Why is it sometimes stressful to speak to ‘native speakers’?


This is an essay I wrote as part of an MA in Applied Linguistics in response to a question I came up with. It got a very good mark (yay!) but is unlikely ever to be published elsewhere as it doesn’t offer anything massively original and also has a few tipos.

Engaging in fluent real-life conversation with a native speaker is one of the most demanding and stressful experiences for a non-native speaker, especially when that person is a newcomer to a country where the target language is spoken. a) Discuss the above claim, using your own experience or that of your students. b) Explain possible causes of the difficulty with reference to the literature. c) Discuss how you would support learners experiencing this problem.


Languages regulate access to communities, in theory allowing all those with sufficient mastery to form relationships with other people and to participate in social activities. However, learning requires some measure of interaction (Long 1985) and/or immersion (Swain 1993), and in the case of newcomers to an English-speaking Inner Circle country (Krachu 1992), their efforts to communicate, no matter how competent, are not guaranteed a friendly reception. Thus for someone learning English, interaction with ‘native speakers’ (NS), whether through formal or informal channels, can feel perilous and daunting, with not only visas and livelihoods but also self-esteem and identity at stake. Some choose to remain silent, and experience nervousness and ambivalence towards interacting with ‘native speakers’. This anxiety and inhibition, and its causes, is rarely addressed in EFL materials. Most coursebooks which teach conversation tend to assume the participation of a sympathetic and patient listener and to ignore social contexts where interactions are conditioned by unhelpfulness or even hostility. Rarely do they address the fact that “the gender, race, class and ethnicity of second language learners may serve to marginalise them” (Norton, 2000, p7).

Until relatively recently, research had tended to focus on the individual traits and cognitive challenges that can generate linguistic reticence, and less on social and affective factors. Most Language Anxiety (LA) research has also focussed on interactions inside the classroom (Gkonou, Daubney & Dewaele 2017 p17). This essay will draw on the work of Lindemann and also on Norton’s research into identity and language learning in the context of female immigrants to Canada (Norton 2000). To quote one of her subjects, “I feel uncomfortable using English in the group of people whose English language is their mother tongue because they speak fluently without any problems and I feel inferior” (Norton p93). This sentiment echoes and presumably helps explain the results of a survey of advanced adult learners in which only 38% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I would not be nervous speaking the foreign language with native speakers” (Marzec-Stawiarska , 2014, p111). In this essay I shall draw on my experiences of language learning and teaching along with relevant theories and research. I will problematise such terminology as ‘mother tongue’ and ‘native speaker’ and propose that one way for teachers to address linguistic reticence with regard to interactions with ‘native speakers’ is to encourage learners to question such categories and thereby challenge the subaltern status that they reduce them to. I will also suggest several ways in which teachers can help learners gain awareness of and overcome these challenges.
The differences between understanding native speakers and non-native speakers

Although this essay focuses on affective and social aspects, there are numerous cognitive factors which can cause learners stress when interacting with more proficient users of a language, for example making sense of speaking speed, pragmatic inferences and connected speech (for lists of such factors see Trudgill (2008, pp80-82) Hedge (2000, pp263-267) and Ur, (1996, p111-112)). Studies of how English is used as a lingua franca have investigated both the reduced range of phonological features necessary for intelligibility (Jenkins, 2000) and the less complex range of lexicogrammatical and phraseological features of NNS speech (Seidlhofer, 2005), all of which can make interaction less fraught. It has also been found that in ELF communication partners do not obey native-speaker norms but “negotiate meaning as conversation unfolds by adapting their skills to those of their partner and to the purpose of communication” (Hülmbauer, Böhringer and Seidlhofer, 2008). This encompasses such features as speaking speed and level of vocabulary, reducing much of the cognitive burden. We must of course acknowledge that a non-native speaker may simply not have the communicative competence to hold up their share of the communicative burden (Lindemann, 2006), regardless of who their interlocutor is, and also that, as Norton (2000) explores in relation to her subjects, anxiety can be overcome with increased competence.

My own experiences as a language learner over the last 20 years living in a variety of foreign language environments have indicated that speaking to other L2-competent foreigners can be less cognitively and emotionally demanding than interacting with ‘native speakers’. There can be a sense of solidarity with other ‘outsiders’, but the reduced level of stress occasioned by the relative lack of unfamiliar cultural reference points and conventionalised pragmatic meanings is also a factor. However, this is not just a question of objective factors, but also of my anxiety about my legitimacy or otherwise as a speaker of those languages, i.e. affective factors which cause apprehension. It is important to distinguish between aspects of individual factors in linguistic reticence and factors which more are socially generated.
Individual affective factors causing anxiety when talking to ‘native speakers’

Ever since Horwitz’ seminal 1986 article gave birth to Language Anxiety as a discipline (Horwitz, 1986), research and theory has almost exclusively focused on classroom participation and performance and has been more concerned with the individual experience of anxiety than on the social circumstances that contribute to it (Gkonou, Daubney & Dewaele, 2017). MacIntyre et al’s (1998) Willingness to Communicate (WTC) model makes the seemingly unproblematic assumption that “frequent and pleasant contact with the L2 group” will inevitably lead to an improvement in L2 skills and confidence. However, as Norton explores in detail (Norton 1995 and 2000), pleasantness is not a feature of all such interactions. Lindemann supports this, demonstrating that in some circumstances the native interlocutor may effectively “refuse to listen” (2006, p24). There are clearly more than individual factors involved.
Problems with contextualising Language Anxiety only at individual level

Many theories of effective second language learning (including, for example, Krashen 1982; Wong Fillmore 1979) have claimed that language learners’ success in aligning with the target language community depends on their motivation versus the affective and cognitive challenges they face. However, individual motivation is complex, partly because it is not entirely conscious and is more dynamic than fixed. Norton’s alternative notion of ‘investment’ is helpful here, in that it takes account of the post-structuralist notion of subjectivity as multiple, contradictory, and dynamic; as she puts it, “Learners are constantly organising and reorganising a sense of who they are and how they relate to the social world” (Norton, 2000, p11).
The importance of social factors

As Norton points out, “relations of power in the social world impact on social interaction between second language learners and target language speakers” (Norton, 2000, p4). Anxiety related to so-called ‘Language shock’ (Agar 1996) and challenges faced by the ‘language ego’ (Guiora, 1972, quoted in Brown 2007 p69) operate in a social context conditioned by power relations particularly affecting women, different social classes, and immigrants. If we take the latter, one influential thesis, Schumann’s influential concept of Acculturation, fails to account sufficiently for power imbalances (Schumann 1978). Individuals may experience fear of rejection and anxiety regarding status and identity, and these factors operate in a social context. However, as Norton argues, Schumann’s puts the blame on the language learner rather than on society if he or she succeeds or fails (Norton, p114). In suggesting that it is the job of the new arrival to make up the ‘social distance’, Schumann’s model does not account for the role of social inequality in establishing and maintaining that distance in a way that is very hard for any individual to overcome. It may not be a matter of Alberto’s ambivalence towards his new culture (Schumann, ibid), but his new culture’s ambivalence towards him.
Bourdieu’s ‘legitimate speaker’

Norton (2000, p8) draws on Bourdieu’s concept of the ‘legitimate speaker’. Bourdieu argues that the preconditions of social communication are unequally structured, and that it is a condition of establishing communication that each participant regard the other as worthy to listen and speak (1977, p648). One factor that may make it difficult for a language learner to establish themselves as a ‘legitimate’ speaker is the higher degree of possibility of making pragmatic errors when speaking or listening and thus exposing themselves to potential ridicule. For example, in western societies, TV comedy shows systematically mock outsiders’ use of language, thereby policing the boundaries of a particular linguistic community. This example demonstrates that contrary to Schumann’s model there is not just distance between an individual and the new society, but also socially-generated linguistic barriers which anyone belonging to the social category of outsider must try to negotiate.
Immigration and inequality

It is essential to bear in mind that in conversation participants jointly construct meaning, therefore any failure in communication is not just of the speaker. Yet, as Norton argues (p119), “Immigrant language learners are generally more invested in relationships with target language speakers than the reverse situation…The immigrants are the ones who need to make contact with members of the target language group if their language learning is to improve, and they are far more vulnerable to the attitudes of the dominant group than the dominant group is vulnerable to them.” This is backed up by Lindemann, who found that in some cases native–non-native communicative difficulties can clearly be seen as stemming from the native speaker, rather than from the non-native speaker (2006). Research by Lindemann, Rubin and others demonstrates that target language speakers may be reluctant to negotiate meaning with language learners and the onus is usually on the learner to understand and make themselves understood. However, second language learners may not get much opportunity to practise with target language speakers, partly because “the social meaning of immigrant [is] not newcomer with initiative and courage, but uneducated, unskilled minority.” (Norton 2000 p117). Social status may affect their linguistic progress; newly-arrived immigrants to Western countries are often obliged to take low-status jobs which offer little access to social interactions and the content-rich input necessary for acquisition to take place (Norton 2000 p73).

Although as Smith and Nelson point out, “Intelligibility is not speaker- or listener-centred but is interactional between speaker and listener” (1995, p333), Lindemann found that the attitude of the native speaker was crucial in determining the perceived success or failure of an interaction (2016). Successful communication requires a positive attitude, cooperation, and patience, but this is not always guaranteed. There is also the phenomenon of accent discrimination. Rubin’s classic 1992 study found that “if listeners merely thought that a person might be from a different language background, they understood less of what was said” (quoted in Derwing & Munro, 2008, p486). Such discrimination is not necessarily conscious or malicious, but it will inevitably have an effect on the confidence of the interlocutor.

Language learning thus involves investment in social identity in an unequal or asymmetrical context. Graddol remarks that “English has become one of the main mechanisms for structuring inequality in developing economies”, and this can also be true in Inner Circle ones with regard to immigrants. In Norton’s study (2000), immigrant women in the workplace found that their colleagues were organised in social networks which the women in the study struggled and often failed to gain access to. One of her subjects tried to engage anglophones in conversation but they “ran away”. One felt inhibited by “fear of appearing incompetent”; co-workers explain they stopped talking to her because they “felt tired”. Resort to silence can be a form of resistance to inequitable social forces: “If people treated her with disrespect, it was their problem and not her problem”. Thus can formal and informal workplace hierarchies result in a sense of linguistic alienation and lead to reticence.
The notion of the ‘native speaker’ as a cause of anxiety

As Oxford (1999) explores, certain beliefs about language may be anxiety-inducing, and this is particularly true with regard to beliefs regarding correctness and ownership. To quote a Spanish speaker of English commenting on a course he is taking which involves interacting with ‘native speakers’, “now it’s more difficult for me to understand the real English”. It is my contention that the concept of the ‘native speaker’ itself can play a significant role in generating psychological stress in NS-NNS interactions. The notion of the ‘native speaker’ (usefully defined as someone with “a complete and possibly innate competence in the 7 language” which is perceived as being “bounded, fixed to a homogeneous speech community and linked to a nation-state” (Doerr, 2009, p1)) has long been challenged in linguistics. Ferguson (1983, pvii) argued that “the whole mystique of native speaker and mother tongue should preferably be quietly dropped from the linguist’s set of professional myths about language”; Rampton argued that the category unhelpfully conflates three separate categories that by no means always coincide: expertise, affiliation, and inheritance (Rampton, 1990, p101).

However, 20 years of teaching have taught me that this it remains a widespread notion, especially among learners, partly as result of the TEFL industry’s perpetuation of a misconception of the monolingual native teacher’s centrality to the learning experience. Linguistic anxiety is generated by the notion of a particular caste of people (‘native speakers’) who have perceived ownership of and authority over language. However, as Davies points out (2013) and Jenkins explores at length (2000), the role of English as an international language and the existence of numerous varieties of English in post-colonial societies language makes English a special case and indicate that it should no longer be seen as the property of people from Inner Circle countries. This reality must be reflected in classroom practise, to which I will now turn.
Application to practice

How can EFL practitioners respond effectively to these issues? How can we best prepare our learners for the inevitable language shock and cognitive, affective and political issues that real-world NS<>NNS language interactions imply?

Firstly, more attention should be paid to specific needs and identities of learners, in particular contexts. Seidlhofer (1999) emphasises that in inner and expanding circle different conditions apply. In any specific English-speaking context particular configurations of language(s) prevail. Respecting this is one aspect of what Kumaravadivelu (2006) called particularity: the need to be sensitive to the institutional and sociocultural milieu. This is supported by Bax (2003), who argued that CLT approaches (for example, the imposition of English as the only classroom language) should not simply be rolled out regardless of the teaching and learning context.

Another priority is to address beliefs. Students should be made aware of the role of English and issues around identity, authority and ownership, including the widespread recognition (in English teaching contexts) that in most English-speaking contexts the concept of the ‘native speaker’ is at best problematic and can even be (like some native speakers themselves) actively intimidating and unhelpful. One useful tool to help learners respond to this reality is Jenkin’s Lingua Franca Core pronunciation model. Such tools can help learners see themselves as users rather than learners and understand that, as Lindemann, has it, their problems are not necessarily related to Communicative Competence (Lindemann 2006 p43). This is part of encouraging L2 users of English to see their identity and their competencies not in terms of deficit but in terms of divergence (ibid, p42).

Language classrooms should also be therapeutic places, where learners are encouraged to reflect on the affective experience of language learning, allowing them to reframe negative experiences in terms of the new understandings of identity that successful language acquisition implies. Learners should develop their identity (including particularly their online identity – see Lam 2000) and ‘voice’ (Bailey, 1996) as well as their skills and knowledge.

Another way to help learners anticipate and overcome stress and anxiety in encounters with ‘native speakers’ is to encourage them to reflect critically on who they’re speaking to about what, and how such how power imbalances can affect the success or failure of cross-cultural encounters. Learners can be encouraged to write about their own about affective experiences in class (Norton 2000 p 153) and share it with one another, thus creating a learning community offering mutual support. Thus can they be helped to recognise that failures in communication may not be their own fault.

There should also be more value given to code-switching and language crossing in EFL. It is underacknowledged in EFL that such language play is central to how speakers (not just ‘language learners’) break down social boundaries (see Rampton 2017). This could help learners speak more freely without feeling that they are restricted to ‘correct’ forms of the target language. ‘Linguistic Imperialism’ (Phillipson, 1992) is certainly at work in the EFL classroom that bans all recourse to other languages. The use of the term ‘monolingual’ to categorise a language classroom is almost always a misnomer: students always have a range of linguistic resources to draw upon, and they should be encouraged to do so rather than being constrained within linguistic straitjackets.

Finally, there is great potential in the enhanced use of drama. Typical EFL role-plays can allow learners to experiment safely with new identities, but one form of theatre which I believe has a great deal to offer is Forum Theatre, as developed by Augusto Boal (Boal, 2008). In this format participants reenact encounters they have experienced, reflecting in the process on other possibilities for what they could have said and done and seeing for themselves how other outcomes were possible. This form of reflection on and rehearsal for real-world interaction involves developing learners’ own resources of initiative and their own protagonism as fully-fledged users of the language, active subjects creating their own meanings rather than passive recipients of linguistic input. Thus are learners empowered to assert their own identity as users of the language. It is also a useful means of encouraging reflection to help overcome demoralisation resulting from less successful interactions.

This essay has argued that social factors, such as discrimination on the basis of accent, play an important role in generating anxiety in real-world interactions between native speakers and non-native speakers, and that the very concept of ‘native speaker’ can be psychologically intimidating. It has suggested that teachers address these issues by raising students’ awareness of issues of ownership of and authority over language in order to empower them as speakers of English as a global language. Space has limited the discussion of a vast and 9 complex area, but further research could look into the effects of the ‘native speaker’ concept on language learners’ sense of language anxiety, taking an emic, qualitative approach.
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