چگونه شما را با بومی زبان ها اشتباه بگیرندکتاب: سلاست در سه ماه / فصل 9
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CHAPTER 8: How to Get Mistaken for a Native Speaker
It’s time to go beyond fluency by adapting to the local culture, until a stranger mistakes you for a native!
By applying what I’ve discussed about academic courses, grammatical exercises, and taking exams, I have managed to reach a genuine C2 level (mastery) several times. This means I can effectively do absolutely everything in that language that I can in English, including my work as an engineer and discussions on complex topics.
But I may still have an accent, and people still know I’m a foreigner. This is not something that is brought up on the CEFRL language scale, because having an accent doesn’t affect what you can actually do in the language. There isn’t a C3 level—which might be a C2 but without an accent—and with good reason.
Does an Accent Make You Seem Native?
I think people should examine why they want to reduce their accents. The benefits of blending in with people from another country are not just about having no accent, but about being confused for a native speaker. These are two very different worlds.
I’ll discuss accent reduction shortly, but even if you have an accent, you can still get confused for a native speaker. And being confused for a native speaker isn’t just about sounding like one, but acting like one.
I go out of my way to emulate the clothing sense, body language, distance between speakers, facial expressions, the topics I discuss, and all things related to what native speakers would do, rather than just how they would say something. This requires paying attention to customs, looking at what people are doing, and picking up on these things.
While this is, of course, much harder to do when you are in a place where skin color makes you stand out, I don’t think you should give up hope. Many countries are much more multiethnic than you may think, and it is easier to blend in. Even in an extreme case, like China, which has a very tiny amount of non-Asian immigration, people have confused me for an English teacher who has lived in China for years, based on a combination of my speaking Mandarin and standing out less by acting more Chinese.
Walk Like an Egyptian
For instance, when I arrived in Egypt with the beginnings of B1 level spoken Arabic, I found that people would still talk to me in English, before I even said anything. So improving my Arabic clearly wasn’t the issue here. Many might say that my skin color makes it impossible to blend in, but this isn’t entirely true; it’s not about blending in perfectly, but standing out less. Major cities like Cairo actually do have white Egyptians, but the trick is to not look like a white tourist.
So I took the time to sit down at a café where many people were passing by and, with a notepad, really paid attention to what was different between them and me from a purely visual perspective. I noticed that Egyptian males around my age (at least in Cairo) tended to have mustaches and they definitely didn’t wear the kind of lightweight clothes I preferred in that hot weather, but instead wore sweaters, long pants, and dark shoes. They also walked pretty confidently and were much more likely to be talking on their cell phones while crossing a busy street with high-speed traffic coming at them. I also noticed they were less likely to wear hats.
I got rid of my cap, started wearing a sweater over my T-shirt, and as much as I really wanted to wear my comfortable bright-yellow sneakers, I put on cheap, dull, black shoes I found in a local market instead. I also let a mustache grow out and maintained some stubble to look more like Egyptian men my own age.
The way people first treated me after this transformation was incredible! Even though I am definitely Irish and as white as you’d expect any Irish guy to be, people always started speaking Arabic to me when I entered a store, including in highly touristed areas where they spoke very good English, or they would continue in Arabic after I asked a question. Something about my outward appearance helped keep the conversation in the right language.
I am convinced that this outward appearance and body language are as essential as the things I mentioned in the previous chapter when reasoning why some locals may feel inclined to switch back to English. When you look like a tourist, there is a certain subconscious thought process screaming at them to speak English with you, even if you are audibly doing great in their language.
Blending in Beyond Spoken Abilities
Keeping all this in mind, I have found that in Brazil I should swing my arms behind my back while I walk and try to make physical contact while speaking (for instance, putting my hand on someone’s shoulder while I talk to the person, whether male or female). In France, I sit with my legs crossed, as I have noticed men tend to do that more frequently there. When in Asian countries, I take someone’s business card or hand out mine or hand over cash with both hands in a slow and deliberate gesture. In many countries, when out in a bar and saying the local equivalent of “cheers,” I maintain eye contact while saying it. I also always check how I use my arms; too much gesturing in some countries can make people feel like you are a maniac likely to knock something over, but too little in others can make you seem stiff and inexpressive.
I can spot Americans instantly, because they tend to smile a bit too much (in many countries, smiles are not used to break the ice or ease the tension, like in the States, but only when you are genuinely happy; and as such, smiles come across as insincere when overused) and because of a “personal bubble” of distance Americans and English-speaking Canadians tend to keep between themselves and other people while speaking.
Of course, it’s very easy to point out exceptions to these rules; you can’t generalize about hundreds of millions of people. But there are certain traits that each culture is likely to have, and you can find these by observation or time spent with natives. Keep this in mind and you will more likely have the people you meet thinking you are a native—at least visually. Even if you have the most convincing accent in the world, if you are breaking too many visual rules, it’s very unlikely you will get confused for a native speaker.
These changes will also ensure the other person is more comfortable and eager to keep talking to you, because intruding into someone’s personal space (such as what Westerners may do from an Asian perspective), keeping at too much of a distance (such as northern Europeans and North Americans do in Latin countries), wearing “weird” clothes, or having unexpected facial expressions and body language sends an unspoken message to that person that you don’t respect him or her in some way. This can be why a conversation ends abruptly, regardless of your spoken level.
Here are a few things to observe about native speakers (by watching television or relating in person), especially those who are the same gender and age as you:
What clothes do they typically wear?
What facial expressions do they have as they speak?
What distance are they from other speakers?
What are they doing with their hands?
How do they handle personal grooming and what hairstyles do they have?
How and how fast do they walk?
What postures do they have when standing or sitting?
How much eye contact do they make?
What other unique features that make them different from you could you potentially emulate?
Rolling Your R
After outward appearance and general way of acting, the next obvious reason that people will know you are a foreigner is your accent.
The first component of accent reduction is to look at the individual sounds you can’t create right now. Even the most basic language courses will cover in an early lesson the differences between your native tongue and the target language.
Prioritize fixing these to be as close to the real sounds as early as possible, because there are always a tiny number of sounds you need to learn, and if you do this right, you can have the beginnings of a much improved accent as you are pronouncing basic terms. Because there are just half a dozen or so new sounds you need to learn how to produce, focus on them as early as the first week, if you can. You don’t have to say these new sounds perfectly, but if you get them close enough, and quickly enough, you’ll find it a lot easier to make them more precise with time than if you had used English equivalents.
Some of these are incredibly easy to mimic quickly. For instance, the German ü and the French u can both be approximated surprisingly well by rounding your lips as if you are going to say an oo sound but then actually say an ee sound. It’s more complicated than this, but even this approximation can be worth practicing your very first day so that you are close to the actual sound.
Another one that is much easier to do than people believe is the alveolar flap—the r (between two vowels, like in caro) that appears in many languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Slavic languages, and many more. What so many people don’t realize is that they can already approximate this sound, even if they can only speak English. Do not try to change your English r to a flapped or rolled one, because this is far too different. You may as well try to learn how to say the letter m by starting with a k sound, in terms of how well connected they are!
No, in fact, we produce something incredibly similar (at least in American English) when we say the word “butter.” Not that r at the end, but that tt sound in the middle! Say it now quickly in a sentence, so you are less focused on forcing an unnatural pronunciation, and rather than an explosive t sound, like in “time,” you have a flap of the tongue. Now change that b to a c and say “cutter” the same way. Then change the er sound to an o sound and say it a few times, watching that you aren’t saying a t sound but maintaining the flap sound. Finally, open your mouth wider to change the u sound to an a and you have that word caro (which means “expensive” in Spanish and Portuguese).
It’s certainly weird to get an r sound out of what is written as a t sound, but this is much closer to what we want in terms of mouth positions. It’s also a much better starting point from which to merge into an alveolar flap later, and we temporarily use it to make sure that what we are saying is clearer to a native ear than a very English barking r.
Another way to approximate the alveolar flap is to say la, followed by da, and do so very quickly. Try saying “la, da, la, da, la, da,” and so on. You will notice that you keep moving your tongue forward and backward. Now try to stop it somewhere halfway. It’s easier than you think!
There are a host of other sounds, which I won’t cover here, but look them up on YouTube, where they are explained very well. In many segments, a native will explain how a sound works and give suggestions for how to say it. This helps much more than reading an explanation, because you can hear how it should sound and mimic it along with the video. This way you can get a pretty good command of those few sounds that are different from your mother tongue.
When you take on the challenge of trying to sound more like a native, focus on pronunciation and sit down with a native speaker (in person or during an online call) who can tell you precisely why you are pronouncing something incorrectly. If you do this, I would highly recommend that you ask the native speaker to mimic how you are saying it followed by how it should be said. It’s a little embarrassing to feel like someone is mocking your bad sound, but this has helped me notice the real difference much more quickly.
I remember that I spent several hours trying to roll my r, and over several days I tried to mimic a purring cat while relaxing my tongue and blowing air over it. Tougher sounds like this, which are nothing like what you have in your native language, can take some getting used to, but practice and feedback from natives can help you create them. There is nothing stopping you from genuinely learning them. The idea that your tongue doesn’t have the muscles—or other such excuses—is nothing but ridiculous.
This practice is important to both getting the approximation of a new sound and aspiring to sound like a native while you tweak those lingering minor mistakes.
Singing Your Accent Away
Having a convincing accent is, of course, what most of us consider a crucial factor in being confused for a native speaker. I think this only works when combined not just with having an overall native-like appearance, but also with what you’re saying. It’s not just how you say something but what you say.
Even if you use grammatically perfect sentences and do so with a pristine accent, and even if you outwardly look like a native, if you say things that are not generally said in that country, you will stand out like a sore thumb.
For instance, the English phrase “go to bed” is grammatically incorrect if you consider it compared to going anywhere else, which requires an article (go to the kitchen, go to a bathroom) or a possessive (go to my car). Despite this, the phrase is “go to bed.” Exposure to natives and imitating and repeating what they say will give you real phrases.
This is how I prefer to work on improving my accent: by saying several words that are genuinely uttered by a native, learning sentence blocks, and processing my flash cards not as individual words but as new words in example sentences, which give them better context than learning a single translation from English.
There are sounds we create by combining words, and we can’t get these from learning the sounds of individual words too well. While “my” may theoretically be pronounced to rhyme with “buy,” when said as one word or when speaking slowly, many native English speakers alter this a bit and say “ma” when speaking quickly (in Ireland we even go so far as to say it as “mee”). Vowel sounds naturally get cut shorter and some consonants disappear altogether in English.
These are not described accurately in slowly enunciated audiotapes, which is why I tend to take a native recording, such as a podcast or a TV show, replay a segment, and try to mimic it precisely as well as I can. For instance, many Spanish speakers (depending on which country and region) don’t pronounce the d in words with ado in them; when spoken quickly and naturally, something like pescado becomes pescao. While this may not be “proper” Spanish, it is how many people speak and should be emulated if you are aiming to mimic the accent of a native—in much the same way “I dunno” is often how we say “I don’t know” in English.
For some people, focusing on repeating native-recorded phrases and attempting to reproduce them is all they need. Many language learners get great mileage out of sentence drilling, and they do so only with sentences that have been genuinely uttered by natives, rather than translations of what they might say.
For me, this can get boring, so since I am quite musical, I have found that singing to mimic real songs in the language can be a huge help and a good break from repeating phrases. When people sing, they also pronounce the words naturally and quickly (depending on the song or singer).
But rather than do this alone, I have gone back to taking private lessons. Only this time, instead of hiring a language teacher (language teachers are typically not qualified to help with accent reduction; they focus more on language content in terms of vocabulary, grammar, expressions, and the like), I hire a singing or music teacher! I have also had success with voice trainers who specialize in helping radio broadcasters sound more professional in their native tongues. I’ve even gone to speech therapists—once again, those who work with native speakers aiming to improve their pronunciation. The thing about a singing teacher, a voice trainer, and a speech therapist is that, unlike language teachers, they are very familiar with enunciation, pauses, mouth and tongue positions, rhythm, tonality, and much more.
When I tried to get by as a native Brazilian Portuguese speaker, my Carioca music teacher helped me with singing lyrics to popular Brazilian songs after we read them aloud first. One of her criticisms of my early attempts was that we English speakers . . . tend . . . to separate . . . our words . . . too much . . . as we . . . speak. In Portuguese, words flow together while your intonation goes up and down, and this helps you separate words in your mind better than strict pauses. After I was able to repeat the phrases she gave me to her satisfaction, hearing other foreigners speaking Portuguese and not doing it made me immediately think that they sounded like robots with their individual word separations, in comparison to how Portuguese should be spoken.
My music teacher helped me appreciate this and other “musicality” aspects of Portuguese that are applicable even, and especially, when spoken. Singing it helped emphasize the differences even more. It was very hard to push myself to try to sing like a native, and I wasn’t completely successful, but in aiming toward something as hard as that, I pushed my spoken abilities up several notches and had much more convincing Portuguese pronunciation because of it.
There are even accent trainers who specifically help second-language learners. I like how Idahosa (Mimicmethod.com) does it by taking recordings of his students. He then plays them back to the students, highlighting the particular sounds that betray them as foreigners, and plays them beside the native examples for comparison. If you have a native friend online who you think can help you with precisely recorded phrases, you can practice consistently, then upload it to SoundCloud.com (an audio equivalent of YouTube), and comments can be made at the precise point in the audio where your pronunciation requires a change.
Pronunciation or Intonation?
At first glance, it can seem that the differences between a native accent and a foreign accent are all in the pronunciation, but intonation takes a much more critical role. When I had the chance to chat with a very interesting Italian polyglot, Luca Lampariello, this was made very clear.
Luca can speak a large number of languages and was studying to be an interpreter when I met him, but what really struck me as the most impressive thing about him is that he has almost no noticeable accent in several of his learned languages. When I first heard him speak English, I would have thought he was American, if it weren’t for his YouTube channel being called “poliglotta80” (the Italian word for “polyglot”). Natives of other languages, such as German and Spanish, have confirmed that he is incredibly convincing in these languages too.
But he did not grow up speaking these languages. When I asked him about improving pronunciation to have a more convincing accent, he made sure the conversation quickly focused on intonation.
He considers intonation to be like the network that holds a sentence together. The example he gave me was to notice how the word “France” sounds different in a sentence like “France is a beautiful country” versus “I would like to go to France.” In the first sentence, when we are not emphasizing particular words, we tend to say the word “France” with its intonation rising upward, but in the second sentence, our intonation tends to go down on the word “France.” As another example, he said, “I want to talk to Mark and John,” and if we listen carefully, we hear that we put different tonalities on “Mark” (going up, indicating that the sentence hasn’t finished yet or we are giving the first item in a list) and on “John” (the end of factual sentences in English tend to have a downward turn).
Rather than learn these intonation rules individually, Luca recommended that people try to see the general picture of how these rules apply to a language. Appreciating this “network” allows you to step back, see the whole picture, and truly appreciate how a sentence sounds and conveys meaning beyond just its individual words.
He has his own approach for trying to appreciate this visually as well as audibly. You can imagine certain types of sentences that serve a particular purpose (presenting a fact, giving an order, asking a question) following particular prosody patterns (prosody is the rhythm, stress, and intonation in speech), then represent these patterns as waves going up and down and try to hum these mini-tunes to yourself before applying them to actual words.
This is also what I do when I am trying to apply these changes to improve my accent; many languages have these kinds of patterns, and I try to learn them outside of saying words. I may bring these up with my accent trainer, as I mentioned just previously.
One issue was pointed out to me recently that would help me improve my French prosody; my musically inclined teacher told me that changes in tones (such as those cued by the commas in English lists) occur less frequently in French. For instance, in English, the middle of sentences don’t tend to have rising intonations, such as “What I’m trying to say . . .” which is relatively monotone. In French, on the other hand, the equivalent phrase “Ce que je veux dire . . .” tends to be said with a slight rising tone toward the last word. I had naturally picked this up through lots of exposure and was actually overdoing it when I spoke French, going up at the end of mid-sentence pauses and at the end of sentences, where you actually should have a downward intonation. Because of this, my sentences actually sounded more like questions, all the time. When this was explained to me and I made the correction, I was told that it was a dramatic change to what had previously been a very strange sentence rhythm, and it sounded much more naturally French.
When a person has an accent, it means he can speak one more language than you.
Don’t forget that, while a convincing accent can help you sound like a native speaker, appreciation for a local culture and its customs is what really wins over locals of a country you are visiting. Each time people have seen me try to adapt to these aspects as well as improve my language skills, they have warmed up to me much faster.
Speaking with no accent is not as important as people make it out to be; in many cases, an accent can give you a charm that makes you even more interesting to get to know. This also reminds people that you are still a learner, and they will go easier on you, which helps you enjoy the learning process even more.
With this in mind, when you are ready to improve your accent, and you combine it with cultural adjustments, you can even get mistaken for a native speaker. This has happened to me on many occasions, after using a combination of the tips introduced in this chapter, despite the fact that I spent twenty-one years of my life in Ireland before living abroad.
For more thoughts on cultural adjustments and particular accent issues, with suggestions on how to fix them, as well as videos related to intonation and other helpful tricks relevant to this chapter, check out fi3m.com/ch–8.
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