Ticking the Native Language Box

This past weekend, over a round table discussion with friends (not necessarily the academic kind), the question “What is a native English speaker?” was thrown into the mix. The talk was inspired by Michael Griffin’s latest post, A letter to Korean English teachers. This discussion reminded me of all the times I had to tick that dreaded box on application forms: identify your mother tongue.

You see, as soon as I ticked that box, I already knew people would approach me with a whole lot of misplaced assumptions: they’d speak to me in French; I’d respond in a standardized version of French speckled with intermittent structures of Franglais and my Acadian dialect; they’d have a hard time understanding me; and finally we’d start speaking English anyway. Why did this happen?

a little history

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post (Practicing Nonviolence in My Mother Tongue Isn’t So Easy), I grew up in an Acadian-French speaking community in Nova Scotia, Canada.  French is considered to be a minority language in this province.

As my grandparents’ and parents’ generations were growing up, they faced confusing linguistic messages.  During the early 1900s officials in the Nova Scotia Department of Education, who were of English descent, created curricula for Acadian public schools that were designed to ‘integrate’ French-speaking children into the dominant English culture (Deveau and Ross 1992, 154).  Deveau and Ross (1992, 155) describe the dualism that my grandparents’ and parents’ generation faced between this school system and their home life:

Acadian children were doubly disadvantaged:  they came to school speaking one language and were expected to learn everything, including reading and writing, in another language.  Their mother tongue, the very basis of their culture, was thus placed immediately in an inferior position.

The regulations of this educational system created immense linguistic alterations for the Acadian community. In 1931 thirty-two percent of Acadians had stopped considering French their mother tongue; then in 1971, 59.3 percent felt the same (Deveau and Ross 1992, 164).  The assimilation was a quasi-success.

But by the time it was my turn to go to school (early 80s), things were changing. I went to a francophone elementary school. When I was in middle and high school, I had the choice to continue my studies in English or French. I chose French.

My elementary school – École Jean-Marie Gay

The community was bridging the gap between school and home. Then finally, in 1996, a decision was made to find a more suitable working balance between both languages, when the *Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (Acadian school board) was lawfully established.  As a result of the unrelenting efforts of Acadian educational and parental organizations, children of Acadian heritage must now be educated solely in their native language.  Children of English-speaking families also have their own schools.

*I’m happy to say that my father was the superintendent of this school board from 2001 to 2006. The story of what he’s done for the Acadian community could be a blog/book in itself. Something I hope to see one day.

Why the Conflict with the box?

I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I don’t remember when I started. I’m sure cable television, the Sweet Valley Twins, Video Hits, and all those rockin’ 80s radio tunes had something to do with this learning. I’m also sure that this, connected to the teasing I got  for the way I pronounced “th” from my English-speaking cousin, and the English classes I had since I was in third grade, made for what I consider to be a seamless learning experience. With this practice and knowledge, I went to an English university, and since then I’ve been living my life in English. When I decided to make English teaching my career, it came with a lot of reflecting on what I just shared with you.

My mother tongue is a dialect. I speak it with family, friends and people in the wider Acadian community. I rarely read French books, but when I do, I enjoy them. Though it would take a lot of work to write a good French essay, I teach an advanced EFL writing course.  When I speak French to francophones from other countries (Quebec included), they hear my accent (stemming from years of living in anglophone communities, and from my dialect) and assume I’m an English speaker. Due to the discomfort and confusion, we usually revert to English.

So now when I’m asked what my native language is, I just tick the English box. I’ve made my peace. It’s just easier. Not just for me, but also for whoever is at the receiving end of that box.

But is this what it’s come to? In order for you to believe my English ability, I have to fit into some box? What’s the criteria for that box? It’s obviously not as clear as you think.

Have you ever felt confused about how to answer when asked about your native language? How have you felt, and how do you respond?

Deveau, A. and Ross S. (1992). The Acadians of Nova Scotia: Past and Present. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing.

22 thoughts on “Ticking the Native Language Box

  1. It’s great to see all these comments popping up. I just remembered another pet hate while I was musing over some of the reactions… Here, in Spain, I often see this box in official forms: lugar de nacimiento (place of birth). I really hate that question. Why? Because it doesn’t say anything, and, in fact, may convey the wrong information. It’s another thing if they ask that AND your nationality, but they don’t. They just assume, I suppose, that you’re a national of the place where you were born, which is absolute nonsense.

    In the case of EC citizens, it is crucial information because it implies if you have the right to work or not. You may be born in Bombay, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re Indian. I was born in Singapore, but had had to renounce citizenship as I couldn’t have dual nationality. I’m treated as a foreigner if I go there. So putting Singapore in that box will be absolutely meaningless.


    1. Interesting point Chiew…I hadn’t really thought about that till you mentioned it, but it’s true, they do always ask you about place of birth here in Spain! I know I hate putting that down as well, because I also have a different nationality than my birthplace, and agree they should ask for both. I hate being “grouped” according to something that is erroneous because it’s not representative of what I consider my own identity–which is more in line with my nationality than that of my country of birth. I suppose that’s another deeper discussion altogether…personal identity and what that means nowadays! :)

      Great discussion you’ve started, Josette, though it’s getting more and more complex and may warrant a sequel! :)


  2. Hi Josette,
    Very interesting post indeed. I agree with what everyone has said, and yes, I have also ticked the “native speaker” box on several occasions, though, I guess I’m not a native speaker by strict definition if my first language wasn’t English. However, considering that the overall level in my mother tongue is much lower than my English, then it would be useless to even mention it. I’m sure that as teachers we become much more skilled at English even beyond what a random native speaker would achieve if you just selected one off the street. If you say that you are not a native speaker, and you don’t look the part (as Chiew mentioned), then it just makes things too complicated to bother with. I don’t want to get into a big discussion about why my English is so good if I’m not a native speaker, and have people somehow “doubt” my level of English just because for the first few years of my life I was speaking another language. But those were way back when, beyond what I can remember now! :)

    I have also encountered various time the question about my motherland. People have asked where I was from, and feigning ignorance, I just said Canada, which is what my passport tells me. But then (especially with older people, I’ve noticed), they go, “Oh no, that’s not what I mean….ummm…where are your parents from?” And then that just opens a can of worms because it isn’t really what they mean now, is it? My parents are from two different places! Fortunately, I must say that the few times I have been in this situation, the people have been innocently curious, rather than negative in any way.


    1. Hello Noreen,
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. What I really connected to in your comment was your desire not to get into a big discussion about why you are able to speak like a native speaker if English actually isn’t your mother tongue (again, whatever that all means). I think this sums up the exasperation many feel in this regard. This idea of “doubt” that you speak of has crept up on me when telling the teachers I train about my cultural and linguistic background. The idea of “native speaker” is so important here, and I have heard so many stories about people getting flack for not being a “real” native speaker. I’ve even been advised not to tell them that I was actually raised in French. Although I am proud to share my story, there is always a bit of vulnerability that accompanies it.

      I also appreciated the reminder about people simply being innocently curious. I can’t say that I haven’t been this person with other topics. Learning about someone’s background is a natural part of the “getting-to-know-you” process. The person asking may not know what triggers you emotionally and we can’t expect them to know. However, as teachers, I do think these experiences give us an advantage when it comes time to bring culture into our lessons.

      Happy to meet you Noreen and look forward to more discussions in the future. :)


  3. Hi Josette. I’m in the same boat as Sophia – my wife is a Costa Rican with flawless English who teaches EFL, has CELTA is doing DELTA, etc. And yet she can’t get an interview at many schools. It’s gotten to the point where we’re thinking of living in Canada for a while just so that she can get a Canadian passport as the Costa Rican passport is the only reason people don’t believe she’s a native speaker.

    Pretty sad state of affairs…


    1. That is a sad state of affairs. How is it that a piece of paper could determine her ability to language ability? It really goes to show how limited people’s perspectives are when it comes to language and culture. Thank you for sharing your story Ben.

      I’m not sure if I told you this somewhere (blog, Twitter), but I’ll be going to Costa Rica in January to train at Centro Espiral Mana with SIT trainer, Mary Scholl. Are you still in Costa Rica? Are you anywhere near this center?


      1. Sounds like fun and January’s definitely a good time to go. I think her center is in San Carlos or San Isidro, somewhere in the hills, but I could be wrong.

        It would have been great to meet, but it was time for a change so we moved to Dubai. Some other time/place…


  4. Ah, good points all around.
    This reminds me of Richard Dawkins’s phrase, “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind” – he used it in reference to fossils (wherein, while studying the fossil record, we “conveniently” don’t have a 100% full record and can’t see all the shades of intermediates between our ancestors and the modern humans, so it helps archeologists/biologists classify homo sapiens’s ancestors into neat, discrete categories), but it applies well here. The discontinuous mind – like that of those who like to organize data and observe & categorize groups of people – cannot bear to have continuity as fluid as that expressed by you and others who grew up with such familiarity of various languages. I, on the other hand, am a convenient person for a discontinuous data sampler to categorize – my native language is definitely English, and I have not yet acquired another language to match the proficiency of my English.


    I can only imagine what life must be like for you, and what quandaries you may have felt whenever you saw that “native language” box… ㅠㅠ


  5. Love the post, Josette.
    I do have a problem with this native speaker/mother tongue problem, too. Like you, I’ve spoken English all my life – I think! But, unlike you, I don’t “look” like someone who’s a “native speaker” let alone whose mother tongue is English although I’m British, if that helps ;-) I hate it. But to stand any chance of getting a job, I’d have to say I’m a native speaker. Sometimes, I’ll say, yes, English is my first language, which it is.
    The tongue of my mother? My family’s history is complicated, and so was my childhood. To put it in a nutshell, I don’t speak the tongue of my mother, so what use is there in asking what my mother tongue is? Or do they not mean it literally when the question is asked?


    1. Dear Chiew,
      Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience with this box. It reminded me of many discussions I’ve had with friends who don’t “look” American (whatever that looks like). They tell me of the countless occasions they’ve been asked about their “motherland”. The dialogue usually goes something like this:
      “Where are you from?”
      My friend replies, “Seattle.”
      “No, where are you really from.”
      She thinks, “Are you referring to the color of my skin? I was raised in Seattle. My parents were born in India.”
      She replies, “Seattle. Where are you really from?”
      A hush is all is left.
      Of course we are only human, and as such, limited by our experiences. It’s hard to blame such ignorance, but it sure does smart at times.
      You asked, “Or do they not mean it literally when the question is asked?” I just don’t think they know what it means. :)


      1. Hi Chiew, sorry you have been made to feel like that. Your story made me think of a newly trained teacher I knew who was of Korean heritage although she was born in Australia and a native English speaker. She was fine on the CELTA, but then had the bad luck of getting a largely Korean class in her first job (not unusual in the Australian private sector). While the school and DOS supported her 100%, the students would not accept her. I think she changed classes in the end but as a new teacher with fragile confidence, the damage was done, and she gave up not long after. So the issue of being a “native English speaker” is even more complex than which box you tick. It seems you also have to “look the part” – and have the right name – or have the confidence and ability to address people’s expectations of this right away.
        Josette – I COMPLETELY sympathise with your friend, as I have had that conversation many times. I guess it depends what city you are in, and how used it is to multiculturalism. In many parts of the UK, multiculturalism is just taken for granted – I would never assume that someone wasn’t a “native” because of appearance – but then in other parts – say where I went to uni in the north of England in the early 90s – I somehow looked different. Now I live in what you would think is a not very cosmpolitan suburb of Sydney but no one has ever batted an eye. I firmly believe that things are well on the way to changing – the ‘inner circle’ countries are so mixed you would be very unwise to judge someone by their name and appearance these days, and this will only be more true in the future. Surely multilingualism and multiculturalism will be the norm very soon. And then the exclusively “native English speakers” will be at a disadvantage.


  6. You express the feeling of many Acadiens of my generation. Some of us who stayed in the area (predominently french area) persist in our Franglais and can communicate. One of the reasons I still feel comfortable in my native tongue was because of my schooling at Université Ste. Anne and my fathers persistance that we speak a {proper french}. One must realize that in every language you have Patois or dialects.You should never be ashamed of using these. The importance is that we can communicate.


    1. Merci pape. Reading your perspective on what I described really brings me a sense of comfort and understanding. I remember way back when, when I was in high school, and all the debates over French only schools were going on. I remember all the conflicted Acadian parents who still wanted their kids to have the choice to learn in English because they knew how much of a struggle it could be to live with their patois. They had been made fun of so many times by francophones and anglophones equally.

      If only more people at home understood what you said, “You should never be ashamed of using these. The importance is that we can communicate.” There is great strength in this. Thanks to you, and your message, this is why I can stand on my feet and write about my language. Thanks for the strength pape. :)


  7. i was going to recommend an article by Vivian Cook called “going beyond the native speaker”, but while reading your post I realized that everything that he theorized, rationalized, and hypothesized (add southern drawl here:) was already in your reflection. You have an incredible ability to present your experiences in a way that’s unassuming and at the same time powerful and to the point. luv it. You might enjoy the Cook piece anyway….


  8. Hi Josette, so interesting to hear your experience, thank you for sharing it. I’m especially interested as my partner is French Canadian – he just got really good at English through watching way too much TV – they even let him off having to study it at school, because he was so good. So he never really had lessons, or passed an exam in it. Yet when we came to do our citizenship applications for Australia, there it was, The Box. And like you, and like many bilinguals, he checked native speaker. He is. AND a native French speaker. It would be ridiculous for him to have to sit IELTS for example, because he “labelled himself” (thanks to the form provided) as a non-native speaker. It’s not black and white, and the terms native and non-native are politically loaded though it may not be openly acknowledged – one is equal, welcome, respected – the other is “other” and always has to prove him/herself (where’s a good gender-neutral pronoun when you need one). You say you have made your peace with checking the native English speaker box – but I can definitely see how this is something that can be a struggle to accept. Thanks again for posting.


    1. Sophia,

      Ah, that dreaded box. A simple flick of the wrist and he could have been wasting his time on the IELTS. I’ve played similar games before.

      Language, culture, gender and all those beautiful things definitely aren’t black and white. It makes one wonder how the nuances could ever be addressed on such forms. It seems like a mass awakening would need to happen on a global scale. I guess in the meantime we can simple keep playing the game.

      Thanks again for sharing you and your partner’s story.


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