Posted by: patenttranslator | May 15, 2014

How Many Tests of Nativeness in a Language Are There?

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.


  1. The counting thing is such an interesting concept! I cannot count in English without getting tied up in knots. I used to think that your “true” native tongue determines what language you count in (but as you said, what does “native” even mean), but I have met people who count in a different language. Case in point: several years ago I met a Lebanese lady whose native tongue was, presumably, Arabic, she’d lived in the States for decades (perfect English), and yet she counted in French. Anything to do with numbers, she only ever did in French. When I asked her, she explained that she was taught math in French–so, I think that the language of instruction (or the language of first exposure to a certain concept) plays a significant role.


  2. “I think that the language of instruction (or the language of first exposure to a certain concept).”

    I agree. Especially the idea of first exposure to a certain concept in a certain language is interesting and unexplored, I think.

    As I told you once, already, I think, when I am looking at a menu in a restaurant, I may be looking for “palacinky”, or “crepe” first, and it takes me forever to remember that what I want to order is called “pancakes” in this restaurant, while the waitress is waiting impatiently.


  3. You mean Dr Dolittle.

    BTW I’m one of those ex-patriots who changed native languages, but even though I think and dream and count and talk to my family in Hebrew, I haven’t given up being a native English speaker! I never know what language to tick in the “native language” boxes on translation agency websites, those you hate. Maybe this is only relevant for English?


    • Jane Goodall is not a fiction like Dr. Dolittle.

      “I never know what language to tick in the “native language” boxes on translation agency websites, those you hate. Maybe this is only relevant for English?”

      It may be hard to pin down what your native language is.

      Kind of like your race, in many cases it may depend on what you identify with most.


  4. Thank you very much for your insightful and witty blog. It has really helped me prepare for a possible career in freelance translation!

    I think in English for the most part; except when I’m thinking about things specifically pertaining to my current living environment, Norway.

    After 5 years in Japan, exactly 1 year after returning to Norway, I still curse in Japanese. If I hit my knee I go “itetetetete… k**o, nan da kore”, etc.
    If I exert myself the slightest physically, I say ‘yoisho’ or variants thereof. However, when I get furious because of something non-physical, I tend to curse in English, or perhaps Norwegian some of the time. Indeed, what’s ‘normal’?

    Whenever I go downtown I lament the lack of karaoke places…
    I’d be very interested in reading you blog more on the similarities and differences between your current country and Germany and Japan where you have also lived. Though perhaps that’s a bit harder to write several years down the line? I know for myself that, after a single year my experience in Japan is starting to seem more and more distant.

    For some years of my life, I used my own language so seldom, that at times I’d make fundamental Norwegian mistakes by transferring English-only idioms and saying them literally in Norwegian. On a few occasions I I’ve become a laughing stock for saying weird things. Do you experience this too?


  5. After 5 years in Japan, exactly 1 year after returning to Norway, I still curse in Japanese. If I hit my knee I go “itetetetete… k**o, nan da kore”, etc.
    If I exert myself the slightest physically, I say ‘yoisho’ or variants thereof.

    I say “yo-issho” sometime too, usually half mockingly because it is such a funny word that does not really have a counterpart in other languages.

    And I caught myself a few times when I realized that when I speak another language, I am basically translating into that language English idioms.

    I have over 430 post on my silly blog, so hopefully you will find something in there about the differences between countries that will be of interest for you.

    Maybe you will enjoy this post:


  6. The British interpreter Amanda Galsworthy had a diplomat father who brought up each of his children using a different language: Spanish, German, French in the case of Amanda. On one occasion he woke her up in the middle of night shouting “Fire, Fire” just to see which language she would react in. She spontaneously spoke to him in French, so he knew that his experiment was working.


  7. “On one occasion he woke her up in the middle of night shouting “Fire, Fire” just to see which language she would react in.”

    What a brutal thing to do to one’s own daughter.

    If I did that to my wife to see whether she reacts in Japanese or English, she would kill me …. figuratively speaking, of course.


  8. Not realizing which language you’re speaking: I have that a lot when Dutch friends visit and I have to switch constantly between Dutch and English. I’ll find that the waiter in a restaurant looks at me funny and then I realize I was trying to order in Dutch.
    Right now I’m going through an English translation of one of my favorite novels (The Assault, by Harry Mulisch) to correct significant mistakes, so I read double-fisted, the English version in one hand and the Dutch version in the other. I try really hard to read a portion in the Dutch version first, and then compare the English version, but I keep getting confused. I find that I have to take a moment when I move to one of the books and consciously determine which language it is that I’m reading. Weird!


  9. I find it very confusing when I try to follow what is being said at the same time in two languages. For example when I watch TV in French and something that an English speaker is saying is being translated into French, I usually lose a part of the conversation when I start following the English speaker.


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