People who aren't english native speakers often tell me that their English is better than their native tongue, which is kinda odd since they use their native tongue most of the time.

Because of this, I wonder if it possible for a native speaker who isn't proficient in his own language to become a near native-speaker. Is it possible for this person to reach a level of proficiency in the L2 that enables him or her to handle college-like material in the L2? By 'isn't proficient', I mean someone who dropped out of high school and who isn't an eloquent speaker or writer, but who is determined to be fluent and will not rest until he has achieved that goal. Is this goal realistic? Won't his low proficiency in L1 limit his acquisition of the L2?

So if one only speaks one's L1 for 30 years, can L2 proficiency ever surpass L1 proficiency given consistent striving to improve the L2?

  • My native languages are Russian and Ukrainian, and I'm a teacher of English. I can say that in a way I'm more proficient in English, because I studied its grammar for sooo long and I've been teaching it for years, but I've never spent even 5% of that for the grammar theory of my native tongues, because I know them intuitively. It's like a person repairs computers for all his life and knows everything about them, but when it comes to something banal, like, for example, sewing on a button, he's helpless and needs help from a specialist (say, his wife). – Yellow Sky Jul 25 '14 at 22:52
  • Many Indians graduates don't speak English fluently, and if they do, bring in their regionalisms. Of those, many are comfortable with graduate-level textbooks written in English. IOW, their receptive grammar is just fine, but their productive grammar needs work. Then we have near-contemporary authors such as Vladimir Nabokov and Ayn Rand: Russians who wrote exceptionally well in English. One of them does not seem to have written anything noteworthy in Russian. A few centuries ago, most scientists published in Latin. Coming back to the present time, most scientists publish in English. – prash Jul 25 '14 at 23:03
  • @YellowSky So you mention you are in a way more proficient in English than in Russian and Ukrainian. But, in my mind knowing grammar of a language doesn't dertmine your fluency or proficiecny in any language. – Marry Damon Jul 25 '14 at 23:25
  • @prash Do those Indians perform worse in their native language? Vladimir is raised trilingual, and Wikipedia states that his dominant language is English. – Marry Damon Jul 25 '14 at 23:30
  • I wrote "in a way more proficient in English", that is in some aspects, I always know how to correctly put it in English, but I don't always know how to put it correctly in Russian, I understand English as a system better than Russian as a system, and English seems to me much easier than Russian. As for fluency, I'm equally fluent in all the 3 languages. – Yellow Sky Jul 25 '14 at 23:48

This question is based on fundamentally flawed assumptions about what 'language proficiency' is. The key things to remember are:

  1. Language proficiency is not a binary state. You can't say that you either have it or not. Everyone is proficient in some ways and not in others.
  2. There is no maximum language proficiency. The label 'fully proficient' has no basis because language is not finite.
  3. Language proficiency cannot be measured along a single progressive state. You always have to define what you are able to accomplish in a language with what level of accuracy and fluency. (The ACTFL levels are a very good guide to what this might look like.)
  4. Language competence may not be manifested in all contexts equally. So a speaker will find it easier to draw upon their underlying competence with vocabulary, morphology and syntax in certain situations than others. For instance, speaking at a conference vs. renting a car.
  5. Not all aspects of language may exhibit the same level of 'proficiency'. Most often it is the pronunciation that is seen as deficient but morphology, idioms, etc. will also be subject to localized issues.

The above holds for L1 and L2.

Being aware of this, you can formulate an answer to your question:

  1. There are many situations, in which an L1 speakers may find it easier to communicate about certain areas in L2. They will have the right vocabulary but also know the right ways of formulating their thoughts.
  2. There are cases of variable regression so a speaker will loose some of their L1 and L2 will become their main language. This is often seen in emigres.
  3. It is possible even for people with severely impaired L1 to acquire L2 in many contexts. E.g. differential educational opportunities. In cases of underlying language impairment, the person may exhibit the same deficiencies in L1 and L2.
  4. People often have prejudicial views of their own language proficiency which they equate with 'knowing the grammar'. Therefore, they may be assuming that because they know more about the 'grammar' of one language, they know the language better. Similarly, native speakers often label educated non-native speakers as speaking 'better English' than them because they use certain constructions and choose more formal vocabulary.

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