I'm not sure if I'm going to get any answers, but I am trying to find out whether I can qualify as a native english speaker.

Here's my story:

  • born in Hungary
  • moved to US at age 3
  • spoke Hungarian only at home (parents forced us)
  • spoke in English with everyone else, and most of the time to my mother too
  • completed fifth grade at 11
  • after 5th grade moved back to Hungary (lived in US for 8 years)
  • since then I went to Uni, did English literature and linguistics
  • been teaching English since 2005
  • I do think in Hungarian and English
  • didn't learn to read or write in Hungarian until the age of 11
  • I'm a dual (Hungarian/American) citizen
  • Maybe we could edit this question to be more general, so that other people can apply to the same situation. :D
    – Alenanno
    Apr 18, 2014 at 9:57
  • Well, your question can be re-phrased, "what factors define one's first language?" Wikipedia has a good definition: First_language#Defining_Native_Speaker. Apr 18, 2014 at 13:29
  • 1
    BTW, it seems to be a duplicate of this or this. Apr 18, 2014 at 13:32
  • thanks bytebuster, I've read the Portugese/English one. My Question isn't what is my first language, it was: Can someone be considered to be a native English speaker with life path as mine. I would say 100% yes if I had stayed in the US, but I1m not sure because I was still young when left. But then again I'm no psycholinguist...
    – Elisa
    Apr 18, 2014 at 16:48
  • Related: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/6670/…
    – Henry
    Sep 9, 2019 at 8:07

2 Answers 2


There is no straightforward definition of what constitutes a native speaker. This is partly because there's no straightforward definition of what constitutes a language. There are vast differences between the ability of even highly educated monolinguals to utilize the complete resources of a given language. Once you factor in education, register and dialect, you're in a right mess.

It is easy to differentiate between native and non-native speakers at the extreme ends of the scale but in between you have to look at:

  • What is the purpose of using a particular language
  • What domains is the language used for
  • What is the social context of use

So for example, if the purpose of your determination was whether you can take part in one particular class of phonetic experiments, then just the fact that you're multilingual would be a problem.

But if you want to be a teacher or a translator, then things are much less clear. You can achieve native-like competence that would allow you to work as one or the other at any age. You can also lose that competence.

That's why nothing about your story can let us determine whether you should or should not label yourself as a native speaker. Have you continued using English regularly for a variety of communicative purposes? Are you confident in literacy-intensive environments? Would you classify yourself as being a speaker of a particular variety of English? Do you speak with a recognizably non-native English accent? Do you have intuitions about English syntax and morphology that converge with other similarly educated speakers?

You obviously have a reason to ask. If it's only a question about what you can put on your teaching resume, than I don't think you have to worry. There's no magic behind native speaker teachers. If it's a question that stems form a lack of confidence about your English facility then you have to make a judgement based on the situation. And say things like: "For the purposes of X, I am a native speaker of English. But if you ask me to do Y, I'd recommend someone else."


It has been famously shown (by Emmanuel Dupoux, among others) that the ability to differentiate phonemes markedly decreases after the age of 2. Consequently, you presumably have less ability to distinguish the phonemes of English which are absent in Hungarian that someone who was born and raised in an English-speaking family. In that sense, you might not be a native speaker of English (and you wouldn't be even if you had stayed in the US).

The experimental protocol is as follows: subjects listen to increasingly rapid random series of two phonemes X and Y which are distinct in language A but not in language B and are asked to distinguish them. At first the error rate is identical for both native speakers of language A and speakers who are native speakers of language B but grew up in a language A environment since the age of 2, namely linear with respect to the speed of the series . But after a certain threshold, which is independent of the languages A and B of the phonemes X and Y, non-native speakers lose the ability to distinguish X and Y and their answers become no more correct than random ones whereas the error rate of native speakers keeps following the linear rate for a much longer time.

  • 3
    Sorry, but that is not a claim that has anything to say about bilingualism or the concept of native speaker. The experimental results are well-known but the claims for their importance to understanding language or even the critical period are vastly overblown. They certainly do NOT show a hard cut off point of 2 year, simply a tendency that may or may not be relevant to language processing. May 7, 2014 at 17:22

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