Can You Sound like a Native Speaker?

Can You Sound like a Native Speaker? was uploaded onto Steve’s YouTube channel on

May 2nd, 2012

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here again. It’s time to do a video. I put up some of these interviews that I’ve done with people like Luca, Moses, Richard and Felix. Very often people say do one in this language or that language or they ask for subtitles. Insofar as the subtitles are concerned, I simply don’t have the time to do them so there won’t be subtitles. If you have specific requests, maybe people can vote on them, what language they want to hear, who they want me to talk to. People also suggest that I speak to Professor Arguelles and I’m going to try to do that. Maybe someone can help me make a connection there.


So if those are popular, I’ll continue doing them. I think they’re great because before YouTube we had no idea that there were so many people out there that could speak so many different languages. I’m sure that the few people that I’ve spoken to are just the tip of the iceberg, there are many, many more. As I’ve said before, once you get past your second language and your third language every successive language becomes easier to do from many points of view, and this is the subject of my discussion today, including the aspect of pronunciation.


I certainly worked harder on getting my pronunciation as close to native as possible in say French and then Chinese than I have done is subsequent languages because I think that the brain gets more comfortable and gets more used to different sounds, a wider range of sounds. The more languages we learn, that control that the first language exercises on your brain becomes watered down as you’re exposed to a greater variety of sounds and even structures and so forth and so on. Now, the question is, is it realistic, is it even a smart thing to do to try to sound like a native?


Now, as I’ve often said, language learning is all about enjoying it. So if you enjoy trying to sound like a native, by all means, do so, but I think about the idea of trying to sound like a native at two levels. If it’s your goal, in other words it’s the model, like I would like to swing a golf club like Tiger Woods, that’s fine. If you actually expect to sound like a native or expect to hit the golf ball like Tiger Woods, I think that’s unrealistic and I think it’s a distraction.


Other than people who grow up bilingual from at least their teens if not early childhood, I can’t think of many people I speak to in English who sound like a native. There was one fellow that I listened to on Antimoon a number of years ago who I thought was really good with his American accent. We had a fellow at our forum at LingQ from Russia from Saint Petersburg whose English was very close to native. You have to listen closely, but inevitably something will give them away. It’s possible that if I phone a Japanese restaurant, a French restaurant or a Chinese restaurant and I ask for a table and there’s lot of dishes clanging in the background that the person on the other end of the phone may think that I’m a native or won’t even ask himself or herself the question, but if I get in a conversation with someone they will know that I’m not a native.


Luca, who sounds to me like a native in German, French, Spanish, doesn’t sound like a native to me in English. Is that because he’s better in those other languages? The only real test of whether you sound like a native is whether a native thinks you sound like a native. As I say, I rarely hear anyone. You get the odd very bilingual person, especially in Quebec. People have grown up surrounded by English. The coach of our professional hockey team in Vancouver ________, I mean he sounds to me just about like a native. You can kind of pick out a few things that are a little different. Essentially, he sounds like a native, but he’s been living in English for a long, long time. The idea that you can sound like a native in several languages I think is highly unlikely. It’s also a distraction because, ultimately, it doesn’t matter.


The other day someone put on our forum at LingQ a link to a certain Mr. Vaughn who runs language schools in Spain and I’ll put the link up on my blog. He speaks Spanish flawlessly. I mean his use of words is excellent. I was just in awe of his Spanish, but I can tell that he’s not a native and I know that Spanish people can tell that he’s not a native and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t detract from his Spanish in any way. I mean Henry Kissinger spoke with an obvious accent, but he used the language very well. So, to me, speaking like a native (A) it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to achieve it. It’s nice to have a model, you know reach for the sky, but it’s highly unlikely that you are going to achieve it. It’s far more important, in my mind, to have a good command of the language.


If you go and talk to someone and in the first five seconds they think you’re a native, we don’t use the language just to communicate in five-second bullets. We want to have a genuine exchange. Quite honestly, if I’m communicating with someone in the language I don’t care whether he thinks I’m a native. I want to have a good conversation with the person, so the impression I create in the first five seconds of the conversation really doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to me whether someone in a restaurant with enough background noise thinks that I’m a native speaker of Japanese. It really doesn’t matter, when I’m with Japanese people I just want to communication.


Another thing, too, is that so much of language learning is about discovering the language, discovering the culture, learning about the country, learning about the history, learning to understand the language. So much of language learning is taking it in. Language is not a performance sport where we’re judged on how good the dive was in diving or like figure skating. That’s not what it is. It’s understanding, discovering, exploring and communicating. Unless you have such a bad accent that the native speaker can’t understand you, trying to imitate… As I say, yes, it’s the model, but we don’t expect to achieve it.


Now, we would all like to improve our accent to some degree, so what can we do? Some people say you should sing, if you like singing, sing. Personally, I don’t do that, but there’s obviously nothing wrong with doing that. One thing I found useful was listening and then recording myself and then comparing, initially with words and then with phrases and then with paragraphs and putting a lot of emphasis on intonation. As many people point out, intonation is very key. There’s this word ‘prosody’ or whatever, I don’t use it because I don’t like strange words that I’ve never come across before. Intonation works fine for me, rhythm, music, intonation, the flow of the language. I think a lot of listening, recording and comparing can help us, as well as a lot of listening, period.


I made a few notes here. I was working out while listening to Czech, yet thinking about this thing. Then I’d get off the treadmill, scribble down some notes and get back on my treadmill while the Czech podcast was blurring in the background. What else did I say here? Language learning is more of holistic thing. It’s listening, reading, discovering, speaking, it’s working on vocabulary. It’s working on a number of things, including intonation and rhythm. The more of all of these pieces that start to come together, the better you are in the language and probably the better your accent will become. Some people will do better than others in accent, but to try and deliberately attempt to sound like a native or to claim that you sound like a native to me, as I say, is just a distraction from language learning.


What else did I have to say? The main thing is I want people to communicate with me. I want to be able to speak well enough in terms of my accent and in terms of my use of language, but the native speaker doesn’t make any special allowances. The native speaker doesn’t say I’m talking to some foreigner here who has trouble expressing himself and I can’t understand what he’s saying. I want the native speaker to just say this is Steve X. It doesn’t matter what his nationality or language of origin is we’re communicating. He has something to say that’s of interest and he’s able to express himself or what he says is dumb and I’m going to tell him he’s dumb. Either way, we are communicating.


I mean, basically, there you have it. Richard and I both speak French very well, Richard Simcott, as does Luca. Both of them better than I do, I’m sure. I can’t speak for Luca, he might be taken for a native, I don’t know. I don’t think Richard or I would be taken for a native in our French, but we both speak the language very well and I think that’s really all you have to achieve.


So thank you for listening, bye for now.

8 comments on “Can You Sound like a Native Speaker?

Un Canadien errant

When actress and singer Jane Birkin first came to France during the sixties, she spoke very little French. She then got this advice from her future husband Serge Gainsbourg: “Never lose your accent. If you lose it, the French will stop loving you” . In other words: stay yourself. This anecdote illustrate a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, most people feel ashamed of their accent when they learn a new language while on the other, people in general often feel attracted to foreign accents. It is true, not all accents are well perceived and it is not always pleasant to get attention because of your accent: to be able to go unnoticed also has many advantages…


Steve, I would like to see a video from you talking about the difficulties of your languages. I saw your discussion with Felix from Brussels and you said that Russian is harder than Chinese, in your opinion. I think it is possible to make a ranking on difficulties of these languages or something like that.


I concur that sounding native, while maybe not impossible, is at least overrated. Accents are actually wonderful things. I first even thought about this while visiting a friend in Finland, years and years ago. She told me that she and all her friends were embarassed to speak English, because they had Finnish accents. Well, they also spoke English perfectly. I thought. Why would a Finnish accent have any lesser value than a Minnesotan accent or a Californian accent or a British accent, etc.? I think why people have this phobia about it is they equate having a foreign accent with speaking badly, but it really doesn’t have to be the case.


I think that most people can sound like a native (in terms of accent) if they actually try and/or are taught. But the thing is many people do not want to — they feel like they are losing something if they do not have an accent. I have dealt with this issue with students I have taught, who in spite of having very heavy accents refused to work on diminishing them because it would make them less "French, Spanish, etc." Personally, I have always tried to sound like a native in pronunciation and I have. I think because that was my goal and I also do not believe that I need to show people I am an American by having an accent when I speak another language. Also schools (especially universities) fall back on the theory that adults cannot learn pronunciation and will always sound like a non-native in another language. If you start with that premise, then you make it happen. Teachers don’t bother to deal with pronunciation (and they don’t have time to do so, so this justifies it) and students don’t even bother because their accents are accepted and they feel like they can’t do any better. The man in the video does not have a very thick accent that impedes understanding his Spanish. Obviously he has been very successful in Spain regardless. I do think that if one is planning to teach languages to beginners (especially in a country where the language is not spoken, for example, French in the U.S.) you should have pronunciation that sounds native-like (even if you are not a native) because the student has no familiarity with the language. He/she is doomed to having inferior pronunciation if the dominant model he/she hears is a teacher speaking French with a non-native sounding accent.

    Name *Annette

    Hopefully, no matter the accent of the teacher, the students will be exposed to many different native accents with the variety of listening activities provided.

Name *Gareth

I’m from the UK and have managed to pass myself off as a native Spanish speaker. That was when speaking with Puerto Ricans in New York though, who weren’t as familiar with the European Spanish accent I learnt in Spain. That was why they didn’t pick up on the subtle deficiencies in my pronunciation and accent.

I think passing for a native is possible if you are absolutely determined and prepared to dedicate time to perfecting your accent. It will obviously depend on how different the language is to yours though. Out of all the languages I’ve learnt my accent is best in German, which is closer to English than the romance languages.

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