Are ‘native’ English speakers always best qualified to proofread or edit the English language?

A common mistake some people make when asking people to edit or proofread their essays, poems or translations etc. is to assume that because someone is a native English speaker (or English is their mother tongue) they have an excellent knowledge and understanding of English grammar and language. Yet, this could not be further from the truth. Many students of English as a Foreign Language have a better understanding of English grammar than native speakers because they had to study it, whereas native speakers generally don’t. In addition, many experts now feel that standards in written and spoken English are declining year by year. Fluency in English language (even as a second language) does not guarantee a person is a qualified expert either.

Decline: Words like 'fortnight', 'cheerio', and 'pussy cat' are also on their way out of general speech

After studying English as a Foreign Language to gain Cambridge/CELTA certification, combined with teaching EFL for over two years and marking student essays (academic as well as general) I realised there is a big difference between being a native speaker and having some expertise on the English language. In 2005, I wrote an essay (using the pseudonym, Tom Smith) about the English language standards of UK exam candidates:

In relation to the GCSE candidates’ general standard of writing, as a part-time lecturer at a university, I had already become aware that many undergraduate students had abysmal reading and writing skills. However, even that did not prepare me for the written skills of your average GCSE candidate. The handwriting, most of the time, resembled that of a five-year-old toddler or a drunk (grotesquely simple or an illegible scrawl). A lack of basic punctuation, such as full stops, commas, capital letters etc, was commonplace. There were countless inarticulate, immature sentences, which did not make any sense to the reader.

The use of text language (such as u instead of you), swearing and inappropriate language and opinions were also prevalent. Spelling was often based on how a word sounds (for example, ‘wimmin’ instead of women, suggesting that many pupils had had very little reading experience. Furthermore, responses to questions often betrayed either, at best, a total lack of knowledge or interest in the subject or, at worst, a startling stupidity and ignorance. For example, the basic question: What is sexism? regularly received responses such as “being addicted to sex”, “a husband not wanting to have sex with his wife” and “being picked on for your sexuality”.

This was confirmed in 2012, by the UK exam regulator, Ofqual, who found A-levels and GCSEs have got easier in the past 10 years and therefore impossible to justify grade inflation.

Others are also concerned by the Americanisation of British English. Researchers believe the digital revolution and America’s growing influence on our culture have dramatically changed the way British people speak:

Language expert Professor Tony McEnery, from the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) at Lancaster University, said: ‘These very early findings suggest the things that are most important to British society are indeed reflected in the amount we talk about them.

‘New technologies like Facebook have really captured our attention, to the extent that, if we’re not using it, we’re probably talking about it.

‘The rise of ‘awesome’ seems to provide evidence of American English’s influence on British speakers.’

These are only the initial findings from a small pilot of the project, named the ‘Spoken British National Corpus 2014’, which is now underway.

Geoffrey Nunberg is more philosophical about it:

The long run will surely prove the linguists right: English will survive whatever “abuses” its current critics complain of. And by that I mean not just that people will go on using English and its descendants in their daily commerce but that they will continue to make art with it as well. Yet it is hard to take comfort in the scholars’ sanguine detachment. We all know what Keynes said about the long run, and in the meantime does it really matter not at all how we choose to speak and write? It may be that my children will use gift and impact as verbs without the slightest compunction (just as I use contact, wondering that anyone ever bothered to object to it). But I can’t overcome the feeling that it is wrong for me to use them in that way and that people of my generation who say “We decided to gift them with a desk set” are in some sense guilty of a moral lapse, whether because they are ignorant or because they are weak. In the face of that conviction, it really doesn’t matter to me whether to gift will eventually prevail, carried on the historical tide. Our glory, Silone said, lies in not having to submit to history….

There is nothing in modern writing about the language that is more pathetic than attempts to fix the blame for the “problem” (whatever the problem is understood to be) on this or that small group. If the English grammatical tradition has declined, this is the result of basic changes in our attitude toward the language, themselves the consequences of far-reaching social changes. It is not a case of the schools having “failed in their duty.” As Richard Lanham argues in his provocative book Style: An Anti-Textbook, “You cannot teach as duty what society does not feel a duty.” Neither are the linguists responsible. Their criticisms of the grammatical tradition are overstated, we will see, but they are much closer to the mark when they describe the contemporary scene, for the mastery of grammar has come to be considered largely a social accomplishment. And the traditionalists like Simon and Newman are even less to blame; they are simply moving into the cultural vacuum.

Before we can talk about how to put grammar back on its moral and intellectual feet, we must consider what grammatical criticism has been all about in the English-speaking world, and how we have come to the present sad state of affairs.

Of course, there is no doubt that a native English speaker is generally a far better authority on the language than someone who is not.  I am neither a linguist nor a grammar expert, but a word of advice before you ask a ‘native’ to proofread or edit your essay, make sure they have a high level knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary first – evidenced either by prior study of English as a Foreign Language or by their own writing and experience!

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