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ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 5 (January 2016)

Enjoy reading our selection:

Is the native speaker dead?

Barry Tomlin

ETAS Journal, Volume 33 Number 1 (Winter 2015), pp. 27-29

For this edition of Editors’ Choice, I have chosen an article by Barry Tomalin on the important issue of native speaker models. In this piece, he gives us an excellent and comprehensive overview of a changing attitude in English language teaching. For many years, the native speaker as a model for our students has been the accepted practice, but a shift is now occurring away from this towards a more reasonable and international view of how the language is used and will be used by learners.

Tomalin outlines the main reasons why this change of mentality is happening. Firstly, the number of people who speak English as a foreign language greatly outweighs the number of native speakers. Secondly, non-native speakers may prefer communicating with other non-natives as communication may actually be easier than speaking to native speakers. Thirdly, the influence of English as a Lingua Franca research. Fourthly, the role of non-native teachers and teacher-trainers as models; and finally, the importance of cross cultural communication.

The article serves as a perfect introduction to an issue that I believe will become a pivotal part of how English language teaching will develop in the next decade or so. I anticipate a change in how teaching materials are made, with a move away from native speaker models and towards a more global perspective. To some extent, this change has already started and I expect it to continue. Tomalin’s article provides us with the reasons why this move is so important.

James Taylor

Editorial Board, ETAS Journal


Is the native speaker model dead?

Barry Tomalin

This paper highlights a discussion held in the pages of The World Today (a journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London, in January 2015) which posed the question, “Who owns English?”

Among other things, the article suggests that a standard international variety of English might replace the native speaker model.

This discussion is not new but the debate seems to be gaining pace and it is therefore perhaps relevant and useful to address the role of the native speaker model of English as an arbiter of English language excellence in global communication today and to explore what its future might be.

To discuss this we need to understand several questions. First, what is the model of native speaker English and what are its limitations? How has globalization and the spread of English spawned a huge variety of accents and ways of using the language? How has English become a global vehicle of communication and a ‘lifestyle’ subject in general education? How have the majority of English users in the world become non-native speakers and what are the implications of this for world communication?

The spread of the native speaker model and its limitations

According to the writer and expert on the English Language, Professor David Crystal (1997), an estimated 1.5 billion people on the planet use English. Professor Edgar Schneider (2010) puts the figure even higher at 2 billion. In spite of this, the number of speakers in countries where English is the official medium of communication has remained relatively stable at about three to four hundred million. In other words, there are more than three times as many non-native speakers as native speakers. Yet, native speaker English has remained a world standard for international comprehension and communication by non-native users. What English do they learn?

If learners are studying standard British English, known as Modified Received Pronunciation, and sometimes referred to as ‘BBC English’, it is not in fact what the majority of the world studies. Furthermore, the BBC now uses announcers with a variety of accents. As we know, native speaker English, defined as standard British English and standard American English, is differentiated by fairly minor differences in grammar but quite significant differences in vocabulary and pronunciation. Familiarity with accent is the key to understanding different ‘Englishes’, as David Crystal (1997) describes them. We not only have standard British English and standard American English, we also have Australian, New Zealand, South African, and other English used as well as in countries in Africa and Asia where English is taught as the national language. Even within the ‘native-speaker world’ we have different varieties of English, notably differences of accent. A Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish accent, for example, can cause huge problems of comprehension for native-speakers from other regions and non-native speakers alike. So even if native speakers of ‘modified RP’ claim to ‘own’ the English language, the language they own is spoken probably by a minority of speakers.

Native speakers and non-native speakers

Native speakers working with non-native speakers tend to do themselves no favours. Non-native speakers frequently complain that even as fluent speakers of English they barely understand 75% of what they hear. This is because native speakers tend to speak at speed and are unaware of or intolerant of the issues this can cause non-native speakers. They use idioms and colloquialisms without explaining them. They use banter and jokes between themselves, which excludes non-native participants in conversation. And they spray acronyms liberally without explanation. They need to learn to articulate, to pause, to avoid jokes that no one understands, to explain idioms and acronyms, and to keep their sentences shorter and simpler. Keeping your sentences to 25 words or less, it seems, is a good aim.

Surveys carried out by James Foreman-Peck and Yi Wang (2014) of Cardiff University in Wales estimated that 3.5% of national income was lost because trade was slower with Britain’s key export partners in the EU as well as China and Brazil than it might have been with greater language proficiency). The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conducted a survey in 2006 and discovered that 94% of the companies did not require “a high level of language fluency as an essential core competence of their operations."

There is considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest that European firms often prefer to trade with each other as they find each other easier to understand in English than they do native speakers.

The model of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)

The argument was taken further by linguists such as Jennifer Jenkins (2000) at the University of Southampton, Professor Henry Widdowson (2003), and Dr Barbara Seidlhofer[CB1]  (2001) at the University of Vienna in Austria, who put forward the hypothesis that no variety of English is inherently superior to any other and that all are equally acceptable. This means that the concept of ‘interference’ between one language and another causing misinterpretation is no longer valid and that all such differences must be negotiated between interlocutors.

How training in English has moved away from ‘ideal’ native speaker models

David Graddol is an applied linguist and researcher who has researched the regional use of English in a number of influential books (1997, 2006, 2010, 2013). In these books he identifies the trend to offer university courses in a range of subjects but taught in the medium of the English language by proficient non-native speakers of English. This means that fewer students may come to the UK, the US, or Australia to study because they can do so at home.

The importance of cultural awareness

In global business and in global communication an awareness of the other person’s way of doing things is crucial. This is partly because a positive attitude towards other cultures promotes harmony and is an enriching experience in itself. It embraces uncertainty and builds good relations. Your tolerance and willingness to embrace ambiguity and flexibility when things are not going obviously to plan is a critical asset.

Experts recognize that the incorporation of business and cultural training into language courses is an important part of relocation and overseas business. Harmonising potential operational differences that can waste time and money is an increasingly, although still insufficiently, recognized part of any cross-border agreement. It also means cultivating the qualities of good international management, which include being curious about and interested in learning about other cultures, reserving judgement, being prepared to embrace ambiguity and wait when necessary, being flexible about possible solutions, and being interested in and prepared to try out foreign languages (Byram, 2004).

Embracing principles of cultural awareness as well as learning a foreign language could be one way that the native speaker lives to fight another day.

The implications for teaching

As many textbooks are already doing, it is important to accustom the learner’s ear to hearing not only standard British and American English but also to the most important varieties of English used in international communication. But teachers may need to go further and expose learners to different international vocabulary and even grammatical features that may be different from ‘standard’ English.


One thing seems likely. The ‘native speaker model’ is under threat and is gradually on the way out. Native speakers will have to adapt by learning to use ‘offshore English’ in international dealings with non-native speakers where appropriate and, most importantly, by changing from being a largely monoglottal to a polyglottal business community.

Users of English worldwide will have to get used to listening to and working with different varieties of English. The development of cultural awareness of tolerance and appreciation of others’ cultures will help native and non-native users of English adapt more successfully to the world of different varieties of English they will find themselves faced with on an increasing basis.

Author’s Note: A longer version of this article was published in Issues of Applied Linguistics, 1(7), 36-48,  Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, Moscow 2015. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the position of the London Academy of Diplomacy.


Byram, M. (2004). Routledge encyclopedia of language teaching and learning. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Crystal, D. (1988). The English language. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Crystal, D. (1997). English as a global language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foreman-Peck, J., & Wang, Y. (2014). The costs to the UK of language deficiencies as a barrier to UK engagement in exporting:A report to UK Trade & Investment. Cardiff, UK: Cardiff Business School. Retrieved from

Graddol, D. (1997). The future of English?: A guide to forecasting the popularity of the English Language in the 21st century. London, UK: The British Council. Retrieved from

Graddol, D. (2006). English Next: Why global English may mean the end of‘English as a Foreign Language’. London, UK: British Council. Retrieved from

Graddol, D. (2010). English Next India: The future of English in India. India: British Council. Retrieved from

Graddol, D. (2013). Profiling English in China: The Pearl River Delta. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge English. Retrieved from

Jenkins, J. (2009). World Englishes. London, UK: Routledge.

Kachru, B. (1992). The other tongue: English across cultures. Urbana, Il: University of Illinois Press.

Seidlhofer, B. (2001). Closing a conceptual gap: the case for a description of English as a lingua franca. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 11, 133 – 58.

Schneider, E. (2010). English around the world: An introduction (Cambridge Introductions to the English Language). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Who owns English? (2014). The World Today. London, UK: The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Widdowson, H. G. (2003). Defining issues in English language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Barry Tomalin MA is Senior Lecturer in International Communication and Cultural Awareness at the London Academy of Diplomacy. He is co-author of Cross-cultural communication: Theory and practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) with Brian Hurn, and World’s business cultures: A handbook, 3rd Edition (Thorogood Publishing, 2014) with Mike Nicks.