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YOU CANNOT KNOW A LANGUAGE BETTER THAN A NATIVE SPEAKER…WAIT, REALLY?

March 7, 2011

The title of this post might come across as a little provocative, and in a sense it is, for we native speakers of any language always feel that foreigners will never be able to know our language just as well as we do.

However hard they study, no matter how much effort they put into it, for no matter how many years and regardless of how well they know the language, there will always be something that separates our knowledge of the language from theirs. There is a sort of natural intuition and connection to the language that only we natives have. But is that really so?

Although I think this holds some truth as far speaking the language goes – albeit only a partial truth – it is not at all precise when it comes to a formal knowledge of the language, namely grammar, richness of vocabulary and knowledge of it from a linguistic, philological and literary point of view.

Many examples in history contradict this misguided idea. Perhaps one of the most famous is that of Polish writer Joseph Conrad, whose works, written in English, are considered to be among some of the most important in English literary history. Or maybe Russian writer Ayn Rand , who, despite some aloofness from academia, wrote a book in English whose influence in American readers’ life was ranked “as second only to the Bible”.

http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/atlas_shrugged.html

By the way, it is noteworthy that both Joseph Conrad and Ayn Rand learnt the language in their adult lives, thus refuting the idea that you have to be exposed to the language at an early age and so forth.

We also have the example of Jonathan Litell, an American who in 2006 won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious French literary award. He wrote the 900-page novel Les Bienveillantes directly in French.

And last but certainly not least, Ha Jin, whose interview is featured below. He is a Chinese writer who started learning English at the age of 21 and is one of only three people to have twice won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction: the other two are Philip Roth and John Wideman.

Frankly speaking, if winning the most prestigious literary prize of a country, or to be considered as one of the most important writers of a language, or to write a book that, with the exception of the Bible, is the most important in native speakers’ lives is not knowing a language better than most native speakers, I really don’t know what it is.

Most native speakers feel threatened by such people or embarrassed to admit that a foreigner might actually know the language better than they do. I was careful enough in this post to use the expression “ to know a language” rather than “ to speak a language”, since some people may gladly say in relief : look, he is not better than me ! He even has an accent! That’s the last best hope of native speakers : hoping they hear an accent. But who doesn’t have an accent anyway?