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Review of  The Emergence of the English Native Speaker

Reviewer: Kimberly Renée Chopin
Book Title: The Emergence of the English Native Speaker
Book Author: Stephanie Hackert
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.2731

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In many areas of applied linguistics, especially when the place and role of the English language is in focus, the concept of ‘native speaker’ has come increasingly under scrutiny. Stephanie Hackert’s monograph analyzes the origins of this term and the discourses surrounding its formation, using a corpus of mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century texts from both the linguistic literature and more widely read periodicals of the time to reveal how modern ideologies concerning the English language have their roots in earlier discussions.

The book is divided into three main parts plus introductory and concluding chapters. After introducing the overall aims and organization of the book in Chapter 1, Part 1 (Chapters 2-4) provides the reader with the conceptual and methodological framework used in the remainder of the book. The concept of ‘native speaker’ is problematized in Chapter 2, by analyzing the limitations of how we define (or can define) the term, particularly in regards to World Englishes. Approaches to ownership (so what does it mean to ‘own’ a language) are also problematized. Finally, the linguistic ambiguity of the term leads to the argument that the term ‘native speaker’ should be analyzed with focus on historical discourses rather than on linguistic features.

Chapter 3 sets out the theories and methods which underpin the rest of the book. This includes an overview of historical discourse analysis and of the discourse-historical approach (as used in Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)), and shows how each of these types of analysis are relevant to research into the native speaker concept. Information on the corpus used for the study -- how it was set up, what it includes and the criteria used -- is also given.

A close reading of one text from the corpus is then given (Chapter 4), an address given at an American university in 1958, which contains the first attested use of the phrase ‘native speaker’ (Marsh, 1859). It is analyzed because it exemplifies a number of common discourses of the time; additionally it shows in depth how the methods described in Chapter 3 are applied to a specific text from the corpus.

Parts 2 (Chapters 5-7) and 3 (Chapters 8-10) both offer analysis from the corpus, investigating texts in themselves, and relating them to discussions on the concept of native speaker which are happening at the present time.

Part 2 uses analysis of texts from the corpus to shed light on the significance of ideology and standardization. Chapter 5 shows how a need for standardization grew along with the growth of linguistics as a discipline in need of a clearly defined object of study. Chapters 6 and 7 explore the changes between a focus on written language as the basis for a standard to a focus on spoken language, which was taking place in the time frame of the corpus. With a focus on spoken English, a number of other issues arose, for example of pronunciation and dialects. Texts from the corpus show a clear definition arising of who would be considered to speak ‘the best’ English, as opposed to mere ‘dialects of’ English. They also show the origins of some common understandings, for example that being a native speaker of English means that one has been brought up in a household where ‘the best’ English was spoken. Dialects on the other hand were shown in that period to have value as an object of study, but at the same time were seen as inferior to what was considered the standard. Distinctions of urban vs. rural speech were also explored in the corpus. Topics bridging speaking and writing (for example nineteenth century interest in spelling reform) are also covered here, along with the idea of native speakers as sources for data collection by those researching language.

Part 3 takes the ideas of standardization discussed in Part 2, and expands upon them to show their importance, both at the time, and for the impact they still have on various linguistic fields even today. Chapter 8 makes a link with nineteenth-century discussions of nativeness and of nineteenth-century discussions of nationalism. Along with this come issues of race, and the place of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ race and their standing in regards to other races, as delineated in the corpus. In the discourses of the time, race is marked by nation, but also by language. The language-race link is explored further in Chapter 9, focusing on relevant social movements both in England and the US.

Chapter 10 sums up the corpus research by showing how all of the discourses lead to a view of English as the ‘best’ language, and shows the history of the language seen as a potential ‘world language.’ Factors which discourses of that time pointed to were both linguistic (the view of English as a language with an unusually rich vocabulary, but ‘no grammar’), numerical (with counts of how many speakers there were and would soon be of English in the world), and ideological (tied up with the nationalism discussed in previous chapters).

Finally Chapter 11 recaps the main themes of the book, and contextualizes it within present day fields where the ‘native speaker’ is of interest. Hackert ends with a brief overview of how the term ‘native speaker’ might be revised, and suggests ways in which such a revision might impact on various fields, including theoretical linguistics, second language acquisition and language pedagogy, and World Englishes.


Hackert ends the introduction with the statement that ‘if we are to understand the ideology of the English native speaker today, we need to understand, as fully as possible, the historical origins of the assumptions and beliefs upon which it rests’ (p. 6). Taking that as the overall aim of the book, it is clear that Hackert has succeeded in her goal of illuminating the history of the native speaker concept, as well as in connecting it to present day discourses. The book provides a clearly well-researched history of the English native speaker and how such a non-existent creature both came to be at all, and how it came to be so prominent in so many different fields. Clearly, researchers in all fields which have the native speaker as a center point will find the book to be a fascinating read. Students in related fields will also find the book of interest; particularly those using or planning to use discursive approaches in their research will find the overview of CDA found in Chapter 3 to be approachable and usable.

Hackert’s historical deconstructions, of the native speaker, of standardization, and so on, resonates with additional fields which are not mentioned explicitly in the book. For example, in English language testing and assessment, achievement has traditionally been defined by comparison with a highly articulate, educated, native speaker of Standard English (McNamara 2012: 199), without attention being given to how such a target was set in the first place. This book makes the process which occurred extremely clear. In addition, calls have been made to change focus away from the native speaker (Cook, 1999; Jenkins 2006), and again, knowing how a concept is constructed can better enable it to be deconstructed, and made more relevant to the needs of today.

Though Hackert focuses several sections on World Englishes (WE), she does not mention the related area of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). However, the book is equally relevant here. Again, being able to see where problematic concepts come from makes it much easier to propose better alternatives. Looking for alternatives to the native speaker concept as it arose in the time covered by the corpus may also lead to other ways of orienting both the WE and ELF fields. Of particular relevance here is the connection, discussed in Part 3 of the book, between nation, language and race. As is made clear, while the more overtly racist ideas of the time are no longer permissible today, many of the accompanying assumptions still have consequences today. By deconstructing the connection between that which has been discredited, and that which is still implicit, it may be possible to go beyond more discourses, rather than just the more overtly racist ones.

In sum, this book provides a new angle on a key concept, that of the English native speaker, and will provide both information and historical insight to researchers in any of the several fields where this concept has prominence and impact.


Cook, V. (1999). Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching. Tesol Quarterly, 33(2): 185-209.

Jenkins, J. (2006). The spread of EIL: a testing time for testers. ELT Journal, 60 (1): 42-50.

Marsh, G. P. (1859). Address. In Inaugural addresses of Theodore W. Dwight, Professor of Law, and of George P. Marsh Professor of English Literature, in Columbia College, New York. Available at

McNamara, T. (2012). English as a lingua franca: the challenge for language testing. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 1 (1): 199-202.
Kimberly Chopin is a PhD student at the Center for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use at the University of Copenhagen. Her research focuses on language policy, language testing, and the connections between policy and testing, in the internationalized university.

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