In the half century that I have been on this planet I have never questioned my status as a native-speaker of English. I was born in the US, went to school there, and arrived in my new country in 1989 ready to use my "linguistic capital" (see Pei-Chia Lan) to work and make friends. I mean, who wouldn't want to hire me? Or be friends with me?
It didn't quite work out that way. People's responses were mixed. Some were indeed delighted to do language exchanges and polish their already high level of English. Others flat out refused. And the workplace was another story entirely. English was indeed perceived to be useful in some very limited contexts, but what they really wanted was a fluent French speaker who could also pull out fluent English when needed. One place I worked for years actually forbid me from speaking or writing in English. We are a French company, they said, and French is the only language we want or need. That turned out to be a good thing; I made amazing progress in French in a very short period of time.
In spite of that experience I still saw my native-speaker status as something that made me special and uniquely qualified to help others with their English. To my surprise as I researched the topic I learned that not everyone (and that means linguistics experts and other language professionals) would agree. "Native speaker" is a contested term.
Think of language skills as being on a continuum: on one end are those who are just starting out and at the other end are those who have mastered speaking, understanding, reading and writing. We are all somewhere on that continuum. There are second language learners who are more skilled with that language than the majority of "native" speakers. Not many people can write as well as Joseph Conrad in English and he didn't start learning the language until he was an adult. Same for Donald Keene who was so fluent in Japanese that he was pronounced "a Person of Cultural Merit" by the Japanese government.
Exceptions that prove the rule? Honestly, my experience says that it's not unusual at all. Through the course of one's life languages come and go and we move up and down the continuum depending on the context. At my grandfather's funeral I met a man everyone called "Frenchy." His family left France when he was 9 or 10 years old. His English (including accent) was just like the English of all the other members of the working class neighborhood in which my grandparents lived. Could he have written a novel or a dissertation? Probably not but that didn't make him any different from my native-born grandfather. His French, however, was terrible and that should not surprise anyone. But had he moved back to France I imagine that he would have picked up whatever additional French he needed to get along.
My own children grew up mostly in French. When they were in elementary school their English was pretty limited, they couldn't write at all, and they howled when I firmly suggested they read Harry Potter in English. But the elder Frenchling grew up and wrote her honor's thesis in English at a Canadian university and did a fine job. The younger Frenchling wrote a novel in English when she was 16. They have a high level in all areas in both languages but that didn't happen by magic - it took work, opportunity, education, and motivation.
Was Frenchy a native-speaker of French or English or both? Same question about my Frenchlings. My spouse. Or me? My spoken French degrades in Japan as I have no use for it. But send me to Paris or Brussels and within a few days it bounces right back.
So, it's not binary: native speaker versus non-native speaker. Language use and fluency ebbs and flows over a lifetime.
But aren't the native speakers the experts in their own language? I always thought so. And then one day I ended up correcting a report by one of my French co-workers which was riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. The French correct each other all the time because there is a wide variation in language skill and they care when anyone makes a mistake. Also, I have met French speakers who have a very high level of English and have a much better grasp of the rules of English grammar than I do. I don't feel like much of an English "expert" when I talk with them.
To muddy the waters even further, there is an argument that it might be better to learn a language from someone who has made the journey from your language to the target language. A very fluent (but "non-native") speaker of the language to be learned understands what things are difficult for you because you are both coming from the same place: English, French, Japanese or any other language. I had never considered that but I think it makes a lot of sense.
Finally, in Japan I was confronted by situations that had never happened to me in France and I still don't know what to make of them or if I did the right thing. The first was a request to help someone with a dissertation in English. That was a tough one. A dissertation is supposed to be an original work. Is correcting her paper a violation of the rules? Helping her write it surely is. Not helping seemed ungenerous but helping could have had bad results for both of us. In the end I didn't answer the email and I didn't help. I still feel badly about it.
The second was the awareness that there are people who rely on teaching English to buy food, pay rent and support families. Furthermore, they have experience or credentials that I don't have. I don't consider myself qualified to be an teacher of English in any country. There is a lot of competition in Japan in the EFL market. Salaries and working conditions are not what they were. When I volunteer to help someone with their English (people who could perfectly well pay a real teacher and not an amateur like me) am I undercutting the market and making things worse for people who rely on teaching for their livelihood? A real conundrum.
What do you think?