Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1842.
Most people don’t understand what the concept of being native in a language really means. I don’t really understand it either, although this is something that I have been thinking about for several decades now.
People who speak only one language are clearly native in that language. But as Goethe put it, they may not know it very well. I think that what he meant was that if you are for example a native English speaker and you have never studied Latin, French, or German, preferably all of these languages, you don’t really understand how your language works, at least not to the degree that native or even non-native speakers of English who know these languages at least to some extent understand your language.
At any given moment, there are about 30 million refugees on this planet, people who have been displaced from their country of origin, who may never return to their country of origin and who may eventually start speaking a different language even among themselves and to their children.
Although it is difficult to count them, there are more than 7 million American ex-pats living in many countries. Some of them simply stick to English, but many of whom will also eventually start speaking another language, and I met quite a few who spoke another language very well.
Nativeness is not always a static and permanent characteristic of a person that simply depends on the country of your birth and the language of your mother and father. It also depends for example on the language of instruction in your school and many other factors.
It even depends on the language of your babysitters and your grandparents. When one of my sons was very small, he understood Chinese because he spent many days in the home of his Chinese babysitter on California Street in San Francisco where everybody spoke Chinese.
I had a childhood friend who every year learned German during the summer months because his grandmother who lived in Český Krumlov spoke only German, while the rest of the year he spoke Czech again.
It is much easier for children to learn a foreign language because children don’t really make the distinction between nativeness and non-nativeness in a language – it is basically all one language to them up until they reach puberty. But it is just as easy for them to forget a language once they don’t need it anymore.
People who have lived for many decades in countries where they are surrounded every day by another language typically start losing their original nativeness in their first language as they start acquiring a new language.
There are several simple tests of nativeness that one can think of. The language in which we think is an obvious test of nativeness. I noticed that when I lived in Germany, after about a year I started to think in German, and when I lived in Japan, after about a year I started to think in Japanese because I worked in a Japanese company and lived in an environment where most people spoke only Japanese.
The problem is, we don’t necessarily use our language for thinking, although the language that we use for speaking is obviously a part of our thinking.
There are also other simple tests of nativeness, such as the language in which we count things. Many people who mostly speak an acquired and originally non-native language often count or mentally identify the names of months or days in the week in the language that was originally their first language although otherwise they may not be able to use that language at all.
Another test of nativeness is the language in which we swear – well, those of us who swear out loud, for example when we accidently drop something.
I swear in English, have been for decades now, although my wife has been begging me for the last three decades to make me swear in another language, preferably Czech because she does not understand it. But I can’t help it: even when I am back in Prague again, I swear in English and say “excuse me” if I accidently bump into somebody in the metro.
Because my wife is Japanese, we speak a funny mixture of English and Japanese at home. For example, some of our sentences may be in English, and some in Japanese, or we can switch between the two languages even within the same sentence. And some things we say in Japanese, and some things in English. Or one of us is speaking one language, and the other one responds in another, possibly without even realizing it.
Whenever my wife starts criticizing our neighbors, she always does it in Japanese so that they could not hear her, although how could they hear what we are saying inside our house, unless they work for the NSA and planted bugs in our house (always a possibility in this day an age)? But the nice thing about this arrangement is that we can say whatever we want about anything and anybody for example even on our porch or while walking the dog because nobody in our neighborhood understands Japanese (at least I hope so)!
Things having to do for example with food are also usually discussed in Japanese in our house, especially when we talk about Japanese food, while we generally use English, or a mixture of English and Japanese, for just about everything else.
Yet another test of nativeness would be the language of our dreams. Some people believe that once we start dreaming in another language, we are beginning to become native or close to native in another language. But I am not sure that this is true because, again, we don’t really dream in a language. Although language is sometime a part of our dream, we mostly need a language only when we are speaking to somebody in our dream.
Since we don’t necessarily need a language for our thoughts, or our dreams, the wordless language of our thoughts and our dreams is perhaps the only native language that all people share, regardless of their first or native language.
Incidentally, this is also the language that we share with animals. Anybody who has been watching a dog sleeping knows that dogs have dreams, and sometime we can even tell what the dream is about, such as when the dog is chasing a rabbit.
Whenever we say to our gentle pit bull Lucy (in English):”Lucy, bring your toy”, Lucy happily runs to wherever her red rubber toy is hiding and brings it to us to demonstrate how fluent, or perhaps even native or close to native, she is in our language.
I believe that dogs and monkeys are the only animals who can pass this particular test of understanding the strange languages that humans speak, while humans are generally unable to understand the languages that animals use to speak to each other at all, unless they are a famous primatologist by the name of Jane Goodall.