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I am entering my information in an online database. It asks for the applicant's fluency in languages. The uppermost two choices are:

  • Fluent
  • Native Speaker

I am not a native speaker but I am not sure if putting "fluent" in the form will make it look like I have some deficiencies in the language. Which one should I choose?

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Feb 29 at 22:45
up vote 126 down vote accepted

You might be trying to overthink this. Take it as it reads. If it's your native language, use "Native Speaker". If not, then use "Fluent".

"Fluent" doesn't give any connotation of lack of skill in a language. If you are fluent, then you can carry on a conversation on any topic on which you are appropriately educated. "Native speaker" literally is asking if this is your first language. I know plenty of people who are native speakers and speak appallingly, whereas others are fluent non-native speakers and have a better grasp of the language than I do :)

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In an ideal world, this is the right answer, but it doesn't seem so black and white when the only rational intention in some given context was for "native speaker" to mean "fluent" (and "fluent" to mean "proficient"). – Dukeling Mar 1 at 17:12
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+1 Also being a native speaker does not really make you fluent. I have worked with many people with minimal English skills that were from the US. Shit I had to send some of my engineers to English and writing classes because their emails to clients looked like a 3rd grader wrote them - and their speaking was worse. Difference between language skills and math/logic/programming skills. – blankip Mar 2 at 4:07

I am not a native speaker but I am not sure if putting "fluent" in the form will make it look like I have some deficiencies in the language. Which one should I choose?

If you aren't a native speaker (and you indicated that you are not), then you shouldn't claim to be, because that is called lying.

That's why they have two distinct choices - to separate those who have this as a first language and who have learned to speak the language fluently later in life.

Few companies want to hire an extremely fluent liar.

In this case, you must either choose "Fluent", or leave the question blank, and hope they don't really care.

You are free to expound on your language capabilities in your cover letter. And of course your interview gives you the chance to demonstrate your language abilities in all the languages in which you are fluent.

And you are free to avoid answering any questions you would rather not answer, at the risk of being rejected for not following directions.

If you conclude (as some apparently do), that the question itself is evidence of discrimination, then you might choose to sue the company, or might decide to just bow out of the application process completely, since you wouldn't want to be involved in a discriminatory workplace.

[Note: I'm not saying the question makes any sense. I'm not saying I'd ever ask the question. I know companies that do ask this question. And I know what I (and most hiring managers) think of applicants who give false answers to whatever question their company chooses to pose.]

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A native speaker is, by definition, someone who learned a specific language during their infancy. When you grew up in a multilingual household, it is possible to be native speaker in more than one language.

But when you learned a language later in life, you can not claim to be a native speaker, no matter how well you speak it and how impossible it is to tell.

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Precisely that: My girlfriend is native in 2 languages, growing up in a bi-lingual household. Additionally she speaks 3 other languages (she is a professional translator/interpreter) so fluently that a native can't tell the difference (she can even do several regional dialects convincingly enough to fool the locals). Still that makes her NOT a native speaker in those languages and she wouldn't think to use that term to describe herself. Just extremely fluent. – Tonny Mar 1 at 16:29

My take on your question.

  • Based on the comments the main concerns are that you might lie or be discriminated against
  • From your point of view you are not sure how to convey you are as comfortable in English as in your "mother tongue"
  • Looking at your profile it seems you would be likely to work in an engineering field where in my experience a god-like (to use Wikipedia's nomenclature) level in English or any other language is not required (but good communication skills are)

So my alternate recommendation is to avoid entirely the native speaker option and add any languages you are fluent in as "fluent" including your mother tongue, assuming you are fluent in it :)

This would show that you have equal level of fluency in the languages you list without indicating directly which one is your mother tongue. If you are really equally fluent in several languages and can demonstrate that in the interview there is no need to indicate specifically which one is your mother tongue which would match the general advice here and at the same time address your concerns and potential discrimination.

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I thought the reasons I suggested this was implied by the 3 observations made. However I added a few lines on how my suggestion coincide with the general answer but at the same time alleviates the concerns of the OP and the discrimination concerns. Do you think it would be better as a simple one line comment. I thought it was worth mentionning as it can be a useful strategy. I speak 4 languages so had to think about those things a few times as well – NegativeJo Feb 29 at 9:28

If they actually asked whether you are a "Native Speaker", that would make them highly suspicious of illegal discrimination.

I'd look around if they are actually asking whether you are a "Native Speaker" or if they are asking whether you have the fluency level of a native speaker. In the letter case, and if your language is good enough, tick "Native Speaker". In the former case, if you think they are illegally asking about your nationality, and if your language is good enough, tick "Native Speaker". Discriminating against someone whose English is as good as that of a native, or better, based on whether they are native or not, would be illegal.

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The OP did not say they were asking if they could speak English. Many job applications ask about other languages you may speak and your level of fluency. – Laconic Droid Feb 28 at 16:31
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"Native" does not equal skill. Especially if you insist that they are not asking about skills. Especially the way you put it, it seems to be straight intended to discriminate against any foreigners. – gnasher729 Feb 28 at 19:54
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@Joe "native speaker" certainly isn't a language proficiency level. This is the same as a checkbox "foreigner yes/no" and I could certainly see that being a problem in some countries. – Voo Feb 28 at 21:12
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@JaneS: As written by the poster, it was obvious that "native" is supposed to be a higher level than "fluent". So it is obvious that the intent is to discriminate. Now it's fine to discriminate on skills level, but some people insist that it is a lie to claim the highest skill level if you have the wrong nationality. This is like saying that you don't discriminate on genders, but you want employees with lots of male hormones. And with skin the reflects a lot of light. – gnasher729 Feb 28 at 22:20
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Not all nations have the same laws. Stating outright that it's illegal to hire based on whether someone is a native speaker vs. a fluent non-native speaker is overly broad and incorrect. In fact...pretending that they are not different skills isn't very truthful. If I'm manning a help line that deals primarily with rural auto mechanics I'm going to need speakers that have been in that area long enough to gain "native speaker" status, because those clients don't speak book-proper English. – Jimbo Jonny Feb 29 at 18:48

This is an issue in the UK.

A fluent speaker can be expected to understand and communicate with other good speakers of English. But there are lots of people with poor English that can only communicate with someone that is a Native Speaker of the south of England, or talks like a Native Speaker of the south of England.

It is the difference between dealing with members of the public (often on the phone) and dealing with a more limited number of people.

So for example someone that has spoken “English” for all their life in the USA, may not have a good enough standard of English for some low paid jobs in the UK, but their standard of English would be OK for most high paid jobs.

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In my opinion, it would be a pointless exercise to separate native speakers and non-native speakers who speak and understand the language at least as good as the average native speaker (which some may call "fluent"), because there is no interdependency between proficiency and being a native speaker. Also, some may greatly misjudge their own proficiency and/or misinterpret, ignore or stretch the meanings of the given options. When combining these points, the only logical conclusion is to assume "native speaker" as a multiple-choice option under proficiency is intended to mean "very proficient".

There are a few things to think about:

  • Sometimes the phrasing of the question implies that the "native speaker" option could reasonably mean "I have the proficiency of a native speaker" (which does not mean "I am a native speaker"). Sometimes they make it explicit by saying "native speaker or equivalent".

  • What are the other options? If the options are along the lines of (1) no knowledge, (2) basic understanding, (3) fluent and (4) native, I'm inclined to believe "native" is intended to mean "very proficient". If they throw a "proficient" in there as well, I might be more inclined to avoid "native" and just go for "fluent" if I'm very proficient.

  • It takes a lot of self-reflection or external feedback (and some self-reflection) to accurately judge one's own proficiency.

  • Is it likely to come up based on the way you speak? This could range from running into a situation where you struggle to express yourself to simply having a strong accent indicative of being a non-native speaker.

  • You may be considered a liar if you select the "native speaker" option and you're not one (even if the question phrasing lends itself to more 'creative' interpretations). Neither being a liar nor being considered one is good (and would probably instantly take you out of the running for any given position).

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