Communication and Identities in Institutional Arenas - Part I/Davies, Alan (2003). The Native Speaker: Myth and reality. 2nd ed.

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Summary and reflections

In this book, Alan Davies discusses different perspectives concerning the native speaker, stemming from the main question of ”who is the native speaker?” For revealing the complexity and for in-depth questioning of this seemingly undisputed concept, Davies takes help of several related issues including identity, linguistic and communicative competence, power relations (i.e. membership in speech communities), education and standardization of languages, and focuses the different varieties and roles of Englishes in a modern world. All in all, the text is effective in deconstructing common-sense ideas concerning “ownership” of languages, even though he is careful in pointing out that the term is needed for many practical purposes. This does not, however, shift focus from the fact that the native-speaker concept is complex and rich in ambiquity (not only theoretically, but also practically in my point of view).

The introduction chapter lingers on for quite some time in reasoning concerning the native speaker known from previous research. Many famous theorists, including Chomsky, are referred to and at times criticzed. Some theorists have emphasized intuition in defining the native speaker, while others suggest calling someone a native speaker if s/he fulfills the criteria of having learned the language from childhood, using it as a dominant language with a certain level of fluency. Not surprisingly, from the perspective of applied linguistics Davies concludes that there is a tension between the ”flesh and blood” and idealized definitions of the native speaker but concludes, however, that applied linguistics needs both definitions. He also points out

In the introduction, some key concepts are discussed. These include:

  • Mother tongue
  • First language
  • Dominant language
  • Home language
  • Langue (compare: langue/parole
  • Competence – communicative competence
  • And finally, second language, foreign language and bilingualism

The purpose of the book is thus, through examining of the core concept of “native speaker”, to “detail the complexity of the knowledge and skills possessed by the native speaker of any language” and “make that complexity seem less exclusive, more ordinary and attainable by non-native speakers” (p.9)

The core chapters in the book present both theoretical questions and applied issues that both aspire to reveal new perspectives on the ”nativeness” of the native speaker and his/her language use. The areas covered in the three first text chapters include psycholinguistic, linguistic, and sociolinguistic aspects on the native speaker. I find the latter of these especially interesting as it problematizes the native speaker as a social construction and deals with identity from both individual and community point of view. While the three following chapters deal with ”lingualism” and the knowledges of the native speaker, her communicative competence and membership in speech communities, the two remaining chapters (apart from conclusive final chapter) discuss the relation of language and a sense of loss of identity from a postcolonial/postmodern point of view as well as research dealing with assessment and second language acquisition.

In the conclusion, Davies returns to his original question of who really is (can be) a native speaker. To me, it appears that the book does not fully succeed in deconstructing the concept of the native speaker as at the end, the author still finds himself working with the very concepts he tries to challenge. But on the other hand, the book truly does diversify the reader’s understanding of the concepts. The author concludes that there are two kinds of judgements; of identity and of language, that have relevance to our understanding of the native speaker (p.198), and that those judgements (often having complementary functions) are either inclusive or exclusive. This reasoning then leads on to a discussion about foreignness (or becoming the Other). Davies points out, crucially, that everyone is a native speaker of his/her own unique code (p. 208), thus challenging previously presented ideas of so-called semilingualism. He then lists a number of ways by which anyone can be or become a native speaker (e.g. by birth, by education where the focused language is the medium of instruction, by being an exceptionally skilled learner, by being a native user or by residing in a country as an adoptee), challenging once again the traditional boundaries between “first and second language speakers”.