Is the same language different for natives and non-natives?

Easterner   Thursday, August 05, 2004, 15:40 GMT
I have been wondering if you, being a non-native, can use the same variety of a language as a person who has spoken it from birth. What I mean is when you start learning a language outside the native community, you meet a different language variety than the one native speakers use in everyday communication. It is usually a more educated and formal style, therefore chances are you will have a different set of vocabulary than that of a native speaker.

Just an example: a non-native speaker of English learns the word "tolerate" first, and then learns it can also be said as "put up with", whereas a native child asks his father what "tolerate" means and learns that it is the same as "to put up with". Also, native speakers tend to use slang a lot more than non-natives. Therefore, even if of course you understand a person speaking a foreign language very well,when it comes to active use you don't use quite the same language as far as vocabulary goes.

I'd welcome any arguments for or against.
Dulcinea del Toboso   Friday, August 06, 2004, 01:34 GMT
This is a great question.

Where I think the difference will be is in the very subtle shades of meaning between words that might seem interchangeable. A native will have a better grasp of when one word will be more appropriate than another because the native will have so much more experience with the contexts in which those words have been used.
CalifJim   Friday, August 06, 2004, 04:59 GMT

You are absolutely right. You give some good examples, as well. To speak like a native (in terms of vocabulary) you have to live among the natives for quite a while. One alternative is to supplement your "book learning" of language with some additional materials - books, tapes, CD's, videos - which open up the world of the living language for you. An extended stay in the target country is also helpful if you can afford it.

Another alternative is to demand better language courses from the academic community - courses which touch on the very ideas you've spoken of here. This is difficult. The academic world is very conservative and moves quite slowly. They are much more geared to producing students who can pass the various tests for entry into universities or certain careers. I think the tests are slanted toward the knowledge of grammar rules and the vocabulary of universities rather than toward everyday language. Since most of the testing is written, using the spoken language in practical situations is not often the first priority. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Sanja   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 15:45 GMT
For me it's logical that a native speaker has a better grasp of his language than a non-native speaker. I can never be as good in English as I am in my native language. You have to live in the certain country since the childhood and speak the language for all of your life to learn to speak it as perfectly as your native language.
When it comes to differences between native and non-native speakers, I have a question about writing. I have noticed that most non-native English speakers write much better English than the native speakers, most of whom can't spell to save their lives... LOL. What is it all about? Is education generally better in non-English speaking countries or is it something else? Because many native English speakers have pretty bad language skills in general, including punctuation etc., not only spelling and grammar, while most foreigners seem to use them correctly, whether they write in English or in their native language. I'm very interested to find out why that is.
Easterner   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 18:25 GMT

I have also noticed that native speakers seem to be worse in writing than non-natives. I think this is partly because they have not learnt it in the same way as non-native speakers. As a non-native you usually encounter a foreign language in writing first, therefore you are more aware of how it should be written, and on the whole you learn a language more consciously. Whereas a native speaker principally uses the language in speaking, and (as far as English is concerned) sometimes they are not even sure how to spell certain words, because of the many exceptions. However in chats or forums, they seem to leave out "redundant" letters deliberately (for example "you are" becomes "ur", and "night" becomes "nite", etc.). This is not because they don't know how to spell the words, but because they want to simplify the spelling (actually there is some rule in this type of spelling).

As to the quality of education, I don't have first-hand experience for English-speaking countries, but I can imagine that in schools where education is conducted in English, they don't learn spelling rules so meticulously as you do as a non-native speaker. They mostly learn it spontaneously from books, newspapers or other written material. And I can imagine that there are people who hardly ever meet written texts (not only in English-speaking countries...). Of course this only applies to people who have no higher education.

On the other hand, I also agree with Jim that everyday spoken language is underrepresented in English courses. I have been in contact with English for almost twenty-five years but sometimes I still have to be very attentive to figure out what is said in some American films (this may be partly because I am more used to the British variety). So one way of evening out this discrepancy is to pair up with native speakers to teach them spelling and in turn they could teach you the spoken language :-).
Ailian   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 19:26 GMT
In my experience, it wasn't spelling that students did not study but grammar (although some of my former teachers have complained that with the advent of spell check and word processors, students no longer feel the need to worry about proper spelling as the computer will fix it for them). When I was a student, I had to study both as our local dialect's grammar is quite different from standard English's grammar, but as a university student I learnt that this was often not the case. All entering students in both universities that I attended were forced to take "writing" courses (as a transfer, I had to take them twice! disgusting, considering their uninspired topics) which were really courses on forming coherent, grammatical sentences, paragraphs, essays, and papers (yet still rarely, to my chagrin as we often had to peer edit essays, were the topics of grammatically acceptable approached outside of a short quiz taken the first session).

Personally, I think that one becomes a better judge of these sorts of things (spelling, grammaticality, style, good structure and "flow" [for lack of a better word], etc.) by being a good reader. As one reads more, one learns inadvertently what makes a good sentence, a good paragraph, etc. and one learns to recognize good spelling. Still, I remember a conversation arising on an TEFL mailing list to which I once subscribed in which a former copy editor complained that magazines often "dumbed down" the English language, writing in an oft ungrammatical, conversational style that she found repugnant. I can't help but agree in part as it is these sorts of popular media that the Everyman is reading and thus learning as acceptable in writing. But perhaps I'm just a hopeless elitist when it comes to these things. ;)

(Of course, I'm using "ungrammatical" and "grammatical" to mean "stylistically acceptable in writing" and not "grammatical" in the linguistic sense.)
Easterner   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 09:46 GMT
As a matter of fact I encountered the problem of different varieties used by natives and non-natives not so much with English but with French. I simply can't make myself sound French enough, although of course I can make myself understood with French people. I also think that in French there are more differences between the written and the spoken variety of the language than in English (they even have a verb tense, Passé Simple, which as I know they use exclusively in literary or formal style, and in speech they use Passé Composé, e.g. "il vint" as opposed to "il est venu"). I can make myself sound French in speaking, but it's nearly impossible for me to use the same style in writing, however much I read in that language.

Another interesting phenomenon: I often watch the French channel TV5, where French movies are subtitled in French, but the subtitles sometimes differ from what is spoken, though the content is the same. Can any of the French people in this forum tell me whether those subtitles are intended for language learners or for hard-of-hearing or deaf people, and what's the reason for the differences?
nic   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 10:06 GMT

I think it's for non hearing people, on public channels there's nothing for these kind of people. I noticed the same differences on english spoken movie with french subtitles. You can notice the same with anglophones movie which are trnaslated into french titles absolutly different.
Example : looking for Nemo = Nemo (french title), that's the last example i noticed.

Why? Because sometimes the english meaning cannot work the same into french meaning so cannot be understanded by french telespectators.

Maybe, there's another reason, subtitles must work with other francophones belgians, swiss, luxembourgeois, quebec, aostians...
nic   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 10:11 GMT
Example, numbers are not said on the same way by french from flanders and belgians and south french

north franch (flanders) and belgian say septante for seventeen, the others say soixante-dix.

Another example with Quebec, se piquer une buche (if i remember well) means having a drink with someone, if you write a subtitle like that with french telespeactators it won't work or they will think faire une sieste, having a sleep.

Subtitles must be i guess formal to be understandable by everyone.
Easterner   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 10:22 GMT

Thank you for the information. Actually I think the French way of saying numbers from sixty to ninety-nine is rather unique, I haven't encountered that in any other language. Is it of Celtic origin? And do they say "quatre-vingt" for "eighty" in Belgium, too?
Easterner   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 10:24 GMT
Oops, I must make a correction. Actually there is something similar to "quatre-vingt" in English: "eighty" can also be "fourscore", the "score" here meaning an unit of twenty items.
nic   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 10:44 GMT

Italian do the same vinte uno for vingt et un, quatro mille for quatre mille, cinque mille for cinq mille (sorry for my italian orthograph).

For the French flanders and belgians, i think it's because of Napoleon who tried to change french numbers but it didn't work with the french from the south part + bretons and others who eben did not speak french at this time, that's curious because he was from the south (Corsica).