English native speaker vs. Native English speaker



Which of the following options is the correct or the acceptable?

"He is an English native speaker"


"He is a native English speaker".

Judicious Allure

Posted 2016-02-11T16:49:32.110

Reputation: 24 598



I can't see any good reason for supposing that either version is "correct" (or by implication, that the other is "incorrect"), but there's certainly a big difference in prevalence...

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I can't see any way to justify the possibility that one sequence might actually mean something different to the other1. They seem to net down to the same thing to me...

He's an English speaker. What kind? A native English speaker.
He's a native speaker. What kind? An English native speaker.

1 EDIT: Thanks to comments from @ErikE and @psmears below, I must admit that once it's pointed out to me, I can naturally parse an English native speaker as someone from England. But unless context strongly forced a perverse interpretation, I'd take it for granted that meant an Anglophone, since there's no such thing as an English passport or an officially "naturalized" Englishman. To be English you really have to be born and brought up in England, which pretty much dictates that English will be your mother tongue.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2016-02-11T16:49:32.110

Reputation: 52 587

4Why do you think an answer to the second question can't be A native English speaker? I don't think people would say "He's a native speaker" so often because it doesn't mean anything. All the people in the world are a native speaker. – None – 2016-02-11T17:25:43.233

@Rathony: But people often do say He is a native speaker (that's thousands of them, in Google Books). As a native speaker (of English) myself, I knew perfectly well which of OP's possibilities would be more common before I produced that chart (though I wouldn't have been surprised if the extent of the preference had been half or twice what the NGram suggests). But "idiomatically less common" doesn't mean "wrong", and it certainly doesn't mean *doesn't mean anything*.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2016-02-11T17:35:49.900

English is not the only language in the word. Of course, people use native speaker in the context of English more often than French or German. But it doesn't mean anything. He is a native speaker could be used as often when people talk about French or German. I have not reviewed those hits, but I doubt it is limited to English. – None – 2016-02-11T17:38:49.770

2@Rathony: I think we've been here before. You're trying to impose logic on the usage of English to a degree that many if not most native speakers are either unwilling or unable to fall in line with. Perhaps this is an almost inevitable consequence of the fact that you're much involved in trying to teach English. So obviously you want to be able to say *This is how it works*, whereas the reality is often considerably more complex / messy (in practice there are always many exceptions, and areas where "preferred usages" are ill-defined). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2016-02-11T18:19:55.930

The phrase native speaker is in English. Not in French nor German. How can you compare the phrase with a phrase in French or German on Google? I am really at a loss here. Have you tried the same phrase in German or French on Google? Now, the important question is whether a native speaker is broadly used compound noun or not. I don't think so. He is a native speaker is heavily context-dependent and you can't generalize it. – None – 2016-02-11T18:32:05.283

@Rathony: I don't know German well enough to say, but so far as I'm aware, the French equivalent locuteur natif is used in much the same way as the English term (it won't always mean a native Francophone, any more than our one always means a native Anglophone; as ever, context is everything). I'm not trying to say either term always and only refers to a native speaker of any specific language, but it's a well-established "compound noun" regardless of its "semantic plasticity". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2016-02-11T18:41:17.737

10I completely disagree with this. An English native speaker is someone from England, and does not state which language he's a native speaker of. Consider: " I know an Australian. He's a native speaker of English." That makes him an Australian native English speaker. Realizing that, if you say, Australian native speaker, it is really unclear what you mean! The correct answer to "He's a native speaker. What kind?" is "A native English speake." or "A native speaker of English. – ErikE – 2016-02-11T19:48:20.783

3I agree with @ErikE: unless there were some contect to suggest otherwise, I would understand "English native speaker" to be someone from England who is a native speaker (of some language, most likely English), whereas a "native English speaker" would most likely be a native speaker of English, or (less likely but also possible) a native English person who happens to speak (some language). – psmears – 2016-02-11T19:54:27.870

@psmears P.S. I just realized that "Australian English native speaker" is even more perplexing! – ErikE – 2016-02-11T19:56:14.913

@ErikE: Not necessarily enough to be "statistically significant", but as I expected, on the battlefield of Google Books, native Australian English speaker (10 hits) outguns Australian English native speaker (2 hits). The hands-down winner is Australian native English speaker (14,500 hits).

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2016-02-11T21:08:13.547

3You might want to add "native speaker of English" to the ngram. It's clearly higher than the alternatives. – CodesInChaos – 2016-02-11T23:24:26.520

A slight nitpick here: I was born and brought up in England, and am a native speaker of English. However, my mother tongue is Gujarati. There's a subtle distinction between the two terms. – Racheet – 2016-02-12T12:00:07.803

1So someone who was born in France, has an Astrailian Pass and was raised to natively speak the English Language could be an French Australian native English speaker :-) – Falco – 2016-02-12T12:54:38.100


I think the first sentence involves a lexical ambiguity due to the fact that the word "English" can mean (at least) two very different things:

  1. (noun) A language spoken in the UK, the United States, India, etc. e.g. I speak English.

  2. (adjective) Specifying that someone or something is from England. e.g. I am an English person.

"He is an English native speaker"

This is ambiguous. It could mean "He is a person who speaks the English language natively," or it could mean "He is an English person who speaks an unspecified language natively."

Here is an illustrative related sentence:

He is an American native speaker; he is not an English native speaker.

This sentence happens to describe me; I am not English, but I am a native speaker (of some unspecified language). The lexical ambiguity is avoided in the above American part because there is no American language.

"He is a native English speaker".

This provides no ambiguity. "English speaker" can only refer to the language, and not the nationality. (Now technically, I suppose this could also mean "He is a native, who is from England, who speaks about unspecified things from time to time," but using "English speaker" in such a way is quite odd. I think that kind of possible meaning would only occur to an AI attempting to parse natural language, or something strange like that.)

I think the ambiguity in the first usage is why @FumbleFingers ' n-gram plot favors this latter construction. There are many Scottish native English speakers, and Indian native English speakers, etc.


Posted 2016-02-11T16:49:32.110

Reputation: 91

1I don't think there's really any reason to parse either one one way or another. Both would be ambiguous were it not for conventional usage and context: "Jim's an English speaker, but he's foreign. Abu's a native English speaker. He'll be able to help with local customs." Abu's native language is not English, but he's a native of the country they are in, and speaks English. – DCShannon – 2016-02-12T06:05:26.890

1Certainly. I agree that either way is correct, and one can think of lexical ambiguities for both usages, especially in particular contexts, as your example shows. However, the first usage has two obvious ambiguities to my ear, while the second usage has only a single obvious meaning to me. Other people may have different "gut" reactions than I; I only mention it because @FumbleFingers showed a great n-gram but (at the time) wasn't sure why one construction seemed preferred. I completely agree that my gut reaction may not coincide with other people's gut reactions. – ngb – 2016-02-12T16:05:17.613


As others have posted, the correct answer is a native English speaker, not the inversion an English native speaker.

This is because you're not listing two adjectives that describe speaker, you're actually describing an English speaker who is also native.

[native [English speaker]]

Others have brought up the idea of an English/English(man) distinction. I would have to encounter a very twisted sentence in order to think of this noun phrase ever meaning a person from England who is a native speaker of a language that is not English.

Azor Ahai -- he him

Posted 2016-02-11T16:49:32.110

Reputation: 654


Lets see... how to remember this...

1) What are you looking for?

a speaker of English

What about the speaker of English?

a speaker of English who is native

search results will give you native English speaker

2) What are you looking for?

English speaker

search results will lead you to this interesting article:
Why native English speakers fail to be understood in English

But to continue, What kind of English speaker?

native English speaker

search results will get you back to native speaker of English

3) What are you looking for?

English native speaker

search results will get you a definition for native speaker which would indicate that English native speaker is someone who is English and a native speaker of something.

So it would seem native English speaker is more useful than English native speaker since in order of importance being English speaking is more important than being a native speaker of any language which is probably the case because you're interested in English, and then within the group of English speakers the native ones are the ones you are interested in

By pure definition, a native English speaker could be someone who grew up in a nonEnglish speaking country but, for example, went to English speaking schools and had English speaking parents and primarily used English to communicate (think: foreign posted military family)


Posted 2016-02-11T16:49:32.110

Reputation: 63 575

2I happen to agree with you that "English native speaker" is either non-idiomatic or flat-out incorrect, but I think your answer could be improved with some explanation of why you've chosen these answers, and why other answers aren't as good, rather than just answering questions your own particular way. – ErikE – 2016-02-11T19:46:34.323

2This answer is... hard to read. I don't really follow what you're doing here. – DCShannon – 2016-02-12T06:01:10.060

Arbitrarily bolding parts of your answer makes it difficult to follow what you're saying. Bolding can be an effective way of summarizing (I use it in e-mails all the time) but you have to make sure that folks can read just the bold parts and still be able to understand your point. Otherwise there's a lot of backtracking to try to figure out why "foreign posted military family" was so important, then confusion when it turns out it wasn't important at all compared to the rest of the sentence. It's Almost As Bad as the Arbitrary Capitalization marketing folks adore. – ColleenV – 2016-02-16T18:55:41.663


I would probably rephrase it to something like "English is his primary language". In a different context, we could use "can you find someone who speaks English as a primary language?" It's somewhat longer than "can you find a native English speaker?" but avoids the ambiguity.

I really don't think anyone would misunderstand either of your examples unless they were being deliberately obtuse, but neither seems very natural to me, despite English being my primary language. I can just imagine a case where I'm in France looking for a native who speaks any English at all, and someone thinks I'm looking for someone who primarily speaks English. But it seems likely the context would make my intent clear even in a contrived situation like this.


Posted 2016-02-11T16:49:32.110

Reputation: 292

If both of them sounds to you naturally does it say that you used to hear them equally? – Judicious Allure – 2016-02-20T00:56:02.177


As mentioned by FumbleFingers, a native English speaker is much more common than an English native speaker. As many point out, it may also a bit more clear.

That being said, should we say: a native English speaker or a native speaker of English? I keep thinking there's something a little odd about the former.

As I understand it, people use either expression to highlight the fact that English is someone's native language, as opposed to a language acquired later in life.

That's why saying a native English speaker still seems slightly off to me. It seems to me we'd have to stress the word native to make our point and convey what we really mean. But even then, it's still not perfectly clear: are we talking about the person's background and nationality or about the English language? English is a confusing word in that matter (especially regarding the UK and nationalities.)

So saying a native speaker of English sounds a lot clearer to me. It states clearly, unambiguously, that we're interested in what the person's native language is.

Fabien Snauwaert

Posted 2016-02-11T16:49:32.110

Reputation: 113


This is a question about which compound noun is better when combined together between native speaker and English speaker.

People are all native speakers of one specific language (sometimes two depending on the country where they live), but English speaker is more specific than native speaker as it means only those who speak English.

Therefore, it is more idiomatic for the adjective native to modify English speaker than the other way around. The linked Ngram Viewer clearly favors native English speaker.

It doesn't necessarily mean that "English native speaker" wouldn't make any sense. It makes sense, but less idiomatic than "native English speaker".


Posted 2016-02-11T16:49:32.110


3I think English native speaker make sense but doesn't mean what you're suggesting in your last paragraph. To me, that is someone from England and does not state which language he's a native speaker of. Consider: " I know an Australian. He's a native speaker of English." That makes him an Australian native English speaker. Realizing that, if you say, Australian native speaker, it is really unclear what you mean! The correct answer to "He's a native speaker. What kind?" is "A native English speaker" or "A native speaker of English. – ErikE – 2016-02-11T19:48:10.580