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The other day I was filling out a form where I had to state my native language and I simply couldn't seem to find an answer to that question. I guess it had never come across me, but I simply had never thought about what my native language was. You see, my first language, or rather the one that my parents taught me, was Portuguese but at a very early age (of around seven or so) I moved to the US where I learned and began using English.

Today, English is the language I'm most comfortable with as well as the one I speak best. Although I no longer live in the US, whenever I have to read something, I do it in English and I understand it far better than if I read it in Portuguese. Not that I don't speak Portuguese, I do, I just make an unusual amount mistakes and have some trouble understanding more complex texts (such as classical novel that an average student would, for example). What further complicates the problem, is that I feel I have a bit accent in both languages, albeit not a very noticeable one. People generally say I only have an accent in Portuguese but I don't know, I still feel as if I also had a bit of a Brazilian accent in English.

So which one do you think is my native language? English or Portuguese?

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    Sounds like you have two native languages, just a bit rusty in one. So the form only allowed one native language? – Gaston Ümlaut May 27 '12 at 6:24
  • If the limit is still the same, albeit very fluent, English is not your native language. I mean, you moved there around seven, but the "canon" limit was 3 years old, am I wrong? – Alenanno May 27 '12 at 10:26
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    as a lay-person as far as psycholinguistics goes, I'd say that the concept of "native speaker" is overrated. Your proficiency in English is greater than that of your Portuguese, as you say, and that's that. – prash May 27 '12 at 20:12
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Generally, I distinguish between "first language" (which I also refer to as "mother tongue") and "native language." The meaning of "first language" should be obvious---in your case, Portuguese. But because you grew up in the US, I would list your "native language" as English. It's very difficult to have two native languages, because part of what makes a native speaker goes beyond grammar to include idioms, etc. Because you didn't grow up in a Portuguese-majority country, there were a lot of things that you didn't pick up in Portuguese. I consider a "native speaker" to have grown up surrounded by speakers of the language in question, hence the difficulty in acquiring two native languages. I think having a first language that is different from your native language is generally something that happens mostly with second-generation (or 1.5-generation, like yourself) immigrants.

My situation is similar, by the way. My first language was Hindi, even though I was born in Canada, and I didn't know English when I started daycare. But now, I'm much more proficient in English. I could talk in-depth on a variety of technical topics in English, which I really can't do in Hindi. Although it sounds like your Portuguese is a lot better than my Hindi, in my case I think it's clear to call my native language English (but first language Hindi).

There is also the practical consideration. Linguistics aside, what do you think the form is asking? Is it a form written by a linguist? In all likelihood they want to know which is your most proficient language. (Mind you, I've put Hindi on a form that asked for my first language, because that was technically true, but in hindsight I should have said English given what the underlying information was that they probably wanted.)

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    There are many places in the world where people grow up surrounded by native speakers of two or more different languages and, as a result, grow up fully competent in several of them. This can make it difficult to pick out just one as the "native language". – Gaston Ümlaut May 27 '12 at 23:23
  • @GastonÜmlaut I don't dispute that, but I imagine that this is relatively uncommon, at least to the point that I would consider their proficiencies in both languages to be the same as, say, mine in English. One language, sure; but for both to be at a native-level of language proficiency? I'm iffy... do you have any numbers/examples? – Aditya Bhargava May 27 '12 at 23:29
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    OTOH, it is interesting to see that some languages can develop neologisms unique to a region where the languages are not native. For example, for something to be "postponed" occurs in (AFAIK) all varieties of English, but "preponed" is unique to English in India (again, AFAIK). But even in cases where the kids grow up speaking both English and an Indian language regularly, I'd hesitate to call them native English speakers---I don't imagine that their proficiencies are the same in English as in the Indian language, nor would their proficiency in English be the same as (e.g.) mine. – Aditya Bhargava May 27 '12 at 23:30
  • It's a hard thing to put a number on! It's usually said that most living humans are multilingual, and a fair number of those are likely to have native-speaker competence in two languages (sometimes called "ambilingual"). Some example places where I know of this happening: Singapore, Indonesia, PNG. – Gaston Ümlaut May 28 '12 at 4:24
  • Sorry Aditya, username link isn't working – Gaston Ümlaut May 28 '12 at 4:27
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It's not clear to me that "native speaker" has a precise definition in linguistics. "Native speaker of X" can be used to indicate that someone is a first language speaker of X. It is also commonly used in descriptive linguistics to refer to an ideal informant (or, "ideal speaker-hearer") who has full "competence" in the target language sufficient to enable a description of the grammar of that language based on the informant's "performance". We would then talk about "native level competence" in the language. I would say that this last definition is informal, though widely understood within the discipline.

It sounds like you may have native-speaker level of competence in English, and so could label yourself a native speaker of that language. But you could also be considered a native speaker of Portuguese although to linguists you would not be an ideal informant, having lost some competence in the language and perhaps no longer having true native speaker intuitions about it. In the end it depends on your preferred sense of identity. The form you describe should allow inclusion of more than one native language, but there is a strong ideology of monoglottalism in some nations (my own, Australia, is an example) and I suspect the form is from one of these.

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  • This answer sounds a lot like my case. Thanks for the info Gaston! – Walker Jun 1 '12 at 5:16
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Defining "native language" can be a complex issue.

But for linguistic purposes, I think it's most useful to see it as this: in which language(s) can you make the types of linguistic judgements that a "canonical" native speaker can readily make in their native language but which a typical non-native speaker cannot readily make?

(By "canonical", we'd mean something like: "a typical adult speaker having instinctively acquired just that language from birth through a typical degree of exposure". That's actually slightly problematic: e.g. there are languages where most speakers are actually bilingual. But let's go with it for now.)

So, for example, native speakers can typically make grammaticality judgements about sentences that are 'on the fringe' of the language's syntax whereas non-native speakers have much more difficulty making an instance judgement. So for example, a native English speaker would probably instantly recognise that one of the following 'sounds a little odd'. To even a fairly advanced non-native speaker, neither sentence probably 'breaks any grammar rules' that they've learnt:

"Here's the parent involved in the homework club."

"Here's the parent baked a cake by the children."

Or for example:

"He's the friend that I told you came yesterday."

"He's the friend that I told you that came yesterday."

Or:

"Which task was he asking whether I'd finished?"

"Which task was he asking whether was most important?"

So, as a starting point, in which language(s) can you instantly make judgements about sentences that constitute 'fringe' cases like this?

I should say there are some problems with this view: it's not clear just how much consensus you will necessarily get among speakers regarding these 'fringe' cases, or whether they make those judgements in exactly the same way as with more common sentences. And it's not clear that in principle a "non-native" speaker can't gradually acquire the ability to make this kind of judgement over time. But for practical purposes, I think this criterion of being able to "instantly judge difficult/fringe cases and arrive at a similar judgement to other 'canonical' native speakers" is useful.

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    That doesn't help much - I'm pretty sure the first sentence is better than the second, and english is my third language. I've never lived for a day in an english-speaking country. – Agrajag May 29 '12 at 18:49
  • Are you "pretty sure" or can you "instantly tell with near 100% confidence that another native speaker will have a similar judgement"? – Neil Coffey May 29 '12 at 20:17
  • I'm instantly intuitively certain that I feel that way. I'd have to ponder to figure out the actual grammatical rule for it, it's just that the sentence feels wrong. I'd be confident that other people who know English well would make the same judgement. I don't think tasks exist which are universally correctly and 100% certainly answered by natives, but which aren't also answered by skilled non-natives. – Agrajag May 31 '12 at 8:23
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    Yes, that could be true. In extreme cases, you may well reach a point where the distinction between "native speaker" and "near native speaker" ceases to be useful in practice. As I say, the issue is complex and I'm proposing one method that may help you make a distinction "as a starting point". – Neil Coffey May 31 '12 at 11:34
  • Yeah, I think I can make these types of instance judgments in both languages, though my English judgments tend to be a better than my Portuguese ones. – Walker Jun 1 '12 at 5:12
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I feel like it's less about big words but rather slangs and simple expressions.

Here's the question I would ask myself.

Can I watch movies in [this language] and understand all the jokes?

I think no matter how fluent you are in your "second language," there will always be jokes that don't translate. The cultural elements embedded in the use of language are hard to acquire later in life.

If you "get" both English and Portuguese jokes even after spending some time in another country, you might have two native languages. I have a friend in China who grew up speaking English to her American parents and Chinese to her nanny. She went to a local public school with some other American expats' children and now "thinks" in both languages.

The example @Neil gives is tricky, but I'm afraid that people who studied English as a second language might have an easier time spotting the mistake because they took intense grammar lessons. I learned English as a second language in school, so I did immediately find the mistake and was also able to explain why the second sentence was wrong. If you see the mistake but don't know why, that probably means you are a native English speaker. (If you can explain, you might as well be a native speaker who knows these grammar rules.)

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  • That also doesn't help: I can't watch movies in any language and understand all the jokes. Meanwhile I can watch movies in 3 languages and get more of the jokes than average natives of those languages. Does this mean I've got zero native languages, or I've got 3 ? – Agrajag May 31 '12 at 8:28
  • I'm not saying that if you understand jokes in movies, you understand that language. But in the OP Walker's situation, determining whether he fully grasps these cultural-specific references might help him find out his native language. And you are right, "all the jokes" sounds extreme; probably "most of the jokes." You are saying that you can watch movies in three languages without subtitles and understand all the jokes? What are the three languages? In the OP's case, I would imagine Portuguese and English generating very different jokes... – gonnastop May 31 '12 at 17:11
  • Yeah, I can usually understand language related jokes in both languages, though they tend to be very hard, if not impossible to translate due to the differences between the languages. For example, the jokes I tell in English make no sense whatsoever in Portuguese, and vice versa. – Walker Jun 1 '12 at 4:48
  • My three languages are German, English, Norwegian. I wouldn't rate myself as anywhere remotely close to native in any of them except Norwegian, that's why I'm uncertain of the utility of these "tests", if I can pass them while -clearly- being very far from native, the test seems flawed. I come closest to native in written english, my German, or my oral english, could not pass for native even for 20 seconds of casual observation. (i.e. I'd say -one- sentence and you'd instantly be sure I'm not native) – Agrajag Jun 4 '12 at 9:05

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