What Does It Mean To Be A Native Speaker Of English?

As one of the most popular languages for business, education, and media, English is spoken by many different demographics around the world. This leads to some confusion over whether or not English is someone’s “native” language, since many learn English to a high level later in their adult life. Thus, many start to question:

What does it mean to be a native speaker of English?

Native English speakers are those who learn the language at an early age, generally below the age of five, and continue to favor the use of English throughout their life. Some individuals can “lose” their native speaking status by disuse, but this is rare.

Essentially, your native language can be considered your “main” language. If you don’t speak English on a daily basis, or neglect it for years, then you can in a sense lose your native speaker status. In actuality, it really means people won’t consider you as a native speaker even if it is your first or mother tongue.

Yet, what more can we learn about native English speakers?

What Does “Are You A Native English Speaker” Mean?

A native language is definitely special, but in what way? We understand some level of difference since we usually classify languages with the distinction between native and second languages. We can even see this in the common question of: “are you a native English speaker”, which implies some difference.

Why do we separate between native languages and others? What do questions like: “are you a native English speaker” mean?

When asked if you speak English natively, a distinction is being made between learning a language from infancy and learning one later in your life. A native language is usually the earliest language learnt, so oftentimes individuals are actually asking if English is your first.

There are always exceptions people want to bring up, with some technically having more than one native language or even some having forgotten their native language in favor of another.

As is discussed in this article about Native American languages, language loss (including native languages) is possible. Yeah, I know. Native Native American languages is a mouthful.

Yet, it is a complex issue requiring several key factors. Though losing your native language is technically possible, it really has to be a very deliberate attempt on your part to lose a good portion of your use of it.

The vast majority of the time however, a native language is what you learned very early in life and still continue to use today.

Non-Native English Speakers

When someone knows a language that isn’t their first or native, these languages are considered to be their second, third, fourth, and so on depending on how many they know.

Though generally uncommon in places like the USA, people who speak more than one language are known as bilinguals.

The big question some might wonder is: what is the difference between a native and second language?

It ends up revolving around two major points:

  • Culture
  • Proficiency

Languages and culture are inextricably linked, and as such your native language (since it is usually your first) is tied to your culture growing up. Though you might like your second language, few actually fully adopt the culture behind it.

With proficiency, this just refers to how most are more fluent in their native language than others. This is due to how native languages are usually tied to your family and country of birth, thus a strong incentive to continue “practicing” the language.

How Many English Speakers Are Native?

If native English speakers are those who learn it at a very young age and then continue to speak frequently, how many could actually have that relationship with English? If English is one the most spoken languages in the world, we should wonder: just how many English speakers are native?

There are 134.8 billion English speakers in the world, making it the most spoken in the world, but what surprises many is when they learn only 379 million speak it natively. English’s generally accepted status of “lingua franca” makes it a common choice as a second (third, fourth, etc.) language.

This puts English in a very unique position, since most languages are the complete opposite with more native speakers and less second language speakers.

The number of native speakers matters too. If we’re only counting those who speak the language natively, Mandarin Chinese with it’s 918 million native speakers would be the most spoken language in the world.

English would still be very high with it’s 379 million natives speakers, thus it would be the third most spoken language after Spanish.

When we combine the total speaker population however, which includes native speakers, then English is the most spoken in the World with 134.8 billion speakers worldwide.

English has a lot of native speakers, but many more who speak it as a second language making it a very unique language.

All numbers relating to speaking populations are provided by Ethnologue.

If you’re looking for more information regarding language learning, or specifically English, then read some of my other articles.

How Do I Know I’m A Native English Speaker?

All this talk about native languages might make some question whether or not English is their own native language. We should then ask ourselves: how do I know I’m a native English speaker?

To know your native language, English or otherwise, it must be one of the earliest languages learnt. Native languages also tend to correspond to the predominant language in one’s place of birth. Exceptions exist, but most native languages are just the first languages one learns and uses most.

When we try and figure out whether or not a language is my native, it come down to three questions:

  • Is it the earliest language I learned?
  • Is it the predominant language of where I was born?
  • Is it the language my parents taught me?

For the average person, in most western civilizations at least, one language can tick off all of these boxes. Thus, it can be legitimately considered as your native language.

Do You Have To Be British To Be A Native English Speaker?

If it matters where you were born to determine what your native is, then would you have to be ethnically Italian to speak Italian natively, or would you have to be ethnically Russian to speak Russian natively? Related to our particular topic: do you have to be British to be a native English speaker?

You do not have to be British in origin to be considered an native English speaker This question stems from a misconception regarding what native language is, since anyone who learned English before the age of five or as their first language would be considered to speak it natively.

There are two parts to this question: do you have to be ethnically British to speak English natively, and do you have to be born in Britain to speak English natively.

The answer to both of these questions is, no. If you are ethnically British and born in Britain then chances are you would have English as your native language. However, this is not a necessary prerequisite in order to speak English natively.

Native English Speaking Countries

We discussed all about native English speakers, yet where do most native English speakers live?

For starters, any country that has English as their official language will naturally have a high native speaking population. This will make most people in these countries have English as their native language due to it being tied to their nation’s culture.

Some of the largest English speaking countries would be:

  • The United Kingdom
  • The United States Of America
  • Australia

Other “honorable mentions” would include:

  • Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • Canada
  • South Africa
  • The Bahamas
  • Jamaica
  • And others…

List of native English speaking countries provided by the University Of Northampton.

We’ll just focus one those with the largest speaking population like the countries UK, US, and Australia.

The United Kingdom

The birthplace of the English language, the United Kingdom has close to 60 million English speakers. Due to English being the official language of the country, not to mention it’s significant cultural ties to Britain, it has been the predominant language in England for centuries.

English dates all the way back to the fifth century starting in England, so it always has a special place in the UK.

Out of the 60 million English speakers in Great Britain, despite some immigrants included in the total, the vast majority of them speak it natively.

The United States Of America

The country with the largest amount of English speakers, and one of the largest countries altogether, the United States of America has around 239 million English speakers.

From its very beginning, the US was built of settlers from across the world. Though it still receives many immigrants today, most of its English speakers are native.

Some credit countries like the UK or the US for spreading English across the world by their trade, entertainment, and media.


Australia is the world’s smallest continent, but one of the largest countries in the world (landmass wise). Though it has no official language legally speaking, English by far is the most predominant language.

There are around 17 million English speakers in Australia, and most are native.

When Was English First Spoken?

Native languages are our first language, most of the time anyways, and as such some might wonder who first spoke English natively. This leads to our next question: when was English first spoken?

The beginnings of English go all the way back to the fifth century, with early Germanic tribes invading what is now modern day England. This early form of English became what we now think of as Old English. Old English continued to around the 11th century where English shifted dramatically.

English’s development has shifted significantly throughout history, with older “forms” of English appearing almost like a different language for the average person today. What were these early forms, or stages of English?

Old English (5th To 11th)

Old English came about when Germanic tribes first began to invade England in the fifth century. This version of English existed for around six centuries, or till the 11th century.

For those of us today, if we are not professional linguists, Old English will seem like an entirely different language due to the many changes over the centuries. The average English speaker today, native or otherwise, will find Old English to be unintelligible.

Middle English (11th To 15th)

Middle English came about in a very similar way to Old English, through conflict. Around the 11th century William the Conqueror, as he is now named, came and took over England and made himself king.

Originally the Duke of Normandy, William and his army brought French into contact with English. Thus, the Germanic language of English received a lot of influences from the Romantic language of French (romantic as in a Latin based language).

This form continued until the 15th century.

Early Modern English And Modern English (15th To Present)

Early modern English is what we see in the works of William Shakespeare. Though slightly different from what we speak today, it is certainly intelligible to most English speakers.

It has gradually evolved into what we now consider as Modern English, which many people speak both natively and as a second language.

The Final Talking Point On The Meaning Of “Native English Speaker”…

A native English speaker is one who was brought up learning English, and adopted the culture behind the language. Generally the first language learnt, native languages are usually a language close to an individual with ties to family and culture.

As such few abandon or neglect their native language, and instead continue to use the language for the rest of their lives.

If you are interested in more topics relating to English, or language learning in general, then check out some of my other articles!

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, department leader at various levels and organizations, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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