Most often I hear that only birth languages, those languages first learned, are native languages to the speaker. Seems like a pretty lazy way to define if a speaker is a native speaker, since to speak a language you've got to speak it, and just speaking a language has no direct relationship to how well you speak the language.

Case in point, say two non-native speakers have a child, and decide to only speak the native language of the area they're in with the child, but are not native speakers of that language. The child, if only talking to the parents and other non-native speakers, would never become a native speaker. While extreme, it does make the point that birth languages are a poor measure of if a speaker is expressing themselves in a native tongue.

  • I've attempted to answer this question posed in the title, although I'd also recommend that you edit the body somewhat, as some of the words you've used ("lazy," "poor") are a bit loaded and give the impression that you've got an axe to grind. – Aaron May 12 '12 at 14:01
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    'Native' doesn't have the denotation of and probably shouldn't have the connotation of "fluent". The word only means, roughly, 'from birth', the nat- being related to the nat- in pre-natal, nativity, etc. – Muke Tever May 12 '12 at 15:17
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    (Re your example, in Thomas Payne's Describing Morphosyntax I did see reference to the idea that people may only be "partially competent" in their native language, and some people may not be fluent in any language—he gives the case of Yagua people not fully learning Yagua or Spanish. Perhaps "broken Spanish" could be someone's native language?) – Muke Tever May 12 '12 at 15:25
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    @MukeTever, the idea of "partial competence" is very delicate. African Americans were once widely thought to have something like "partial competence" in English, before detailed descriptive work brought it to light that there were no facts underlying that assessment, only prejudice. I'm not calling you out personally -- you're only reporting on Payne's work -- but it does need to be mentioned that his idea is not unproblematic. – Aaron May 13 '12 at 3:06
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    @Aaron Indeed, I saw as much while Googling. Payne himself points out that the very name for the phenomenon (i.e. semilingualism) is seen as derogatory. Also, I think you could only have "partial competence" prescriptively speaking - descriptively, unless something has gone horribly wrong, you should expect a functioning system that just happens to differ from standard dialect. – Muke Tever May 13 '12 at 4:12

The critical period hypothesis is important in understanding what it means to be a native speaker of a language. Newborn babies are equally capable of learning to speak any language, but as they develop to certain ages they lose the ability to learn new linguistic patterns that they have not previously been exposed to. The age at which this happens varies depending on the linguistic system involved — it can be as young as 4-6 years old for learning phonetics (how to speak a language "without an accent") up to early teens for some subtler syntactic patterns. There is a qualitative difference in the language skills of a person who has learned to speak a language after this age — although many adult language learners are quite skilled and it might require subtle investigation to detect these differences.

With respect to the scenario presented of parents who speak a language that they themselves are not native speakers of to their children, precisely such a situation arose in Papua New Guinea in the latter half of the 20th century, where an English-based pidgin language (i.e. one lacking native speakers) became the native language of a generation of children growing up on army bases, where their parents were from many different linguistic backgrounds. The changes in the grammatical system of the language that the transition wrought were studied by (among others) Gillian Sankoff, whose publications would serve as a point of reference for further study of the question.

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    Oh! You're back! :) – Alenanno May 12 '12 at 14:06
  • @Aaron: Is it the age of the speaker that forms the "critical period hypothesis", or the duration of exposure following first contact with a language? Meaning that if for some odd reason a child never was exposed to a language cognitively, the clock on the 'critical period hypothesis' would not start until first contact with a language in a significant way. – blunders May 12 '12 at 16:57
  • @blunders -- Right, I musta hit "post" by accident. I'll come back and actually add my two things when I have time to finish the comment. :) – Leah Velleman May 12 '12 at 21:23
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    @blunders, It's pretty clearly age and not time from first exposure. Deaf children who are raised by hearing parents and not exposed to sign language until school age never learn to sign without an accent. The same is true of hearing children who are not exposed to language until later, but there are confounding factors in those cases (child abuse, usually). – Aaron May 13 '12 at 2:57
  • +1 @Aaron: Would not "deaf children who are raised by hearing parents and not exposed to sign language until school age" learn to lip read? Meaning that's an exposure to a language, right? The second case appears to be a description of "feral children", and according to wiki, "over one hundred cases of supposedly feral children are known" - and appears the rough analysis given within wiki supports your answer. – blunders May 13 '12 at 3:07

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