Who Knows English Better?

So, who do you think knows English better – a native English speaker or a person who has learned English as a second language?

Easy question, right? Well, it depends on what you mean by “know”.

If you answered “a native speaker”, you were probably referring to the following things that most native speakers do better than second language learners, such as:

  • Knowing how to speak fluent English properly, with minimal grammar mistakes
  • Knowing which words to use in most contexts
  • Knowing how to read and write in English at a sufficient level (though not all native speakers)
  • Knowing what kind of language is appropriate for any given social circumstance
  • Knowing idiomatic phrases and their proper usage

However, there is another type of “knowing”, which relies on how languages are taught and learned in schools. For example, it may surprise you to know that many second language learners are actually more proficient than most native speakers in such things as:

  • Knowing how to label and manipulate grammatical structures, especially tenses
  • Knowing ‘dictionary-like’ distinctions between words
  • Knowing relationships between words
  • Knowing where words come from
  • Knowing how to translate words into their language (and possibly into other languages as well)

Don’t believe me? Just ask any native speaker to tell you how to say a particular sentence in the “past perfect progressive” and see the blank look that you get in response. Or ask any native speaker to please tell you the difference between “happy” and “glad” and watch him scratch his head. Want to really get a native speaker to feel inadequate? Ask someone to tell you the synonym (word that has the same meaning) or the antonym (word that has the opposite meaning) of a certain word, and watch him squirm.

So, second language learners. You know some things about English better than native speakers! How does that make you feel? What? Still not satisfied? Why? Because in spite of all of this learning you still can’t order a sandwich at a restaurant? You still can’t speak English and get the things you want? You still can’t be understood when you try to talk to others in English?

Not to fear. At least you may have been taught that the word “sandwich” comes from the Earl of Sandwich, who was a notorious gambler. Rather than get up to eat a proper meal, he simply slapped slices of cold meat between two pieces of bread so that eating would not interfere with his marathon sessions at the gambling table. What? Didn’t know that either? Well, now you do!

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