John Larrysson Column: What is a Native Speaker?

Last week we looked at some teachers whose ancestors were not English, but were native speakers of English. So what is a native speaker? Does a native speaker have to be a Caucasian from the UK?

A native language is usually the first language a child learns. However many children grow up where people speak more than one language and they can be native speakers in more than one language. Increasingly Hong Kong children hear English on TV and from their parents. Some parents arrange for one parent to speak to their child in Chinese and the other in English. Young Hong Kong children have no problem adjusting to Mummy's language and Daddy's language. These children will grow up to be native speakers of both Chinese and English. (Caution: While this is very useful method if the parent has good English, if the parent has poor English they may confuse their child.) There are many people from different places around the world who are native English speakers, but are not from the UK. The next generation of Hong Kong children will include some English and Cantonese native speakers.

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It is silly to demand that foreign English teachers be from the UK, when English is not really entirely a foreign language in Hong Kong. English in Hong Kong is a second language. Most international business is done in English. There are English TV channels, newspapers and English speaking people. English is often needed to speak to foreign maids, engineers and business executives. Hong Kong would keep on using English even if there was no business with England. The first language of Hong Kong is Cantonese. Putonghua and English are second languages that are useful for business.

Foreign languages are those that are rarely used in Hong Kong. They have to be learned in school and practised using specially obtained materials. These languages are of little or no local use. Japanese and French are popular foreign languages in Hong Kong.

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The English language is spreading and as it does the UK slowly becomes less important. The language importance of the country is being diluted by native and near native speakers from other places. The focus of the English language is increasingly the USA and not the UK. The country with the largest number of English speakers is India. However India has fewer native speakers than the USA, but the number is growing. The most rapid growth of English these days is in China. If the current trends continue English teachers from Asia will go to the UK to teach English. That is not unrealistic, some Canadians and Australians teach English in the UK. Your grandchildren may be Chinese native English speakers.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.