Asian language learners not going native


Western learners of Asian languages often resist speaking as native speakers do. For example, they might deliberately choose different address terms, or flout the norms for when and how to apologise, or thank, or complain. They do so because their self-identity within their second-language culture – such as strongly identifying as an outsider – makes those norms seem irrelevant or distasteful to them. As a result, individual learners vary wildly in their progress when it comes to this dimension of the language. In fact, as some of them spend longer in the country, the less they actually sound like native speakers.

Dr Tim Hassall
An interesting proposition. Although I usually try to blend in as best I can by using Indonesian in the same way that I observe it being used here (currently Bandung), there are somethings that I can't bring myself around to. Many of my peers use "gua" as a personal pronoun, a kind of softened version of Jakarta's "gue", but I seem to be stuck with aku. Perhaps this is because I have spent more time overall in Yogyakarta, where "gue" is still an outsider term? Other words I struggle to adopt are those English words now commonly in use - "serious?" to express disbelief, "sori" by way of apology or "bro" as a term of endearment. Am I worried I will sound less "native" or more?
Elly 2 years 11 months ago
There's often a lot of variety in a language. In Hanoi, I sound like a native, but they pick me as a "Hanoian" in Ho Chi Minh City. In Hue, I can't understand what they are saying. When I was speaking Indonesian I was accused (in Yogya) of having learnt Indonesian at the ANU. Why? My Indonesian was "too perfect", like the national broadcaster RRI :-)
Rob Hurle 2 years 11 months ago
Rob Hurle's comment resonates with me. In the early 70s, I was posted to Malaysia after studying Bahasa Indonesia at the RAAF School of Languages. In the kampungs of Kelantan my hosts thought that I worked for Radio Malaysia, while in Perak and Kedah they thought that I must have lived in Johore. They had not heard of the ANU! And in Indonesia, of course, everyone still thinks that I am "orang Belanda". You just can't win! But it does not matter if you cannot speak Bahasa like a native - almost no else does.
Allan Behm 2 years 11 months ago
In Japan I was told not to say "Oosutoraria", but just to say "Australia"--otherwise I will sound like another boring Japanese. As for Chinese, most Chinese people speak a local variety of standard Chinese, but this makes no sense for an Australian. So I try to speak Beijing Chinese--that makes sense, for an Australian. As for Korean, I don't speak it. But if I did I would resist the sole use of 'Hanguk-o' to mean 'Korean language'. There are two words for the Korean language, and I don't think Korean language teachers in Australia should be telling students to pick sides. We Australians should be helping the Koreans to sort out their problems, not adding to them!
Robert Crouch 2 years 11 months ago
My situation is different but perhaps relevant. I'm an Asian born and raised in a Western country currently studying another Asian country's language. East Asians have similar physical features. I look like a local, but I am not. Whenever I speak the learned language, locals expect me to talk like a native because I look the part. They are surprised that my accent is different, and then I tell them that I am a visitor. I make an effort to not speak like a local on purpose because I don't want to pretend to be one. I want the locals to know that I'm from a different country and culture, so that they may adjust their expectations accordingly. That way, I may be excused from not knowing obscure social nuances, or acting more liberal than their conservative social norms. I have not really thought about whether this is detrimental to my language studies. It does seem like a convenient excuse in case I commit faux pas. However, it's also about being labeled with my real ethnicity/nationality in the midst of this foreign country where everyone looks just like me. I want to remain as "myself" and retain my identity.
Annie 2 years 11 months ago
I can understand completely why many learners of a second (doesn't have to be Asian) language have difficulties speaking like 'natives'. It's a merely a subconscious act of imposing first language (L1) phonemic, syntactic and pragmatic understanding onto a second language (L2). The imposition of these non-native traits can be mitigated or even abolished in time. Anyone who has studied contact linguistics with Dr Jennifer Hendriks would be familiar with Frans van Coetsem's theory. What I find hard to accept is language learners choosing to not go native. Fine, I accept that shaking your L1 accent is very hard for most people, and in most cases, the accent you impose on your L2 is not going to affect intelligibility a great deal. When, however, we insist on seeing and understanding the people and societies around us from an ethnocentric standpoint, that's when things become problematic. I am a Mandarin speaker, and if I had not bothered to understand how the Chinese think (in general), I would have offended many Mandarin (and other dialectal) speakers. For example, our understanding of 'thank you' is not entirely the same pragmatically as the Chinese concept of 'xie xie'. To use 'xie xie' in the same way you would in English could easily cause offence in certain situations. Likewise, the Anglo concept of 'politeness' and what constitutes 'politeness' is not universal (i.e. anglocentric). People might argue then that because we are non-native speakers we don't have any obligation to speak like natives (because it's too hard???). I think it is lazy and disrespectful, not to mention learners are missing out opportunities to learn from other cultures and ways of thinking.
Gareth 2 years 11 months ago
He's got a point there. I've seen some of these characteristics in myself -- a person who takes some pride in Indonesian language fluency. There are moments when it truly is difficult to choose the right form of address and correct level of politesse. I catch myself erring in both directions -- too familiar, and too formal or self-deprecating. Everyone involved in these little "incidents" experiences a moment of slight discomfort, but not so slight that it's indiscernible. It's real. I learned Indonesian at one of the best language academies in the country, and took my studies seriously. I've lived "in-country" for two decades, and speak Indonesian in 80% or more of my daily activities. But the issues Tim raises are still problematic at times. Thinking back over the (excellent) Indonesian language courses I completed, with Tim's observations in mind, I think the language issues he touches on demand more attention in Indonesia language curricula. It would be nice to complete a course of study and have more confidence about terms of address, politesse, and their nuances across a broad range of situations. This might prevent the "outsider syndrome" of adopting one's own idiosyncratic (and probably ineffective) habits of address and politesse . . . out of laziness, or out of obstinance in the act of consciously or subconsciously staking out identity-turf. Anyone agree?
Susi Johnston 2 years 11 months ago
Oh, I forgot to mention. My Yogya friends (mostly artists in their thirties), get a kick out of the way I speak Indonesian. It has nothing to do with forms of address or etiquette/norms. It's just the way I talk, they say. The words I use, and how I string them together. They enjoy it, to the point they imitate it! "Susi Speak" has become a running joke. :) They find it funny, and somehow endearing. I'm told the way I talk is clearer, more consciously-correct (like a talking newspaper), and also with a thick Balinese accent! I guess that must be especially amusing. In Yogya and Jakarta, Balinese accents are considered a bit "kekampungan" (rural, backwoodsy). So here's a foreigner using words and grammar that are more formal and correct than usual, but with a hillybilly accent! It must be really amusing. Perhaps an Australian analog would be someone who talks with a very strong "bush" accent, while using overly-correct school-proper grammar and vocabulary. BTW, my Yogya and Jakarta and Bandung friends are probably right about the Balinese accent. When I phone people in Bali and open a conversation or query, in Indonesian, they often don't respond in Indonesian, they respond in Balinese (a local language that's very distinctly different from Indonesian). My accent must be pretty thickly Balinese for that to happen. I've decided I gotta go to UGM to study Sastra Indonesia seriously, so I can melt off the waxy layers of Balinesian in my speech -- and improve my written and spoken Indonesian in general. After twenty years I'm still not where I would like to be language-wise (). I don't want to "go native," I'd simply like to communicate more effectively.
Susi Johnston 2 years 11 months ago
It is also applicable to English language learners. They go straightforward for formal English, less of colloquial/slang etc. In fact, it is difficult to learn everything of a 2nd language. However, resisting of learning native is not supported by me. People should learn as much as they can, it enriches him/her personally, no harm of knowing of a bit more.
Dr. Nomita Halder 2 years 11 months ago
@ Susi. Hello there. I am a native Indonesian speaker from Jakarta, and I don't know anyone who thinks the regional accents as "kampungan". If anything we find them endearing. The term "kampungan" is often used these days, at least in my (limited) circle of experience, in expressing distaste towards Islamic fundamentalism. This comes from a secular Jakartan perspective btw, just to put it in context. In regards to language fluency and language hierarchy: Please be aware of the "unwritten" rules governing the use of Bahasa Indonesia. The more formal the sociolinguistic environment, the more appropriate it is to use Bahasa Baku, while the more relaxed/informal the situation, the more room there is to employ the informal/colloquial language. As a matter of fact, you don't want to use Bahasa Baku amongst friends - you'll sound stilted and awkward. The grammar (lexis, phonology, morphology and syntax) changes quite considerably between Formal and Colloquial Indonesian. Native speakers have an internal-subconscious mechanism in code switching. Why wouldn't you want to go "native" - I think that unless one goes "native" in L2, one won't be able to communicate effectively 100%.Just think of non-native speakers of English in Australia. For the ones that don't have "native" fluency in English, will they be able to express themselves fully and understand native speakers fully? Can they forge genuine-intimate relationships with native speakers? Will they be competitive in the workforce vis-à-vis the ones who have native fluency? In other words, will they be able to communicate "effectively"?, understanding the subtlety of the speech acts, expressions and conventions? People without native speaker fluency will be limited to certain job paradigms and often feel more comfortable within the community of their own cultures. Go native! :)
zwolf aldarwis 2 years 11 months ago


Share your thoughts

Updated:  11 January, 2015/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team