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How I Stopped Being a Non-native English Speaker…

Non-native English speaker
Until about a year ago I considered myself a non-native English speaker.

I arrived in Ireland back in 2002 from a small country in Baltic region. It’s roughly the size of Ireland but it has only half of Ireland’s population. Its capital is called Riga and our crimson-white-crimson flag represents a blood-stained stretcher used to carry mortally wounded soldiers from a battle-field.

The country I’m talking about is called Latvia – and I’m one in a 1.5 million people on this planet whose native language is Latvian.

Anyway, I chose the settle in an English speaking country so I’m here for more than 8 years now and by the looks of it I’ll stay here for the foreseeable future.

Living in an English speaking society has presented many challenges along the way – most of them due to my lack of English fluency. But I always faced up to the difficulties and thanks to my love for the English language I can enjoy communicating with locals easily and naturally.

So after about 8 years spent in Ireland I stopped being a non-native English speaker!

Brace yourself! I’m about to reveal one of the biggest secrets of integration into an English speaking society and how to stop being a non-native English speaker! 😯

So here we go…

To stop being a non-native English speaker, you simply have to become… A FOREIGN ENGLISH SPEAKER!

Yeap! That simple!

You think I’m just messing with you? You think – “Hey Robby, is that a big deal – ‘non-native’ or ‘foreign’?”

At first it might look as if the difference between the two is slight indeed. If you delve into the actual meaning of those words however, you can actually start seeing a totally different picture.

Just think of the very meaning of the word “non-native”. Just say it out loud now – and do it slowly – “I’m a NON-NATIVE English speaker”. Do you feel it? If you’re a non-native English speaker, you belong to no nation, you have NO NATIONALITY. You’re just a nobody in an English speaking society…

All right, all right – I know I’m being too picky. I know that the actual meaning of a word “non-native” or without the dash – “nonnative” – doesn’t necessarily mean what I just said.

As per TheFreeDictionary.com the adjective “nonnative” means “Of persons born in another area or country than that lived in; foreign-born; as, our large nonnative population.”

Words, however, can carry different connotations (associations) other than the standard meanings. Personally I feel that the prefix “non-” in the word “non-native” implies (means indirectly) LACK of nationality; I see it as “without nationality”.

Well, the actual meaning of the prefix “non-“ is “not” – so if we take it literally, we get “not native” – which kind of sounds all right.

STILL I don’t like it.

You can disagree, and you can call me biased or tendentious.

But I have a strong feeling that by saying the word combination “non-native” we send the wrong message at a very deep, subconscious level. We may not be aware of it, but the very nature of a word “non”, or “not” is a negation and it can evoke negative feelings ❗

It’s like if you’re saying – “I’m a NOT-LIKE-YOU English speaker.” It’s like SETTING YOURSELF APART from the crowd of native English speakers and saying – “Look, you folks belong here, you’re natives, but I’m not like you, I’m a non-native.”

I remember in one of David Gemmell’s (he’s my favourite writer!) fantasy novels outcasts were called “notas” meaning “no tribe”. So basically a man could be cast out of his tribe for heavy crimes and then he had to survive in the wilderness. Therefore any “nota” or “no tribe” was an enemy to normal people who belonged to a certain tribe; and I think this “no” or “non-” part plays quite a big role in people’s psyche.

I would even suggest that it’s imprinted deep in our genes to feel some sort of an enmity towards words that associate with “non-“. After all, if we look back in time, in the old days you’d put your safety or even life in danger when dealing with something that was “non-” or “no”.

Just think about words like “nonsense”, “ non-believer”, “ non-existent” – don’t all these words evoke at least some degree of negativity within you as you read them?

And now read the word “non-native” once more – doesn’t it really start sounding as something negative now? I mean – doesn’t it have that sort of emotional context to it that makes you wish you wouldn’t have to use that word again to describe yourself?

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you’re perfectly fine to keep using it. Well – fair enough! I’ll never try to enforce my opinion on someone else because I think we’re all entitled to believe what we believe. Having said this, I still think that it doesn’t hurt to listen to others opinions as it enriches our experiences and that’s how we evolve as humans.

I’m a foreign English speaker now.

I like it! I like how it sounds – FOREIGN ENGLISH SPEAKER 🙂

Being a foreigner sounds a whole lot better to me than being some “non-…”

And I don’t care if this “non-…” doesn’t directly translate into something negative. As I said previously in this article, many words have meanings that are implied as opposed to indicated explicitly. And to me “non-native” is definitely one of those words!

Robby

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  • Probably “foreigners” would be the best word to describe them. “I teach English to foreigners” – how about that? nnBy the way – I just dropped “foreigner” in thesaurus – scary stuff came up! Immigrant, outlander, outsider, stranger, exile, refugee, displaced person…nnSo I think “foreign English speaker”, and “I teach English to foreigners” sound best. These descriptions sound friendly, and by saying “foreigner” you’re telling everything that there is to know about those people – they’re foreign origin, so obviously English would be a second language for them.nn

  • This brings up the point that there aren’t really any good words to describe people who use English but aren’t native speakers. I run into this sometimes when I try to explain to people what I do: “I teach English to non-native speakers” doesn’t sound very smooth. “I teach English to people who are learning it as a second language” is a bit long. I always feel like there’s something missing there.

  • That’s a good one. It has never occurred to me that I could simply say “an English speaker.” No really, I have always been kind of obliged to indicate the fact that English is my second language; it’s obvious to people to whom I speak with anyway, so what’s the point emphasizing it every time? nnHe-he, from now on I’m “an English speaker”, thanks Randy! 😉

  • Why not just be an “English-speaker”, without other labels? 😉