The elusive top rung of the language proficiency ladder: Why pro-/ anti-/ post- and a-native-speakerist views fail to measure up

30th April 2019 : 13:00 - 14:00

Category: Seminar

Research Group: Applied Linguistics

Speaker: Dr Talia Isaacs, University College London

Location: Department of Education, Seminar Rooms G/H

Convener: Hamish Chalmers

Seminar Abstract

In his philosophical novel, Thus spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche (1883‒85), famously wrote, ‘God is dead,’ signifying that God is no longer credible as an absolute moral compass. Over a century later, Canadian lexicographer, Thomas Paikeday (1985), boldly proclaimed that The native speaker is dead! in his book title, implying that the native speaker entity should be made obsolete. But is the native speaker really dead? This presentation will discuss different facets of this issue from a language assessment standpoint against the backdrop of global Englishes.

First, difficulties in pinpointing the standard language norm will be highlighted, even in Inner Circle societies where identifying the prestige variety (e.g., geographical locus) would seem to be obvious at first glance. The focus will then shift to the practical need to have some sort of assessment standard against which to evaluate language performance. Proposals as to what that standard should be will be critiqued in view of ways that second language proficiency has been operationalised in rating scales, automated scoring systems, and informal evaluative judgments, with examples of assessment instruments and procedures from studies grounded in higher education and specific purposes settings. The talk will conclude by examining heated discourses, arguing against vilifying those who use the term “native speaker” and considering terminological problems introduced by some rebranding efforts. I will argue that we have a long way to go as a field before reaching a truly post-native speaker era, which would seem to be a reasonable aspiration for most, but not necessarily all language use contexts.


In 2019, the University of Oxford’s Department of Education celebrates the 100th year since the passing of a statute creating what was known in 1919 as the University Department for the Training of Teachers. To celebrate our centenary a year-long series of activities will be delivered to address some of the department’s top initiatives for 2019, answer some of the big questions facing education today and to reveal the advancements the department has made to the study of and research in the field of education. Join us as we mark our 100th year and discover more about our anniversary here.

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