Noam Chomsky

NNEST of the Month

April 2010

chomsky [at] mit [dot] edu

Ana Wu, City College of San Francisco

1. Could you tell us how and why you decided to become an educator?

Dr. Chomsky: I didn’t really decide. It just happened, like many things in life.

Terry Doyle, City College of San Francisco (Questions 2, 3, and 4)

2. Your name is quite often mentioned in papers about the history of the NS (native speaker) and NNS (non-native speaker) dichotomy among teachers of ESL. For example, Braine (1999) writes “In language pedagogy, the linguistic authority of the native speaker has been further bolstered by Chomsky’s notion of the terms native speaker and competence.(p. xv). Canagarajah (1999) in his well-known article, “Interrogating the native speaker fallacy”, writes, “Noam Chomsky’s linguistic concepts lie at the heart of the discourse that promotes the superiority of the native speaker.” Such statements tend to attribute some responsibility or blame to you for the creation of the NNS-NS dichotomy and the native speaker fallacy. In my opinion, this blame is totally undeserved, especially when we consider how you have spent your life advocating for the rights of people who are economically oppressed. In a later article George Braine (2004) mentioned that you defined the native speaker as an “ideal speaker-listener” and therefore you use the term as an abstraction. Braine seems to allude to the fact that you had no idea that the abstract concept of “native speaker” used in your book Aspects of a Theory of Syntax would take on a life of its own. Could you tell us more about your notion of “native speaker” and “native speaker competence” especially in terms of its relevance to the NS-NNS dichotomy in English and foreign language teaching, the native speaker fallacy (Phillipson, 1992) and the discrimination and economic oppression this fallacy has resulted in?

Dr. Chomsky:I do not understand why I am mentioned at all in this connection. The “linguistic authority of the native speaker” was a truism long before I became a college student. The distinction between competence and performance –- what we know versus what we do — should be a truism as well, but it has no bearing on the role of the native speaker, as far as I can see. My notion of “native speaker” is the traditional one, adding nothing new. I have no idea what the fallacy is supposed to be, or how these truisms might relate to oppression. I suspect there must be some serious misunderstanding.

3. My career in linguistics began in the middle 1970s as a graduate student at UC Berkeley in theoretical linguistics. At that time study in applied linguistics was just beginning, and it wasn’t a popular area of study for a young graduate student. Nowadays applied linguistics has grown enormously as a field of study, and it includes separately defined sub areas of studies including everything from applied semiotics to web based instruction, and of course includes non-native teachers issues, the topic of Ms. Wu’s blog. Your work in linguistics has been in theoretical linguistics, but applied linguists often mention your theories and your concepts. How do you explain this enormous interest in applied linguistics and especially sub areas of study such as non-native teacher issues? What do you see as the connection between theoretical and applied linguistics and in particular with the sub area of applied linguistics, non-native teacher issues?

Dr. Chomsky:I presume that applied linguistics developed because there was so much valuable work to do in these areas. Teachers are usually non-native. In the case of indigenous communities, very substantial efforts have been made to provide native speakers with the educational opportunities that would enable them to become teachers, develop educational and cultural programs in their own communities, etc., even in one spectacular case to revive a language that now has its first native speaker in a century (Wampanoag). I am keeping here only to my own department, since the 1960s, under the leadership of the late Ken Hale and now his students. I do not know what other issues there are about native/non-native teachers.

4. Most readers of Ms. Wu’s blog are probably linguists, ESL teachers, or ESL teacher trainers, so we know of your work first of all in linguistics. But for people outside of linguistics and language teaching, you are well known for your research and writing in political science, and especially your arguments for the relevance of an anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism (Chomsky, 2005), which I greatly admire. My reason for asking you the question below in this blog is that I agree with critical linguists such as Pennycook (2001) who view “the inequalities in the relation between the constructs of Native and Non-native teachers” as one manifestation of power and inequality in the field of linguistics. Do you think that the study of political issues such as non-native teacher issues is an area of study for applied linguists, for political scientists, or both? What suggestion would you give to scholars and graduate students who want to study political issues such as non-native teacher issues and also to ordinary ESL teachers, like myself, who want to understand the significance of such issues to our teaching, our profession, and our ESL departments’ personnel and hiring committees’ decisions?

Dr. Chomsky: I do not understand what the “non-native teacher issues” are.The important issues seem to me those I mentioned above.

Ahmar Mahboob, University of Sydney (Questions 5, 6, and 7)

5. In your work on language, you prioritize the formal properties of language in favor of its functional properties (cf work my MAK Halliday and colleagues). While we see that both of these approaches serve useful purposes, we were wondering how they relate to the field of language teaching and learning. How do you see these two approaches to language (formal and functional) in relation to work in the area of language teaching and learning?

Dr. Chomsky: Halliday and others apparently see a conflict between those approaches. I have never seen any. My own work, and that of my colleagues, is both formal and functional. So is Halliday’s, as far as I understand it. There are differences in approach, as one would expect in a complex array of disciplines, but not along this divide, as far as I can see.

6. The use of the concept of a ‘native’ speaker is somewhat understandable in contexts where linguists are trying to study how monolingual speakers of a language construe and realize their language. However, this notion of a ‘native’ speaker is often used in Applied Linguistics and TESOL literature/research as well. How do you evaluate the use of this term in these contexts?

Dr. Chomsky: It should be used where it is relevant. Again, I do not understand the issue.

7. Language descriptions are typically based on language data/intuitions collected from monolingual speakers of the language. Now, we know that the majority of the people in the world are bi/multi-lingual speakers of the language. Are their intuitions not important for describing languages? This becomes quite important in contexts where these ‘monolingual’ descriptions of the language are considered ‘standard’ and other dialects are measured in relation to them (such as in the context of language teaching/learning/assessment). What are your views on the use of native speaker intuitions in language descriptions that are used in language teaching/learning?

Dr. Chomsky:If someone is interested in Spanish, they will not use me as an informant, but rather a native speaker of Spanish, evidently. It is quite true that multilingualism is common -– in fact, ubiquitous if we study individuals very closely. It is an important topic to study. The notion of “standard language” is not a linguistic notion. Rather, it reflects structures of power and authority.

Jayashree Mohanraj, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad

8. Entry of English in multilingual countries is gradually and systematically eliminating smaller local languages. Please comment on the hegemony of English.

Dr. Chomsky: That’s true, and it is one aspect of a much broader development. Imposition of the nation-state system in Europe, for example, has led to rapid disappearance of languages, a process still continuing. The spread of English reflects obvious power relations. As I mentioned, my own department has been intensively involved in preserving, in fact resurrecting, indigenous languages and cultures. A great many factors enter into broader decisions -– for example, should efforts be made to preserve the many languages of Italy (called “dialects,” though they are often mutually incomprehensible), or should the spread of a common “Italian” be encouraged. There are no simple formulas for every situation.

Daniel Steve Villarreal, University of Texas at Austin:

9. Does your Universal Grammar theory draw on the work of Karl Jung ( Thank you

Dr. Chomsky: I’ve occasionally mentioned some rather loose analogies, nothing beyond that.

Ana Wu: I’d like to thank Dr. Chomsky for this interview. When I sent him the invitation to be a guest in our NNEST of the Month blog, Dr. Chomsky said that he was utterly deluged with interview requests, and couldn’t possibly keep up with more than a fraction. Yet, he graciously agreed on an interview at my proposed deadline. Personally, working with him was not just a pleasure, but a great honor and unforgettable experience.


Braine, G. (1999) Introduction. In Braine, G. (Ed.) Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Braine, G. (2004) The nonnative English-speaking professionals’ movement and its research foundations, In Kamhi-Stein, L. Learning and Teaching from Experience: Perspectives on Nonnative English-speaking Professionals. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Canagarajah, S. A. (1999) Interrogating the “native speaker fallacy”: Non-linguistic roots, non-pedagogical results. In Braine, G. (Ed.) Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of a Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (2005) Chomsky on Anarchism. Oakland: AK Press.

Pennycook, A. (2001) Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Phillipson, R. (1992) Linguistic Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press.


4 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky

  1. tommynomad

    Prof. Chomsky may be an interesting individual, but his value to the discussion of NNESTs hardly came through here. What's worse, his hesitation at the interview request seems to have carried over into his answers, which were evasive at best, dismissive at worst. As an interviewee, he was not up to snuff relative to the previous candidates, who were genuinely interested in participating.

  2. Anonymous

    I disagree with the sentiments of “tommynomad”. I think Professor Chomsky’s
    interview is a very valuable contribution to the discussion of non-native teacher issues.
    More than a few articles on non-native teacher issues begin with a mention of “Chomsky’s native speaker model” or something similar, as if Professor Chomsky himself is to blame not only for the development of this model but also for the native speaker fallacy as well. It seems that when a person’s name becomes an adjective (e.g. “Chomskian” or “Orwellian”), that person ends up being blamed for the very things s/he is critical of. For example, I have heard people say things like “so and so has an Orwellian view of government” as if George Orwell agreed with the societies and practices he was criticizing in his book 1984. In Ms. Wu’s interview, Professor Chomsky makes it clear that the “linguistic authority of the native speaker” was a truism long before he became a college student. Also, he tells us that he doesn’t know what “non-native teacher” issues are. Is he supposed to know about every sub topic of linguistics and applied linguistics? In my opinion, his statement in Ms. Wu’s blog tells us that we should not begin articles with phrases like “Chomsky’s view of the native speaker,” which imply some blame to him. However, his answer to #8 shows that Professor Chomsky is sensitive to the forces of linguistic imperialism; his answer to this question is similar that something Robert Phillipson would write (see Ms. Wu’s interview of Robert Phillipson in Auguest, 2009.)
    Second, I very much disagree with the suggestion of “tommynomad” that Professor Chomsky hesitated to participate in this interview. Didn’t you read the last paragraph of Ms. Wu’s interview? Ms. Wu writes “Dr. Chomsky said that he was utterly deluged with interview requests, and couldn't possibly keep up with more than a fraction. Yet, he graciously agreed on an interview at my proposed deadline.” In fact, Professor Chomsky took time from his very busy schedule to answer all the questions from people who submitted questions to the best of his knowledge and ability and in a way that was very satisfactory to me. His answer to Ms. Wu’s first question is very brief, but in my opinion is clever, humble, and a bit humorous. Noam Chomsky is a very famous person in our field of linguistics and outside of it too. Such a person has the right to give such an answer. Also, he’s been working very hard for 6 decades!! And he still has time and energy to speak up for the rights of oppressed people around the world and to speak up against oppressors and our own government leaders who probably seek to discredit him or even worse. In my opinion, he is a great scholar and altruistic humanitarian who deserves our greatest respect and admiration. I agree with Lucie 100%. Bravo, Ana for a great interview!! Keep up the great and very valuable work you do in these interviews, Ms. Wu!! I look forward to your interviews each month and hope you will continue with these interviews a long time!!!


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