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The first is the question of what it is one may be a native speaker of. Words like "language" and "dialect" are themselves ill-defined.
Secondly, even if there is no ambiguity about the language, dialect or whatever, the word "native" is not only vague, but has non-linguistic connotations which are by no means culturally or politically neutral.
A language - involves sociolinguistic, and even political, considerations. It is perhaps surprising, then, that even many sociolinguists accept "language" as a given (Le Page & Tabouret-Keller, 1985:1).
Languages are notoriously hard to define
Outside linguistics departments, there is a pervasive attitude that "nation = language = territory = state" (Lunt, 1986:729, in Rudin & Eminov, 1993), and the assumptions of nationalism have profoundly influenced our thinking about what is and is not a language (Fishman, 1989, Williams, 1992).
For an extreme Turkish nationalist there is no Kurdish language as such, merely dialects of Turkish and/or Persian, while for a Kurdish nationalist, Kurdish is a "pure" language which was corrupted by centuries of Ottoman and Persian domination.
On the other hand, Serbian and Croatian are prominent recent examples of mutually intelligible "dialects" of the same "language" emerging as separate "languages", with archaisms and provincialisms being adopted to "purify" the language (Gee, 1997; Woodard, 1996).
Chinese "dialects". Hokkien and Cantonese, for example, are probably regarded as dialects of Chinese not because they are mutually intelligible (which they are to only a very limited degree), but because their speakers share a similar culture, and were for most of their history part of the same state (even though they are not now; depending on how you define Hokkien, a large minority or a small majority of its speakers are found outside Mainland China, notably in Taiwan). Perhaps most importantly, educated speakers also know the same official variety (Mandarin) and write in the same ideograms (Hanzi).
A language is thus, to a large extent, whatever it is perceived to be.
A significant factor is "language loyalty" (Gumperz, 1972), which normally links regional dialects to a national language of which they are seen as variant forms.
However, sometimes a group may regard itself as speaking one language, when their dialect is linguistically closer to another, and language loyalty may also confuse the issue of mutual intelligibility (Gumperz, 1972:228-229).
An influence on language loyalty is standardisation
a dialect is often perceived as a variant form of a language because that language possesses a standard form which is accepted by speakers of the dialect in question.
Standardisation occurs through a number of processes, such as urbanisation, increasing use of a "court language" (e.g. "the King's English"), increasing commercial, legal and literary use, and planned language reforms.
The court and literary language of the Ottoman Empire was essentially a sophisticated creole which never became fully standardised because an educated speaker of Ottoman Turkish would also be fluent in Arabic and Persian;
code-switching was the norm rather than the exception. With the founding of the Republic, language reforms purged Turkish of thousands of loan-words; standardisation in this case did not involve the spreading of the language of the educated elite, but rather the attempt to create a "new" language based largely on the Central Anatolian vernacular, accompanied by Europeanisation in scientific and technical fields (Fishman, 1989:314-315).
Language planning has also experienced a number of U-turns throughout the history of the Republic, leading to furious debates about what is "real Turkish", beside which the letters to the Times on "correct" English pale into insignificance, and it is only with the spread of the mass media that anything approaching a "Standard Turkish" has become a reality rather than an ideal.
Saville-Troike (1989:16) states that "since the focus of the ethnography of communication is on the speech community, and on the way communication is patterned and organizes within that unit, clearly its definition is of central importance", then goes on to list no less than five different definitions. This then means that, for example, "questions arise in deciding if speakers of English from Britain and the United States (or Canada and Australia, or India and Nigeria) are members of the same speech community" (Saville-Troike, 1989:17). In others words, we seem to have a similar problem with "speech community" as we did with "language" and "dialect"
"mother tongue" is used as a convenient reference for determining who is a native speaker of a particular language or dialect; it is usually taken to be the language a speaker heard as a child, normally uses at home, or both. However, problems arise here as elsewhere.
The mother-tongue debate also raises questions about the status of standardised languages. If the standard language (or dialect, if you prefer) is rarely spoken at home, can anyone really be said to be a native speaker of it?
One way to avoid the "native speaker" trap is to speak of "native speaker competence". Natives of a community have native speaker competence, more or less by definition (Hymes, 1972c; Fishman, 1972a:49).
On the other hand, non-natives may also acquire native, or near-native competence.
communicative competence is not an all or nothing affair, and in some areas of competence "non-natives", such as immigrants, may actually be more competent. If we are talking about competence in the standard language, what would we make of the sentence "Someone should learn them Pakis to speak proper" (Leeds taxi driver, personal communication)? The speaker here is demonstrating both linguistic and sociolinguistic competence for a working class Leeds speech community, but not with regard to the standard language, where, say, an Eton and Oxford-educated Pakistani would be regarded as more competent.
he terms "first" and "second" languages are misleading to the extent that they imply that a bilingual speaker has a first and a second language, that they are acquired in that order, and used in that order of ease and frequency. In fact it is perfectly possible to use the language acquired later with greater frequency and fluency than the "first" language, and a speaker may even forget much of their "first" language if they stop speaking it after early childhood.
What we can do is define terms more precisely for the field of discourse in which we are working. There is nothing wrong in saying "For the purposes of this study I shall take the term 'native speaker' to mean X."
This could lead in each case to various prototypical criteria being elevated to the status of "essential properties", in order to create a clearly-bounded and uniform set.