Is it possible to reach native proficiency in a foreign language?

All learners of the English language at least once asked themselves the questions like ‘If I’m meticulous enough, can I ever become like a native?’ It’s a dream of a lot of learners to speak like a native speaker. However, what does it mean to be a native like? Is it about CEFR, C2, CPE, IELTS grade 9, etc? Is it about self-identity or being perceived like a native speaker? Polina Kordik in her extremely interesting webinar Is it possible to reach native proficiency in a foreign language?’ tries to address these questions and find the answers.

A lot of linguists and researchers tried to find out if it’s possible to become a native like and they made quite different conclusions. According to the author of the book ‘Interlanguage’ (1972), the absolute success in a second language affects perhaps a mere 5% of learners, which is not so many really. R. Bley-Vroman states that virtually no normal adult learner achieves the development of native speaker competence. Although, E. Lenneberg is sure that the ability to learn a language is biologically linked to the age, calling that idea critical period hypothesis (CPH). It means that a successful acquisition of the language is possible only till approximately the age of puberty and then “the door shuts” and further language acquisition becomes more difficult and nativelike mastery of grammatical structure cannot be fully achieved. Can that be absolutely true and undoubtful? As even one single adult learner of a foreign language with a competence indistinguishable from that of native speakers would be enough to reject the CPH.

In her presentation, Polina discusses some studies which tried to find that adult learner, that “Holy Grail”. Not all of them were successful and clear, although all of them are quite interesting to look at now.

First, Grammaticality judgement test was considered, in which people were offered some sentences they should define as grammatically correct or not. However, it proved to be inefficient and too easy sometimes.

Then, the cases of Julie and Laura were discussed. These women both passed some challenging tests to prove their high level of the Arabic language and showed really great results, however, none of them could be called native speakers. Both of them were very close to a native level of proficiency, but just exceptional learners due to effective learning strategies and particular character traits such as being outgoing and talkative.

The third research, presented by Polina Kordik, was conducted on educated Spanish native speakers who moved to Sweden more than 10 years before and spoke Swedish without a foreign accent or grammatical deviations. These people passed quite a complicated set of tests. The result says that “only a few of the early learners and none of the late learners exhibited actual, linguistic native likeness” (c). Moreover, the research debunked some popular myths. For example, it proved that learning a foreign language that begins in childhood doesn’t easily, automatically and inevitably results in nativelikeness. At the same time, it states that even though the CPH still cannot be rejected, highly successful adult learners do exist.

What does this mean for learners and teachers of English? Actually, it means that a level of English is about competence of a language user and what this user can do. It characterises “the degree of precision, appropriateness and ease with the language which typifies the speech of those who have been highly successful learners” (CEFR Section 3.6, p. 35 (2018). It means that learning and teaching goals are to acquire skills for effective communication, business and academic work. Passing as a native speaker is not really the goal of learners and teachers of English and any other second language.

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