The ROLE Collective

Core Statement

Who counts as a “native speaker” or “native signer” of a language? We all have intuitions about what types of language experience, behavior, and identity might be relevant to categorize someone as being “native.” However, when we start digging deeper into how this term is applied, both within and outside of research contexts, confusing contradictions and pseudoscientific assumptions emerge. How we categorize people and their language(s) can have serious ramifications, and it is long past time for language researchers to come together to advocate for more accurate, humane, and just characterizations.

Research across disciplines has shown that commonly used descriptors of people’s language experience, like “English speaker” or “native signer” are based on simplistic and often harmful assumptions about the relationship between language, identity and an individual’s value, even though most people do not have a single language or variety of a language that they use or have been exposed to across their lives. Language use varies and shifts across the lifespan for everyone, and factors including assimilationist language policies, globalization, linguistic discrimination, and migration require us to rethink how useful or accurate it is to assume that all people should have one or even more than one language which can be picked out as a “native language.” Perpetuating this assumption can have serious consequences, such as limiting the access of certain individuals or communities to social services, education, job opportunities, citizenship, or a safe place to live.

In fact, if we look back to the history of how the idea of a “native language” rose to prominence in language research, we end up finding a lot of racist and otherwise harmfully reductive assumptions about how language is learned and used, and not a lot of empirical research which supports these assumptions. We do see that particular speakers and ways of using language can be consistently labeled as being “non-native” or “dysfluent,” but we also see that these labels are often based on ideologies which are shaped by histories of ableism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and (trans)misogyny, amongst other structures of oppression – not on “objective” evaluations of the data.

When language researchers and assessors take these ideologically laden descriptors for granted, using assumptions about the way that socially powerful groups use language as being the normative way of using language, we are also upholding the very same structures of oppression which shape those false assumptions. We are also often inaccurately oversimplifying the complex and {variable, diverse} language experiences of so-called monolinguals in the process. This makes our research and assessments less representative and more inaccurate, and, moreover, we enact harm upon those people and communities whose language use we describe and assess.

The practices in our classrooms, research papers, grant applications, clinical contexts, and admissions processes have not yet caught up with the interdisciplinary consensus amongst language researchers. We need to make changes in how we conduct research, how we assess the presence and significance of deviation from imposed norms in clinical and classroom settings, and how we evaluate and respond to language variation from those within our communities.

The consensus across disciplines has cohered, the moral imperative is clear, and the time is now.

If you are interested in learning or doing more, here are some steps that you can take:


What theoretical and practical moves which have been proposed across disciplines of language research? How might these apply to my research and practice?


What assumptions about language am I invoking, either explicitly or implicitly, in how I construct my research questions and analyses or assess my students’/colleagues’ language use? How is my sense of myself tied to how I use language? How can we all apply institutional memory to build bridges and promote linguistic justice? How does equity shape our best practices as scholars & educators? How can we all safely & completely actualize self more often?


What changes can I make in the areas in which I have influence, whether that is in how I do my research, how I engage with the public, how and what I teach, or how I review/edit the work of others?

Collect rich information about study participants’ language backgrounds.