Can We Learn to Speak a Foreign Language Like a Native Speaker?
I can speak 17 or so languages to varying degrees of fluency.
Some I speak really well, like French, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish. Even in languages that I speak less well, like Swedish, German, or Russian, my accent is not too bad, people tell me.
However, in none of my languages would I be mistaken for a native speaker, except for English, my own language. This doesn’t bother me, nor does it bother the people I speak to in these other languages. It also doesn’t bother me when I hear people speak English well, but with an accent.
There are people who claim to speak like a native in a foreign language. Many have achieved a C2 level in a second language, the highest level on the Common European Framework of Reference.
C2 is a high level in a language, a level that many native speakers don’t have. But that is not the same as being able to be mistaken for a native speaker of that language.
Input prepares us
I am a proponent of input based learning, massive listening and reading, using content of interest, compelling content, as much as possible. This is the most efficient way to get the words, structures and pronunciation of the language into you, to familiarize yourself with a new language. This is how I have learned my languages, or at least that is how I have prepared myself for speaking.
Make no mistake. Even for me, an input based learner, the goal is to speak, and to speak as well as I can. I know that to speak well I will need to speak a lot. I will need to activate all of the passive vocabulary acquired through the hundreds or thousands of hours of listening, and the millions of words that I have read.
In fact, those people who speak foreign languages well have had to commit to intensive and extensive input based learning, since the language doesn’t come from within us, but from outside, from authentic content, and from the native speaker, the model. In order to speak well, these people will also have spoken a lot, conversing with others, listening and at the same time formulating their own thoughts in the language, imitating as they go.
The more we listen and read, and the more we speak, the better we get in a language. If we are determined to continue improving, we can basically improve forever. There is practically no limit to how fluent we can become, no limit on how many words we can learn. There is no limit on how well we can understand, nor how well we can express ourselves. There is one exception. If we start learning as an adult, we are unlikely to be mistaken for a native speaker.
Fluency is not the same as speaking like a native
I have probably dealt with thousands of people speaking a foreign language. I would have trouble remembering even a handful who spoke “just like a native” even for a short time. There are people who speak well, but almost always they can eventually be identified as foreign. It might be pronunciation or an awkward turn of phrase. But there will be something.
And so what?
No only is it not realistic to expect to speak like a native, it is not necessary. We learn languages either to enjoy them and the related culture, or to communicate with the natives of that language, for pleasure or work. None of this requires us to sound like a native.
The native speaker is the model, the ideal which we seek to emulate, just as we may try to emulate Tiger Woods if we are a golfer. But we do not realistically expect to play golf like Tiger Woods, nor should we expect to speak like a native. The natives do not expect it either.
We can try to get as close as possible to the ideal, to speak with as few mistakes as possible, to continuously improve. But if we fall short, we can still be satisfied. The thousands of people of all nationalities whom I have met, who had effective and practical control of English or other languages, achieved their language goals without sounding like a native.
Non-natives can be better than natives in some aspects of the language. Joseph Conrad apparently had a strong Polish accent and yet was an outstanding novelist and writer of classics of literature in the English language.
A highly educated non-native speaker can be more literate than some of the less well educated natives, or, especially in the case of English, spell better and be more grammatically correct than a native. But even the semi-literate native speaker will sound more native than most of these highly educated non-native speakers.
Learn to enjoy what you can do
It is often the case that a slightly exotic accent, or a lingering structural pattern that betrays a foreign speaker, can seem charming. At the very least it doesn’t detract from communication, which is what languages are for.
Whenever I hear people express themselves comfortably, and not self-consciously, in a foreign language, I am impressed. These fluent speakers of a language are not just performing to demonstrate their prowess, nor pretending to be a native speaker. They are just using the skill they have acquired through a lot of hard work, in order to connect with people of a different culture.
If we have acquired a skill through hard work, if we can notice how much progress we have made in something important to us, this gives us a sense of achievement. When we think back to how difficult the language seemed at first, and compare this to whatever ability we now enjoy, there should be a great sense of satisfaction. I know there is in my own case.
There are enough frustrations in language learning, along with many rewards. We don’t need to set ourselves unrealistic goals. If you enjoy the language learning process, you are more likely to continue, and if you continue you are more likely to achieve a comfortable level of fluency.
There is no need to strive to speak like a native, nor to feel disappointed if you don’t.