I want to explain the difference between the English linguistic terms "fluent" and "native speaker". I could do this in English, but I'd also like to know if it's possible to do so in Japanese. To be fair, I think it's not just native speakers of Japanese who blur the lines between the two. (Related posts: The Workplace, and English Language & Usage 1 2)

Is there a pair of terms in Japanese that correspond to the difference between the two English terms, which are likely to be understood by the average English learner or teacher?

In case context matters, I'm talking about English, rather than other languages.

Post where I asked for how to express "native speaker" by itself in Japanese: Difference between 母語話者 and ネイティブスピーカー

  • I've heard "バリバリ" and "流暢" used to describe levels of language ability (non-native). Saying "バリバリ" often gets you a smile, so learners should come to know it. To say "native", leverage the fact that the only native speakers of Japanese are Japanese people, so say stuff like "日本人みたい日本語能力" or "日本人のように話せる"
    – konishiki
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 3:57
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    "the only native speakers of Japanese are Japanese people" -- That's a bit of an assumption, and an inaccurate one...
    – ssb
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 4:05
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    @konishiki The experiences of some are not the experiences of all. I saw plenty of Chinese/Taiwanese, Filipino, Korean students who were born in Japan or came at a young age and weren't bullied in normal Japanese schools. Even a half Chinese/Israeli girl who had no problems. Many of them you would never know they weren't Japanese if you weren't told so. And plenty of ethnic Japanese people struggle with keigo. I get the point that you're making but I don't think it's something that you can really generalize. Also people like the zainichi...
    – ssb
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 4:40
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    I've personally seen plenty of Japanese young folk in Japan who "often struggle with 敬語", and it's a common topic on the various ワイドショー, so I'm not sure that's terribly relevant as a criterion for measuring "nativeness". Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 4:40
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    For me, ぺらぺら comes to mind before ばりばり.
    – user1478
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 5:11

3 Answers 3


I think you have a couple choices.

For "fluent":

  • ペラペラ。 This is a slightly colloquial word (due to being an onomatopoeia sounding like quick speech), which can mean "fluent", both in the sense of (a) speaking uninterruptedly, and by extension, (b) being skilled in the language. This might be the most common word you hear when describing someone as "fluent" in everyday conversation.
  • 流暢。 This is a formal word which means "flowing"/"fluent". Again, this can have the sense of (a) beautiful, uninterrupted speech, and by extension, (b) being skilled in the language.
  • ネイティブレベル。 The problem with the previous two terms is that they are applied to all sorts of different skill levels. The minimum to apply the term is that the person can speak uninterruptedly, I think, but of course language skill goes far beyond that. So, if you want to be more specific, you can say ネイティブレベル ("native level"). It is perhaps slightly informal (due to "レベル" being slightly informal).

For "native":

  • ネイティブ。 As mentioned in the other answer, this is probably the most common term for "native speaker". (ネイティブスピーカー is also used, but not as much, probably just due to being longer.)
  • 母語話者。 A rather formal and technical term for native speaker.

Here are some example usages in case it helps you get a feel for how to use the different words:



  • 1
    A related comment, possibly of interest: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/23202/…
    – user1478
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 23:38
  • I wonder if having "ネイティブレベル" for fluent might have contributed to the confusion that currently exists.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 7:38
  • @AndrewGrimm Hmm? But you can do the same in English too, can't you? "His Japanese is native level at this point." seems like a fine way of specifying extremely high fluency to me. Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 17:38

‘Fluent’ is translated as 流暢な and 淀みない as adjectives, 流暢に、淀みなく as adverbs, and ペラペラ and すらすら as onomatopoeias, like 彼は英語をペラペラ(流暢に)話す。

The word ‘native speaker’ passes as “ネイティヴ・スピーカー” in Japanese own pronunciation. It can be rephrased as ”外(国)人並み,” which is a very popular phrase.

Most Japanese would roll their eyes if they hear "ボゴワシャ," unless you show it by writing it (母語話者), down on paper. Even shown in writing, I bet more than two-thirds of people wouldn’t understand it. To me, it's crude and ugly as a Japanese word.

“ネイティヴ・スピーカー” is a new word that came into currency in just last one or two decades, but is quite prevalent now among people except the elderly, say over 60s.

  • People roll eyes when you've said something stupid, not something too technical. When you say something too technical, their eyes glaze over.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 7:28
  • I say 母語話者 is stupidly technical or clumsily translated. Try Word conversion by impting "bogowasha" in MS word. It doesn't recognize the word, and you get "ボゴワシャ,” which is a total Greek to Japanese. Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 8:31
  • FWIW, "母語話者" is extremely heavily used in linguistics literature: scholar.google.com/… Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 1:57
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    I tested out my IME as challenged to above and it provided the correct kanji on the first try. Don't know if that's just a matter of this being from 3 years ago. Regarding the eye rolling, I don't think I've met any Japanese people who would be so rude as to roll their eyes at my word choices.
    – Leebo
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 23:16

In addition to the other suggestions, one word I've seen a bunch is ネイティブ並み, particular in academic environments. It's used to indicated as fluent as a native.

Here's an example from a job ad for a university:


And here's an example from a post about going to university in America:


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