Can We Learn to Speak a Foreign Language Like a Native Speaker?

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.

But the question regularly comes up. Can we learn to speak like a native? This would mean both in terms of pronunciation, and even more crucially, in terms of use of words and structure.

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

Can We Learn to Speak a Foreign Language Like a Native Speaker?

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.

Can We Learn to Speak a Foreign Language Like a Native Speaker?

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.

Can We Learn to Speak a Foreign Language Like a Native Speaker?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.

 

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9 comments on “Can We Learn to Speak a Foreign Language Like a Native Speaker?

JM

I think it’s possible to speak like a native. I know a couple both french canadian, moved to Miami in the 70′, barely speak english then. They didn’t want to be seen likeforeigners, so they increase their english level, they speak to each other only in english, raise their child only in english, now the same guy who was not able to speak english correctly at 20, is now a real american and have difficulties to speak french…and the child doesn’t even know a word of french.A friend of mine is Serbian. First time, I talked to her, I didn’t notice she was not french canadian. She moved here at 16, and at 20 it’s impossible to tell than she’s not from here if she doesn’t speak serbian. She speak french and english with a french canadian accent.If your goal is to speak like a native and 100% of your language input and output is in your target language(even thinking), you’ll speak like a native after few years.-If your goal is to learn basic, you’ll only be able to barely talk the language. Only output can do the job.-If your goal is communicate with native and put the time, you’ll be able to communicate with native, but they’ll know than you’re a foreigner. Input is the important part.-If your goal is to speak like a native, you have to put the time and live in this language. Lots of input first, and after almost all the communication must be in the target language.If you can speak a language after few years, it take few more years of communication in a language to be perfect. Important part, you have to live in the target language, get rid of your native language, need a commitment. Without changing country and way of life, it quite impossible to speak like a native. No one speak like a native while learning a language, it happens when we lived in the language.

    Name *Andrew

    I believe that learning to speak like a native is an important and quite possible thing. When I learn a language I like to focus on accent and slang words that help one sound like a native. I like how you touched on the difference of Fluency and Native Sounding.

Badr

You can achieve native level in languages that have exactly the same sounds as your native language, because in the end it is the accent that will bring you down, it is how your speaking system form since childhood to pronounce sounds as they should be in your native language, in other languages it is almost never 100% the same sounds, so you will always pronounce them not 100% correct, maybe not even hearing the difference.

Name *Julia

I agree with Steve – it doesn’t matter if you speak like a native or not. But with the English language, there are quite a few varieties. For example, I speak English as a foreign language and people usually think that I am a native but just from a different English speaking country. So, in a way people think that I am a native 🙂

Jorge Durango

It doesn’t matter. But it is possible. I personally met people who speak with native accent. Native speakers would agree with me all the time that their accent was native. And I often think: “they are not geniuses”. Not that I think of myself as a genius, but if they could do it, so can I!.

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