It happens to everybody at some point. You jabber away in your own language, but the person or people you are talking to think you are a ‘foreigner’ because they don’t recognise your accent. It’s almost as if the term ‘native speaker’ means not just someone who uses their first language i.e. the one they were brought up with, but someone who speaks with a particular accent as well.
Even if you are a native English speaker, you may still be regarded as a ‘stranger’ when you are not in the place where your particular accent is recognised. Americans are recognised as Americans when they speak in Canada or England. New Zealanders have a recognisably different from Australians, despite the proximity of the two countries and the fact that English is the main language in both. A Venezuelan can hardly be understood in Spain even when they are speaking in Spanish because of their accent.
So who is a real native speaker and how does this affect the quality or effectiveness of professional translation services? And can someone be a native speaker of more than one language?
The answer to the first question is a person a native speaker if he or she was brought up with the language in their early, more malleable, years. The native speaker is one who does not have to consciously think about the language they are using. Words, phrases and syntax come naturally without effort. It goes without saying that anyone who is to work as a professional translator must use at least their own ‘native’ language. Translation quality depends on a number of different factors. The translator should have an excellent command of at least two languages, and their own native language would be one of them.
The answer to the last question is that some people may certainly be native speakers of more than one language. They may have parents who speak different languages and they naturally learn both languages when young. They may live in a part of the world where several different languages are spoken and learn all of these languages as they grow up. They may grow up in an immigrant family or immigrant community where they learn their parents’ language as well as the native language(s) of the country where their family has moved to.
People who are native speakers of more than one language have the potential to make excellent professional translators, as their command of more than one language cannot be better. The fact that they have perfect fluency in more than one language also probably makes it easier for them to learn other languages as well.
To come back to the topic this article started with, the confusion between accent and language, we can conclude that native speakers of any one language, whether it is English Spanish, Russian, Chinese, or any other of the world’s hundreds of languages, may have different accents and dialects, but they are still native speakers.