What Is the Difference Between Native and Non-Native Spanish?
Would you like to speak Spanish like a native speaker?
Let me tell you why you don’t have to and still crush most of your language goals.
You might be going through job offers, and every now and then you come across “native speakers only” or, if you’re lucky, “native speakers preferred.”
Although this usually refers to English-speaking skills, Spanish non-native speakers also often feel at a linguistic disadvantage in comparison to their colleagues from Madrid, Mexico City, Havana, or Guatemala City.
Let me tell you today what it means to be a native speaker, what it means to be a non-native one—and why it’s important to know the difference.
I’ll address your doubts about whether you can still reach fluency even if you’re a non-native speaker. Keep reading to find out how to be successful in professional and social Spanish-speaking environments.
Table of Contents:
- What’s a Native Speaker?
- What’s a Non-Native Speaker?
- Why Is It Important to Know the Difference Between Native and Non-Native Spanish?
- Why Native Spanish Doesn’t Have to Be Your Goal
What’s a Native Speaker?
The idea of the “native speaker” is not new.
Some linguists even trace it back to the 19th century, but the peak popularity of the term was in the 60s and 70s, thanks to famous linguist Noam Chomsky, who talks about the “linguistic intuition of the native speaker” that should be studied by grammarians.
Not long after, in 1985, the native speaker was pronounced dead by Thomas M. Paikeday in his book The native speaker is dead! An informal discussion of a linguistic myth with Noam Chomsky and other linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and lexicographers.
Why has this term been so controversial since the moment it was coined? What does “native speaker” mean?
The Definition of Native Speaker
If you look it up in the Merriam Webster dictionary, this is the definition you’ll get:
“A person who learned to speak the language of the place where he or she was born as a child rather than learning it as a foreign language.”
Pretty limiting, don’t you think?
My kids were born in Mexico, and my husband is Mexican. I spoke to my daughters in Polish, and this is the language they use to communicate with my part of the family.
Since they were two years old, they’ve been going to English-speaking international schools, and this is how they communicate with their friends. When they were 5 and 6, we moved to Portugal, where we’ve been living for two years. They speak, write, and read in Portuguese.
According to the “native speaker” definition, they are native speakers of Spanish only. What do you think?
Can you be a native speaker of two languages? According to this definition, it’s impossible.
So-called “native-speaking skills” are also difficult to define.
For example, is a person born in Nicaragua who emigrated to the U.S. at the age of three still considered a native speaker? Even if their mother tongue was cultivated at home?
Are heritage speakers still native speakers of a language? Would their Spanish be “better” than that of a person who learned this language later in life, in another, non-Spanish-speaking country, and later dedicated their whole academic and professional career to it?
What’s a Non-Native Speaker?
If the native speaker’s definition is confusing, the meaning of the non-native speaker isn’t any clearer.
In theory, a non-native speaker is someone who learned a foreign language, no matter how good their language skills are.
Although I have used Spanish and English more than Polish for the last 20 years, I will always be a non-native speaker of both of them. However, I’m definitely fluent and proficient in both.
Why Is It Important to Know the Difference Between Native and Non-Native Spanish?
Is it important to know the difference between native and non-native Spanish?
If you ask me, I’d say it matters very little.
Before you protest, let me explain.
When I was studying English and Spanish, my best teachers were non-native speakers. Why? Their knowledge about the language was not intuitive but studied, and they were able to understand the obstacles we as learners were facing and were able to address our complex doubts.
Hand-picked for you: 10 Characteristics of the Perfect Spanish Teacher
If I asked a native speaker to explain to me why certain things were said or written in a certain way, they often struggled to provide an explanation. They knew how to say things correctly but not why.
They were still important for my learning process, as they helped me to get used to native speakers’ pace, and they modeled my pronunciation.
When I studied Spanish philology, Spanish “native speakers” from Cuba and Spain used to have more problems with passing the exams than most non-native speakers, as their intuitive knowledge was not enough. Non-native speakers who studied the language tend to have a better understanding of the intricacies of Spanish grammar.
What I’m trying to say is that being considered a native speaker says nothing about your language skills. You learn these through dedicated study and practice, whether or not you were born in the country that uses it.
Why Native Spanish Doesn’t Have to Be Your Goal
Native-level Spanish doesn’t have to be your goal—instead, aim at being fluent and proficient.
At this highest level, you’re able to understand any kind of spoken language at a fast native speed, converse without limitations, and carry out complex tasks in your target language.
Does it worry you that your pronunciation will always betray your non-native origin? So what? Native-like pronunciation is never evaluated at language proficiency exams. You just need to be intelligible.
What are your language goals? To travel to Spanish-speaking countries? Study in Spanish? Work in Spanish-speaking environments?
You don’t need to be a native Spanish speaker or speak like one to achieve your dreams.
Simply focus on improving your language skills: comprehension and production, both oral and written. Study grammar with a high-quality workbook to create awareness of forms and spend as much time with Spanish as possible, reading and listening.
To learn more about learning Spanish to become fluent, check out:
- How to Learn Spanish: 5 Easy Strategies That Actually Make You Fluent
- How To Have a Fluent Conversation in Spanish: Easy Tips and Tricks
In conclusion, get rid of the idealized native speaker myth for your own benefit like linguists did a long time ago. Studying Spanish can boost your language skills to a higher level than an average citizen of any Spanish-speaking country and open doors to many future endeavors. Non-native speakers can also dream big!
Join one of the 40,000 classes that we teach each month and you can experience results like these
“It’s great being able to interact with native speaking people and having a conversation with them not just doing all the work on paper. It’s also an amazing opportunity to speak with native Spanish-speaking people without having to travel to a native Spanish-speaking country.”
“Getting to know wonderful teachers who care about me and my growth in language and education. Evelyn Gomez and Erick Cacao are two of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, and talking with them in Spanish at the beginning of classes is always so fulfilling and greatly contributes to my happiness, joy, and wellbeing.”
“HSA offers very affordable, quality, one on one classes with a native speaker. My son has greatly benefited from taking classes. We have seen his confidence increase as well as his pronunciation improve, because he learns from a native Spanish speaker. HSA has quick, personal customer service. Our family has been very pleased with our experience so far!”
– Erica P. Parent of 1
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