[Column] Bidding goodbye to the “native speaker” model in language learning

Posted on : 2023-02-04 17:20 KST Modified on : 2023-02-04 17:20 KST
The ability to understand culture has become more important than whether you speak with the accuracy of a native speaker
A native English teacher checks on their elementary-age Korean students in this undated file photo. (Hankyoreh file photo)
A native English teacher checks on their elementary-age Korean students in this undated file photo. (Hankyoreh file photo)

By Robert Fouser, linguist

There is an agency known as the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) located in the suburbs of the American capital of Washington DC. Established in 1947, one of the tasks of the FSI is foreign language education and assessment.

Americans are known for having little interest in learning other languages, but things are different for diplomats. Diplomats are even required by law to have a certain level of foreign language proficiency, and are subject to periodic language assessments as part of their work. These evaluations have a large impact on not only performance reviews, but also promotions and remuneration.

Foreign language assessments for diplomats became mandatory in 1958, and today the FSI teaches 70 or so languages and conducts evaluations in almost 100. The institute creates learning materials for languages that are barely taught in the private sector. These resources are then released to the public, making a large contribution to foreign language education among ordinary citizens.

Above all, the FSI is renowned for having statistically analyzed the difficulty of each language by calculating the number of hours it takes a native English speaker to reach “professional working proficiency.” According to the FSI, the number of hours required for a native English speaker to reach this level in Korean is 2,200, while the figure for Spanish is only 600. The fact that Korean takes almost four times as long as Spanish suggests that it is one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn.

The FSI is affiliated with the US State Department, but has also had an influence on foreign language education across the US since the end of World War II. The evaluation criteria developed since the 1950s have been adopted by not only other federal government departments, but also international companies.

The original speaking assessment interviews influenced the development of speaking tests by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) in the 1980s. The FSI has gradually and steadily improved the evaluation criteria over time, with a full overhaul conducted in the 2010s to reflect the modern characteristics of the digital revolution. After a lengthy review process, the institute now plans to fully roll out the new evaluation standards that were partially adopted in early 2022.

Since the 1950s, foreign language assessments have consisted of speaking, listening, reading and writing, with five levels ranging from “no proficiency” (level 0) to “similar to that of a well-educated native speaker” (level 5). Most diplomats considered “professional working proficiency” (level 3) to be the goal, while generally those “fluent in the language” were level 4, and “close to native speaker level” was viewed as level 4+.

However, there appears to be an interesting change in the new criteria that apply from 2022. The 4+ levels, namely “similar to that of a well-educated native speaker” (level 5) and “close to native speaker level” (level 4), have been combined into a single level 4, which was renamed “advanced proficiency” by deleting the reference to native speakers. This means the goal of having “native-like” proficiency has been removed from foreign language study, a reflection of changes to the way in which “native speakers” have been viewed in foreign language education since the 2000s.

Perceptions of native speakers began to change starting in the 1980s in line with the adoption of teaching techniques that focused on communication for the purpose of conveying meaning. As the prior emphasis on accuracy fell by the wayside, so did the role of the native speaker model which had been adopted to promote “native-like” pronunciation and expressions. In place of this, the ability to understand and adapt to different cultures has become more important as migration and people-to-people exchanges become commonplace around the world.

Wherever you live, it is now increasingly likely you will use the language of that region with a variety of non-native speakers instead of speaking like natives from that language sphere, and the ability to understand culture has become more important than whether you speak with the accuracy of a native speaker.

In reference to the new evaluation standards, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) website explains, “Definitions vary, and native speakers show a range of language proficiency.” In other words, linguistic ability differs even among native speakers and the term is difficult to define, so it was deleted to maintain objectivity in assessments.

Nevertheless, the native speaker model has not completely disappeared. A language is a system, so it is impossible to convey meaning without fitting into that system. Pronunciation and grammar must be accurate to a certain degree in order for people to understand one another. All second language learners know that native speakers are to be treated as the model for pronunciation, grammar and expressions.

However, as the FSI’s new standards suggest, developing proficiency akin to that of a native speaker is no longer the ultimate goal of language study. This marks the end of the long-standing “native speaker-centric” era, and we are now moving into a new age in which native speakers serve as a reference but are only the “final goal” of language study to the extent required by each individual learner. In fact, it may already be here.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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