There are native and non-native speakers on this website. I can identify some native speakers (mostly by certain colloquialisms) and some non-native speakers (by small deviations from idiom and the like); but several non-native speakers have fooled me with their proficiency. Then again, my native language is Dutch (can you tell that it is Dutch and not, say, Spanish?).

So how easy is it for an educated native speaker to identify non-native speakers here, when he is not specifically trying to, but just reading content? And how about when he is trying? I am not asking with any specific purpose in mind—just curiosity. Well, I do have in mind the ongoing anglification of research and teaching at universities all over the world, and how this may harm research and teaching, considering that neither staff nor students will be able to communicate as efficiently as in their native language, not even after several years of practice.

Incidentally, I cannot imagine a foreigner passing for a native speaker of Dutch on a similarly educated (yuck, I am overusing this word) website; I suspect that they shouldn't be too hard to spot in English either. Then again I don't recall meeting any foreigners on "advanced" Dutch websites—or I failed to spot them.

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Feb 25 '11 at 8:57

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Just look at @RegDwight's posts and you'll see how hard it can be. –  Robusto Feb 25 '11 at 2:14
    
@Robusto: I know, I could hardly believe it when I found out! –  Cerberus Feb 25 '11 at 2:18
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It's much easier to spot the furrinnerrs in chat. (Except for - with very rare exceptions - RegDwight.) –  Marthaª Feb 25 '11 at 2:18
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@Cerberus: Your language skills are highly commendable. Generally I would say I notice, but with you and Alex, I would not have done so if it had not been pointed out. –  Orbling Feb 25 '11 at 2:19
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@Martha: Quite easy to spot the Americans too. ;-) –  Orbling Feb 25 '11 at 2:20
    
@Martha: True. There isn't much time for looking things up in chat.... –  Cerberus Feb 25 '11 at 2:20
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I hate to say it, but I'm not sure this is an answerable question for the purposes of EL&U. Might be better suited for Chat (which is quite active these days!). –  Kosmonaut Feb 25 '11 at 2:20
    
@Orbling: Why thanks! I was trying to keep it impersonal, so as not to seem to be fishing for compliments etc. etc. By the way, I always notice some mistakes when I read back my post the day after. –  Cerberus Feb 25 '11 at 2:23
    
@Cerberus: A good linguist always seeks refinement, an endless quest to be sure. –  Orbling Feb 25 '11 at 2:25
    
@Kosmonaut: Yeah I was hoping personal interest would cloud your judgement here. Do you have any suggestion how I could make this a suitable question? I tried to phrase it so that I'd get an answer like "on most sites on science x it is quite easy to spot foreigners" or something. –  Cerberus Feb 25 '11 at 2:26
    
"So how easy is it for an educated native speaker to identify non-native speakers here, when he is not specifically trying to, but just reading content?" Well, if we look at the foregoing quote, the first comma after "here" is troublesome. Maybe the smooth phrasing would be, "When he is just reading content." –  The Raven Feb 25 '11 at 4:16
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I often say that the real compliment for me is if people don't compliment me on my French, because if they compliment me, that means they can tell I'm not native :) –  Benjol Feb 25 '11 at 7:17
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@Benjol, the real compliment is when they try to work out which province you're from. –  Peter Taylor Feb 25 '11 at 7:28
    
@Peter, I have had people ask me if I'm Belgian, or Swiss German :) –  Benjol Feb 25 '11 at 7:30
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@kiamluno, I'm not sure about it. I think the scope extends to any english-speaking community with a reasonable number of educated non-native. –  Eldroß Feb 25 '11 at 9:23

8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

It really depends on how fluent the speaker is. True fluency in a foreign language is extremely difficult to achieve and should not be underestimated. I've discussed this in another context, giving one man's opinion about what a test for genuine fluency would entail.

That said, it is easier to be fooled by someone who has time to compose a written question or answer on this site. That doesn't mean it still isn't hard to "pass" for native fluency, but it's a damn sight easier than writing in chat or submitting to questioning by a cop who just pulled you over for speeding. My feeling is if you wake someone up at 3:00 in the morning and ask them their opinion on the merits of strong drink, it ought to be very easy to weed out the fakes (easier than, say, dodging the fist that may be about to connect with your jaw in that situation).

I see solecisms all the time in the writing of non-native speakers on this site, but I am quite impressed with the mastery of many of them. With one or two exceptions (who will remain unnamed), all the non-native speakers I know of whose gravatars reside on the first rep page here write pretty nearly flawless English. Nevertheless, I will occasionally detect an odd usage or a misapplied idiom, which will lead me to wonder. Mostly I've encountered those only in chat, however, and I've seldom seen any in questions or answers. The clues I'm talking about aren't typos — we all mak those and find them failry easy to detect.

Genuine tip-offs will appear in the odd use of a preposition

He was married with her for 15 years. [He was married to her for 15 years.]

or an infinitive in place of a gerund

The game is all about to hit the ball. [The game is all about hitting the ball.]

or present tense in place of present progressive

I eat now. What do you want? [I'm eating now, what do you want?]

I've made these examples fairly obvious to illustrate my point, but some of the mistakes can be very subtle, and if someone is really capable they can be hard to spot. But even in the best of the best here I will sometimes get a faint tingling as my Spidey sense warns me that someone may not be a native speaker. Oddly, hyper-correct grammar may be another tip-off. There are certain mistakes people make that actually convince me that someone is, in fact, a native speaker. Practically nobody who grew up speaking a European language, one that has clear markers for cases, would ever say "Jennie threw a party for Bill and I." But you can encounter such mistakes every day at any mall in America.

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Thank you for this thourough and amusing answer. I was most interested in your "sniffing" solecisms without actively trying, and you say you do sniff them. I know the temptations of (all too) correct grammar; then again, I struggle with that too in Dutch. About infinitive v. gerund: I often notice native speakers using the infinitive when Fowler wants me to use the gerund; do you suppose that foreigners do it somehow differently? I remember Fowler's speculating that many native speakers wrongly use the infinitive merely because they "fail to think of the alternative". –  Cerberus Feb 25 '11 at 3:14
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Fowler was a bit of a prescriptivist ninny on some points. That which is correct in English practice sometimes differs from that which is correct in theory, and it is very difficult to systematize the deviation. I always got the feeling that Fowler would rather the natural language change to fit the rules than modify the rules to fit the actual language. Treated as opinion (or, perhaps, as an overactive conscience) rather than as holy scripture, though, Modern English Usage can be very helpful. –  bye Feb 25 '11 at 3:58
    
@Stan: Yes he was a prescriptivist in some ways. He rarely proposed things that were counter to everyone's usage, though sometimes his focus group was very narrow. He certainly never intended to describe average usage; he rather sought to improve it, taking his own circles as the example. // My question on infinitives was about whether advanced foreigners used even more questionable infinitives than native speakers, or just in different cases. I mentioned Fowler because apparently there is also an issue about infinitives among native speakers, though he is probably on the extreme side. –  Cerberus Feb 28 '11 at 18:24

I think it probably partly works in the opposite direction. If you assume someone is a native speaker, when you spot something that reads a bit weird, you're likely to think it's a regional difference, a typo, brainfart, or even some construction that you haven't noticed before.

But if you know the person is 'foreign', you're more likely to attribute the same quirks to their foreignness.

That said, as others have hinted, even in errors, foreign speakers are likely to make different ones. I know that my French writing is pretty good compared to a lot of native French speakers, but they would never (or very rarely) get their genders mixed up.

(There are other incredibly good ESL users on StackExchange: VonC, badp & balpha, to name but a few)

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In my younger days, I could occasionally be found reading fan fiction (Star Wars, if you must know), and I saw things done to language that I still shudder to think of. Mangled idioms, atrocious-to-nonexistent grammar, mixed metaphors, totally inappropriate word choices, eggcorns out the wazoo... and all by people who had never heard a language other than English.

In short, no, I don't think it's necessarily possible to tell whether someone is a native speaker of English based on how they write when they're paying attention. In a more hurried/informal environment like chat, there's a much better chance of catching a slip-up, but even then, there's no guarantee that that incorrect preposition is proof of non-native speech rather than mental revisions outrunning typing ability.

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It is always easy to spot the non-native speaker, as a general rule, because he or she will eventually say something that a native speaker would never say. It isn't easy to give an example because it could be a case of missing the idiom, or violating a basic grammar rule.

A case cited above:

I'm always getting them confused.

That's the remnant of the dative case in English. A non-native speaker would be challenged to get that right. But the point is, the non-native speaker has to get everything right, without fail, as one serious error gives the game away.

This discussion does remind me of an observation made during the Cold War, when there was much concern about Soviet infiltrators, who were generally fluent in English thanks to their extensive study and training. The tip-off in their case was that their English was too perfect. They failed to make the kind of routine errors to which the native speaker is often victim.

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Ah, I have heard that spy anecdote too! In Dutch, we had aspiring members of the resistance pronounce "Scheveningen" to prove that they weren't German. The dative case, you say? How would you analyse "I'm always getting them confused" then? Interesting. –  Cerberus Feb 25 '11 at 3:34
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It's older than that. Around 1300 BC, Gileadites would make strangers suspected of being enemy Ephraimites say the word shibboleth (meaning "ear of corn"). If you pronounced it sibboleth, it was on. My point, and I do have on, is that it is very, very difficult to pass for a native when speaking. It's somewhat easier when writing. –  Malvolio Feb 25 '11 at 6:20
    
@Malvolio: I know! And the Egyptians no doubt used shibboleths too avant la lettre. –  Cerberus Feb 28 '11 at 18:26

To me, the fluent non-native speakers (well, writers) here, such as yourself, do not stand out as such. In reading a post such as yours, it would not pop out at me that the writer was not a native speaker. When attention is drawn to that aspect of the posting, I would say I that I could not tell one way or the other, although I might choose to go with non-native for a post such as yours. The only reason I have is that there is something slightly formal about the phrasing that suggests it to me. I would never have a clue about the native language of the writer of a post like yours.

(I am not saying I don't notice many non-native writers on this site; I notice hordes of them, just not the ones that are written at the level of this question.)

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Actually, it really does depend on the skill the person has with the English language. I have one Livejournal friend whose English is very, very good, but she will often use some terms that I've never seen any native speaker (foreign or abroad - remember that there's a lot of regional variation in English) use. This also applies to other regional variations. For example, try reading theregister.co.uk, and you will find a good many terms used only in the UK. The same applies to The Guardian, which uses far more formal language, but will still use many terms that are not used anywhere else.

But more specifically in your post, I can't actually find anything unusual about your English, in spite of the fact that I was intentionally looking for errors. Coincidentally, I'm Canadian, and my primary language is English.

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No living native or foreigner is 100% fluent in a language as large as English. There are shades of grey, and both natives and foreigners learn (if they want to) English in an incremental fashion, with natives having a head start.

Some "foreigners" may have lived in US for 10 years, or have English-speaking parents, or went to an English high school, and or listen to country music all day long and/or watch American Sit Coms all day long. Therefore there is not a clear divide between educated natives and educated foreigners. Also consider the fact that different people put on different number of miles of English text read/written per year due to work or hobbies. This relative rate of absorbing new material can have a large net effect over several years.


It is not all-or-nothing when it comes to fluency in a language. How about those who have been living in US for X years since they were Y years old (substitute any combination of X and Y here). I am not a native speaker, but I think I have developed an intuition for simple things. Yes, on occasion I screw up because I learned to say something in another language first, and have not learned the way to say it in English yet. With enough exposure this problem goes away. Another giveaway for a foreigner might be average length of sentences. Some languages encourage sentences that span 3 paragraphs; English does not. A foreign speaker might use more punctuation, but this is not a sure sign.

I will still lose to a smart native speaker if we were both to take a GRE verbal exam. However, I would say that I confuse than / then, and there / their, your and you are less frequently than my comparable native peers - e.g. educated non-English majors and non-writers. I am paranoid about making mistakes, plus these phrases translate very differently, plus I am used to phonetic spelling, plus contractions such as they're you've, you're look retarded to me. For instance, "you're" is only ONE! character shorter than "you are", and only because one has not (not one'snt :)) preserved a space.

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One cannot because writing in in incorrect language is just author's peculiarity of style and individuality

Jose' Saramago, the well-kown Portuguese writer-communist, wrote pages after pages in one string without any punctuation marks. He received the Nobel Prize for his literature works in such a style.

One can aslo, for example, read the comment to the text of "Notre-Dame de Paris" musicle song:

"Que de fautes d'orthographe dans ces paroles, il est temps que le temps des cathédrales revienne..."

It is impossible to write in "vivant" language in completely correct, according to all rules, language.

I daresay know my native language but I rarely write correctly and do it on a plethora of reasons For example, my investor writes in incorrect language, if I respond him correctly, it will be rudeness and direct insult.

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It is oft said that in order to break the rules you must know them first. There is a huge difference between breaking the (so-called) rules to achieve a specific effect, and breaking them through not being fully aware of them: the former can be extremely (Nobel-prize-winningly) effective; the latter at best distracts the reader and makes the meaning harder to follow, and at worst changes the meaning from what was intended, or gives a poor impression of the writer's intelligence/education. People will (rightly) make allowances for non-native speakers, but knowing the rules will always impress! –  psmears Mar 1 '11 at 19:13
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Three things in this post that give you away as a non-native speaker of English: is just author's peculiarity (dropping "the" before "author"), wrote pages after pages (the idiomatic expression is "page after page", no plural), and do it on a plethora of reasons (the correct preposition is "for", not "on"). Any one individually could be forgiven as a slip of the fingers, but the ongoing pattern of non-idiomatic usage is a clear giveaway. –  Hellion Mar 2 '11 at 6:38
    
There's a difference between 'correct' language, whatever that may be , and language that marks you as a non-native. This is what the question's about. –  TimLymington May 16 '11 at 22:08

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