Wiktionary says that the Japanese for "Native speaker" can be either "母語話者" or "ネイティブスピーカー". What difference, if any, is there between the two?

Searching the corpus on jisho.org only got one hit for the kanji form, and no hits for the katakana form.

On lang-8, I saw someone correct from 母語話者 to ネイティブスピーカー as the kanji form was not as common.


4 Answers 4


Conclusion first, neither term is particularly common.

Ironically, however, places like this (SE) are not very good to discuss the matter. Why not? Because the Japanese-speakers who are on here, myself included, are already at least bilingual to an extent and, in general, they would tend to be more interested in foreign languages or "Language" in general so that they would spend more time discussing language-related subjects than the average Japanese person. For that reason, someone might jump on me saying that my first sentence is wrong and we use those terms all the time.

The first time I had ever heard the word 「ネイティブスピーカー」(it is one word in Japanese) was when I was in high school. That was around the time when some large-scale English conversation schools had emerged and started advertizing on TV. 「ネイティブスピーカー」 was their catchword; they hired those people. Good-bye to the old days of learning English from Japanese teachers.

Funny thing, in restrospect, was that the word was practically never used to refer to a native speaker of any other language -- particularly one of Japanese. Just as in child language acquisition, over-generalization and over-simplification do often occur when a culture imports words from another.

「[母語話者]{ぼごわしゃ}」 is rarely used outside of those who are interested in linguistics or a particular foreign language, either. I do not think I myself had ever used it actively before I was in college. It is almost like a technical term for linguists.

One could say one would hear 「ネイティブスピーカー」 more often than 「母語話者」, but that is largely because of the advertisement by Eikaiwa schools. The truth, however, is that neither one is used in the Japanese-speaking world as often and widely as "native speaker" is used in the English-speaking world. Japan is not an immigration-based country like many English-speaking countries are. We as a nation just do not have the custom of asking each other on the street the question "What's your native language, man?"

Another (perhaps more linguistically convincing) reason that we do not use the two words in question is that we use the word 「[母国語]{ぼこくご} = one's native language」 way more often. If you use it, you do not need to use 「ネイティブスピーカー」 or 「母語話者」 because you can say 「X語を母国語とする人」 instead of saying 「X語の母語話者」 or 「X語のネイティブスピーカー」. It is only a matter of what sounds more natural in either language.

  • More of a cultural than linguistic question: if my profile on a website had a photo of my tall, white, and handsome self, and indicated that I'm Australian, would the average Japanese person assume that I'm a native speaker of English?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 2:10
  • Are you making a distinction in this between ネイティブスピーカー and just ネイティブ?
    – ssb
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 2:41
  • 1
    Whenever I hear 母国語 being used to mean one's mother tongue, I try to convince him/her to stop, because strictly speaking, 母国語 is the language of one's home country, which isn't always one's mother tongue (=母語). Wikipedia uses the term 母語 in the userbox, so perhaps I can argue with "母語" being so uncommon.
    – Yosh
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 2:42
  • ネイティブスピーカー not a common term? Really? I have not heard of people using X語を母国語とする人 at all... perhaps we have interacted with Japanese people from different parts of the country? Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 22:31

I think ネイティブ (without スピーカー), is the most common word used by ordinary Japanese people. To me 母語話者 sounds too technical in ordinary conversations and casual writings.

ネイティブ is considered exactly the same as ネイティブスピーカー by ordinary Japanese. To them, ネイティブ is ネイティブスピーカー, nothing else. Thus ネイティブスピーカー is far less frequently used in conversations because it's unnecessarily long.

But professionals or serious students may tend to avoid using ネイティブ, because they understand that native is different from native speaker in English. Perhaps in Wikipedia we will see bare ネイティブ rarely because such people will eventually edit the articles and "fix" them.

When I started learning English at junior high school, ネイティブ was already a very common phrase which was used everywhere. I didn't even know that was a commercial catchphrase at first, and I can't imagine a Japanese student older than 14 who doesn't understand what ネイティブ means.


This probably falls into the category of words that have become more popular in the katakana form compared to the kanji form. If you are talking about the difference in meaning then there is none as far as I can tell from usage. If you are talking about difference in terms of when you should be using which word, I would suggest that the younger generation will be more comfortable with ネイティブスピーカー (since this is how many of the overseas students refer to English or Japanese native speakers). I have not heard them use the term 母語話者, but perhaps it is used more in written Japanese.

  • 2
    @Downvoter: What's wrong with this answer?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 1:43

To make it simple, both are correct, you might find 母語話者, in books, newspaper, any written document although not very used.

母語話者 is the real japanese word who existed before ネイティブ was imported in japanese from english.

ネイティブ is the most used word , which is a contraction from ネイティブスピーカー, which is comming from the english ネイティブ

In japanese you have different level of language, and different context to use them. Let's say you write a Phd Thesis, writing or reading a book about linguistic you better use 母語話者. On the other side for everyday usage 母語話者 will look weird so you better use ネイティブ.

  • What's meant by "real Japanese word"? :)
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 6:33
  • 母語話者 isn't a native Japanese word, either. It's Sino-Japanese.
    – user1478
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 19:01

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