Can We Sound Like a Native?
Today, I’m going to talk about speaking like a native, sounding like a native, because it’s a discussion that showed up sort of in response to my latest video, which I did in Japanese.
Sometimes I study on LingQ using the computer. Mostly, however, I use my iPad because it’s more comfortable to sit down and do my LingQing on my iPad. If I go down to the gym, I take my audio with me on my iPod Touch. Of course, I use my Airpods. I’m not a paid agent for Apple. It’s just that I’ve kind of grown used to their products. At any rate, sounding like a native.
I did a video in Japanese and there was some discussion. “How well does Steve speak Japanese?” and so forth. Well, he speaks it okay, but his pronunciation could be better. It doesn’t sound like a native.
Obviously, when we study a language we’re trying to imitate and the model that we try to imitate inevitably is the native speaker. We want to sound like a native speaker. It might be a native speaker from Scotland or Australia or from Brazil or Portugal or from Quebec or France. But we have a model, which is the native speaker. We imitate the pronunciation. We imitate the use of words. You get into sort of imitating the gestures. We are imitating the culture of another language group.
Similarly, I’m trying to improve my golf. If I see Tiger Woods on the television screen I kind of try to watch how he swings because I would like to swing like Tiger Woods. However, the reality is that I can’t think of anyone I know that speaks a foreign language, that is a language they learned after the age of 15, that sounds like a native. They can sound very close to a native, they might sound like a native for a short period of time, but something will give them away. That’s certainly true.
The language that I speak the best after English is French. If I speak French to someone, especially in short bursts, they might think maybe not French, but maybe Belgian, Swiss or Canadian. Something sounds a bit not quite like the way we speak, although it sounds very fluent. My Japanese is not as good as my French, so I would be even less likely to speak like a native.
I don’t aspire to speak like a native because the native uses his or her language. To me that’s art. There are certain ways that you pause and there are certain ways that you put words together. Things that the native does effortlessly and that the language learner can try to imitate we’ll never totally achieve, in my opinion. No matter how much they focus on pitch in Japanese, which I don’t understand quite frankly, or any of these other things where they try to refine their pronunciation to that nth degree to me is not that useful a thing to do. I would rather acquire more words.
For example, if I compare my Japanese to my French, in French I can read literature. I can listen to audio books. I have all those words, in Japanese I don’t. My Japanese was built around my business discussions in Japan and if I had the time to spend on improving my Japanese I wouldn’t focus on improving my pronunciation to try to achieve that illusive level of sounding like a native. I would work on improving my comprehension, accessing more material so that when I speak I’m able to bring more words and to express myself more accurately, imitate the many other aspects of how the native uses the language rather than just the accent.
All I’m saying is we want to model ourselves on the native and that’s why, again, there’s often a dispute about native-speaking teachers versus non-native speaking teachers. Obviously, not every golf instructor is Tiger Woods. In fact, none of them are. We can still have a golf instructor who is not Tiger Woods and yet still consider Tiger Woods to be the model or some other pro.
Similarly, if we’re learning a language we certainly want to avail ourselves of all of the native content that is out there. If I’m having a discussion on italki, which I use a lot, I want a native speaker. I want to engage. I want to connect with that culture. If I’m speaking to an Iranian tutor, whether that person be in Tehran (one of my Iranian tutors was located I think in Poland) or a Turkish tutor from Turkey, they embody the culture. That’s the person I want to connect with. In a classroom it’s simply not practical to always have native-speaking teachers, but there is certainly a lot that a non-native speaking teacher can provide in terms of help, guidance and encouragement.
The model is the native speaker. However, we are not going to end up sounding like a native. Even Luca Lampariello, who I think is magnificent in the way he speaks, his French, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Swedish, his Russian, excellent pronunciation. Maybe there are people that think he sounds like a native, but in the only language that I’m able to judge, which is English because that’s the only language where I’m a native, he speaks phenomenally well, but he doesn’t sound like a native.
I would suggest that people don’t make sounding like a native, at least in terms of pronunciation, their goal. Try to have a pleasant pronunciation, a pleasant accent that reflects who you are in your native language, but that you respect the language by using words well and let your pronunciation fall where it may. For example, in English the writing system doesn’t match the pronunciation. In Russian if the ‘o’ sound isn’t accentuated it becomes ‘ah’.
These are things that you should be able to notice. However, the sum total of all your pronunciation is still not going to sound like a native, in my opinion. I think one should be realistic in that regard. Work on improving your use of words, your comprehension and your vocabulary. Pay attention to pronunciation, but be realistic that you are not going to sound like a native, at least not to a native.