindi. Although children in India now are being exposed to English at an earlier age or even at birth, Randy’s parents started learning English in middle school. They filtered English words through Hindi as they learned the language; they would associate the English word “potato” with the Hindi word for potato. After moving to the UK, they use English more extensively and communicate in English with ease. They are prime examples of fluent non-native speakers of English.
What does it mean to be fluent?
A person is fluent in a language when they can express what they want communicate easily and articulately. Some claim that you are only fluent in languages in which you are at a level of mastery that is equal to that of a native speaker, but then that would mean a person could only be fluent in the languages learned during childhood. As long as the person can communicate effectively without difficulty in that language, he, she, or they are fluent.
To be fluent in a language also involves being adept in all four parts of language: speaking, writing, listening, and reading. Many people simply think that if you speak the language well, you are fluent, but language is a two-way means of communication. Speaking and writing are the active parts of language by which you deliver your thoughts to another person while listening and reading are the passive parts of language by which you receive information and understand the other person. Being truly fluent means being proficient in all four of these areas.
Native language, mother tongue, primary language, first language?
What are the differences between native language, mother tongue, first language, and primary language? A native language and mother tongue are generally viewed as the same. It can also be called native tongue. A native language, mother tongue, and native tongue are learned during early childhood and usually is the language that the person is most proficient at. From our previous examples, Sonia’s native language is English, Randy’s is also English and some may argue also Hindi, and Randy’s parents’ is Hindi.
Then what is one’s first language? This, like the native language dispute, is highly debated. Most would say your first language is the same as your native language (which can also be vague), some say it is the first language you learned regardless of whether you lost the ability to speak it or not, and others say it is the language you are most fluent at. In the workplace environment, however, when a company asks you what your first language is, they are usually referring to the language you are most proficient at because they are interested in your skill level for each language, not when you acquired them.
A primary language is a person’s main language of communication in their everyday life. For many people, their native language will be their primary language, but for some, the two may differ. For example, Emilia was born and raised in Germany and started learning English in primary (elementary) school. She graduated from a German university but moved to the UK for the foreseeable future. She works for a British company where she only uses English, enjoys watching American and British TV shows and films, and loves to read books in English, both in British and American English. She only uses German when she calls her parents and friends back home. Emilia’s primary language at the moment is English because English is her main language of communication in her day-to-day life.
Then what about a second, third, or fourth language? Do you go by the order you learned them or how good you are at them? Most would say go with the order of mastery, which is how proficient you are at them, not the order of acquisition. Especially on your resume or CV, you would want to go by order of mastery because employers want to know how well you can speak the languages you know and are more or less uninterested in your personal history of when you acquired them.
Terms describing proficiency for your resume
There is a plethora of different terms one can use on their resume or CV to describe his, her or their proficiency level of a language. We arranged a list of some of the most common terms along with their meanings below.
- Business professional/fluent: able to communicate in a business setting and implies high fluency
- Professional working proficiency: same as business professional/fluent
- Full professional proficiency: can mean the same or a step higher than business professional/fluent and professional working proficiency
- Limited working proficiency: unable to use language in a business setting but most likely conversational or at least at beginner level
- Native (speaker): the highest level of mastery of the language and is easily at a business professional level
- Fluent*: can express what he/she/they want(s) to communicate easily and articulately but does not necessarily mean at a business professional level
- Proficient*: can express what he/she/they want(s) to communicate adequately at an advanced level but does not necessarily mean at a business professional level
- Conversational: can hold a conversation but not at a business professional level and also a lower level of mastery than fluent or proficient level
- Beginner/elementary/novice/basic: able to understand simple phrases and words but not yet able to hold a smooth conversation
- Intermediate: conversational at the language but not at a business professional level
- Advanced: highly proficient and fluent at the language but may not necessarily mean at a business professional leve
There is much debate about whether fluent or proficient is the higher level of mastery. Being proficient at a language means being skilled and at an advanced level for that language. Meanwhile, being fluent means being able to smoothly communicate in that language without difficulty. People view fluent as being close to native level or even at native level, but that is less so the case for proficient. Therefore, we can conclude that generally fluent is a higher level of mastery than proficient. However, employers are more interested in whether you can use the language in a business setting or not, so using terms like business professional or limited working proficiency rather than fluent or proficient may be more suitable to put on your resume or CV.