Should heritage speakers with a decent level of proficiency (say a middle school level of reading/writing ability) consider themselves "native", or something else?

"Native" would be appropriate in the sense that it would be literally correct, but it would also be misleading since "native speaker" is generally interpreted to indicate full proficiency and being educated in that language.

On the other hand, if they describe their language ability by something like "fluent", "proficient", or "professional working proficiency" or whatever LinkedIn jargon, it might create the impression that they learned the language as a foreign language.

Note: I understand this might not the most appropriate sort of question here. I was debating posting perhaps on language learning or workplace, but linguistics seemed like a compromise.

  • 5
    Related: linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/20029/27292. Linguists would mostly differentiate between first language(s) and second languages for acquisition, and dominant/nondominant on the sociological side (and these notions can be orthogonal). And there's a continuum between L1 and L2 in a period from about age 6 to 10. Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 8:55
  • The term “heritage speaker” is new to me. Does it mean your parents or grandparents taught you the language although it was not your primary home language? Or something else? Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 18:15

3 Answers 3


Were you (born and) raised in a society of that language throughout your early childhood at least? If yes, yes; if no, no.

The word 'native' can only mean roughly "born in that", it does not mean 'super advanced' or 'indigenous' or 'endogenous' — to give it any other literal meaning is equivalent to saying 'Cantonese-speaker' can denote anything else than 'a person who speaks Cantonese'. In online forms there is often only one language that can be set as 'native', since most people grow up in one language only — unless you were raised in Switzerland —, anything else is labeled proficient/fluent/native-level. OBS: "native-level", not "native".

If one of your parents taught you the language while you were growing up, you possibly do not have the command an educated native would have, so you should use heritage-language, raised-in, or whatever term is used in your country or option is allowed to you. If there is no such option and there only lies 'native' or 'proficient/advanced/basic/etc', I would be better safe than sorry and just say 'native-level' or 'very advanced' or any equivalent; if you are dead confident in your skills as a speaker and are allowed to choose more than one language as your 'native' one, go for it, but it is not going to save you trouble or unneeded social situations that demand explanation.

On the condition that you provided "middle school level of reading/writing ability", there are several social "what-ifs" for that. An intelligent middle schooler of the economic elite would probably be more literate than a since-ever homeless man in his 20's, though they are both native speakers of their own language. If you are educated, an adult, and have the fluency in your "native" language equivalent to that of the average native middle schooler, that will sound absolutely bizarre to the other end.

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    "most people grow up in one language only" -- meh. Most western linguists, perhaps, but certainly not the majority of the world's population. Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 12:49
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    @phipsgabler That phrase is really secondary to the answer’s point, is there any constructive criticism to be made? I don’t find your comment to make much sense in this context.
    – user22430
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 13:29
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    @William I think your explanation is problematic because it is definitely reminiscent of an elitist stance, to put it mildly. What do you mean by "command"? According to your answer, speakers who were born in a certain country and moved with another to another one in early childhood are not entitled to be seen as "native speakers"?
    – user27758
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 13:41
  • @William oh, absolutely. I just wanted to point it out; it is a common misconception to assume monolingualism as the default situation. (And I didn't even downvote, and quite agree with the rest of the answer.) Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 13:49
  • @Nico That's exactly what I mean. An answer is not problematic if it elitist, it is problematic if it is wrong. This is not a USA university course on BLAH105 Feelings for Insensitive People, it is stackexchance.
    – user22430
    Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 0:23

I would say "something else", though what that is is not clear. At least in linguistics, "native speaker" requires fluency, and you self-describe as less than fluent. However, self-descriptions are sometimes mistaken, so the answer depends on why you didn't say "fluent". It is not uncommon for fluent speakers of minority and heritage languages to self-deprecate because their vocabulary is not as good as grampa's or because your "style" is influenced by the dominant language in your society. It is a common complaint by the elders that children these days don't know the language, because they don't know the word for the string used to tie on the goat's bell – because they don't herd goats anymore. That doesn't make you non-fluent.

It is very common for fluent native speakers to not be educated in their native language, because education is in some other language. I would completely delete any concept of educational policy determining whether you are a native speaker.

If you are not a fluent speaker of the language (can effortlessly understand and be understood by speakers of that dialect without sticking out as somehow "not totally knowing the language"), but you grew up speaking the language continuously (i.e. didn't start at age 14, didn't stop at age 8), I suspect that the issue is that you were not "fully engaged" with the language, mainly meaning that you didn't use it very often. For example, you might use Tigrinya (as a random example) talking to grandma, and sometimes with your parents, but everybody else that you interact with speaks English, so you don't use the language much. Your passive abilities may be much greater than your active abilities. This is a very common situation for heritage language speakers.

There isn't a special term to refer to this, probably because it is a continuum ranging from actual fluency with culturally-determined lack of vocabulary, all the way to "hardly knows the language". A distinction is sometimes made between "native speaker" and "native-like ability", where in the latter case a person started learning the language at some later point in life (nobody knows when, let's say age 12) and then becomes indistinguishable from a from-birth speaker. An alternative would be to use a language proficiency level indicator, such as the Interagency Language Roundtable scale. The problem is that this correlates poorly with what we normally understand to be "native speaker ability", instead it combines language ability with extraneous considerations like education (monolinguals may score a 0 if they are illiterate), and is impractical since it requires actually testing which for most languages is an impossibility. It also builds in requirements for cultural knowledge, which again for fluent heritage speakers may be missing.


Probably yes.

From the language acquisition point of view there are notable differences between native languages (L1s) and languages acquired later in lifetime (L2s). The differences are measurable and observable, e.g., L1 speakers make different kind of errors during languages acquisition than L2 speakers, and they don't produce some kinds of typical L2 learners' errors. Note that the differences already start at very young age still in the so-called critical period. When you have acquired the heritage language in the first two years of your life you qualify as a native speaker. Jürgen Meisel (Calgary and Hamburg) did a lot of research about this.

Note that this point of view is different from a proficiency level point of view dominating in the non-linguistic world, where native speaker is equalled with highest proficiency level.

  • In the context of an "A versus B" question, does "yes" mean "either"?
    – user6726
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 17:53
  • No. It means of course "You should consider yourself a native speaker". The text below the headline should make this clear. Commented May 28, 2020 at 18:13

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