Who are native and heritage speakers?

A native speaker is someone who learnt the language as their first language and, normally, can still use it. A heritage speaker (or language owner) is someone who has the inherited right to speak a language but may or may not be able to speak it. If they are able to speak it, they may have learnt it as an additional language and would be considered an additional language speaker, rather than a native speaker.

Someone who learned a little of an endangered language as a child but went on to acquire another language for everyday use instead would be classed as a heritage speaker, rather than a native speaker.

Someone who didn’t have heritage rights to the language but learnt it as their first language anyway would still be considered a native speaker, even though they were not a heritage speaker.

The term native speaker is more connected to first language; heritage speaker is more connected to inherited rights.

How can you avoid having an English-speaker accent?

Unless you learn an Australian language as your first language, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to speak it without an accent that reflects the sound patterns of your first one.

Research has established that each language has both large and small differences in the way its speakers make sounds from the way speakers of other languages do. Although, with practice, most people can learn to overcome the big differences, once the patterns in your brain that control how you make speech sounds are set down, overcoming the small differences is very difficult. So, speakers of a language as an additional language are almost always detectable to native speakers.

For people learning an Australian language, the only way to completely avoid an English-speaker accent is to learn the Australian language first, or at the same time as they learn English. Of course, if you learn English as a second language after acquiring an Australian one, your English will show the influence of your first language and give you an Aboriginal English accent. This is the case for almost every Aboriginal person who has learned English as a second language.

Children who grow up in communities where Aboriginal English is widely spoken will often tend to develop an accented form of English, based on the language of their environment, even if nobody actually speaks an Australian language there.

The best you can do is practice your additional language paying close attention to how you sound and trying to make it as authentic as possible by copying the habits of native speakers.

How can you speak a language so it sounds authentic?

The most important aspect of learning an additional language is mastering the rules for saying the right forms of words and for putting them together in the correct order to communicate what you mean to other speakers. Even if you have trouble with some sounds, if you can put the words together properly most people will still be able to understand you. For people travelling overseas, this is usually enough for them to get by. However, if you really want to be a good speaker and sound authentic you need to work on your sounds.

The first step is to realise that not all the sounds in Australian languages are the same or even all that close to the sounds of English, although some of them are.

Many Australian languages don’t make use of the difference between p and b, t and d, or k and g. So, you can often use either, regardless of which one is used for writing. However, it is also often the case that the position of the sound determines which one of each pair is more likely to occur at the beginning of a word, or in the middle of it, or next to other sounds.

The sounds p, t and k also have two normal pronunciations in English; the one with a puff of air at the beginning of words like pin, tin and kin, and the one without the puff of air like in spin, stun and skin. Australian languages generally do not use the first set, only the second ones without the puff of air. So, for English speakers, it can be hard to hear and correctly pronounce the normal sound of p, t and k in Australian languages, and they will want to substitute b, d and g. For Australian language speakers learning English, the opposite applies, and saying p, t and k at the beginning of words so that they always sound different to b, d and g can be very challenging.

Many learners’ guides and some teachers will tell learners that the sounds written ty, tj, j or dj in Australian languages are the ‘same’ as in English church or judge. They aren’t, although they sound somewhat similar to English speakers. To say the Aboriginal sounds correctly, you need to have the tip of your tongue locked behind your bottom teeth and press the flat part of your tongue against the roof of your mouth. In the same way ny and ly in Australian languages are not the same as in onion and million; they are much more like some sounds in French, Italian and Spanish. Again, the tip of your tongue needs to be locked behind your bottom teeth.

Most Australian languages make use of short and long vowels, and which one you use can change the meaning of the word. There is also a tendency for them to stress long vowels. For example, in Gamilaraay gaba means good, and gabaa means whitefella. Vowel length isn’t so important in English and tends to be controlled by stress patterns and neighbouring sounds. This means that English speakers can easily get the stress wrong when speaking Australian languages and change the length of vowels inappropriately, clipping some as they would in English and making the meaning unclear, or pronouncing words that are should sound different so they sound exactly the same.

There are many other potential areas for confusion and it isn’t possible to explain or try and deal with them all here. And every Australian language has unique sound patterns. The best option to try and sound authentic is to copy native speaker. If there are no native speakers or recordings of them, try to look at neighbouring languages that are still spoken, or try to get help from a linguist who is good with sound systems and can point out the differences and coach you. Even copying the rhythm and tone of speech from strong Aboriginal languages is a good idea to help you sound less like an English speaker.

The other important thing to do is practise. The more you use the language, the more natural speaking will seem to you, and you will develop your own way of speaking – even if you do still have a bit of an accent.

What is fluency?

In everyday speech fluency generally refers to the ability to speak and/or write easily and smoothly in an accomplished way. In the context of language learning it  is often used interchangably with oral proficiency, a more precise term, and referred to in terms of levels that range from native speaker proficiency to the kind of fluency expected of a beginning learner.

Some people, who generally do not speak a second language themselves, tend to use fluent to mean ‘has some sort of ability to speak the language’. But, this is not very helpful as it doesn’t give a clear idea of exactly what tasks a person can perform in the language. In revival contexts people are often so impressed by the fact that someone can speak a bit of language that they describe them as fluent, when they might not be able to speak it very much at all. And, if you can’t speak a language yourself, you can’t really judge someone else’s fluency except to say that it is better (or worse) than yours!

How is fluency measured?

Fluency, or more correctly, oral proficiency, is usually measured on a set scale that indicates a range of ability from non-speaker to native speaker. Each step along the scale represents an increasing level of complexity from just being ‘able to say and understand a few words’ up to being ‘able to conduct all aspects of everyday life in the language’.

Because these scales are usually used for healthy majority languages, there may be some indicators on particular scales that do not fit the situation of reviving languages, like ‘can perform work duties in the language’, or 'can conduct government responsibilities in the language'. However, in most cases the differences in ability are clear and the scales can be applied to any language.

Measuring fluency is useful because it allows a realistic assessment of individual and group abilities so that planning for further acquisition has a sound base, and it gives a way of establishing whether learners’ abilities in the language are actually improving.

One factor that is very different in languages that are being revived is that the usual measure of native speaker is not available. We can never know what native speaker fluency in the past would have been and current speakers of reclaimed languages are limited in how much fluency they can achieve. The hope is that, as more people learn and the language develops and is helped to grow, the level of fluency will increase.  It is important for school and examining authorities to be aware of these special issues when developing curriculum and assessment tasks.

Hobson (2013) discusses Questions of fluency in Australian languages revitalisation in depth.


This page was first published on November 25, 2013 and was last updated on Novmber 28, 2013. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise. If you have any suggestions for ways in which this document could be improved or made more accessible to users, please do not hesitate to contact the author, John Hobson.