How to sound like a native speaker?
When I moved to England for the first time, I really wanted to sound like a native. I felt very strongly that my ability to speak without my native accent was the one and only goal to aim for. I wanted to be part of the crowd. I thought people would judge me if I didn’t – that they would comment on it or think I was less capable because I couldn’t speak ‘perfectly’, just like them. I was doing my undergraduate degree and I wanted to sound like an ‘educated’ person.
I found it hard to speak at all because of that. I would prefer one-to-one situations where there was only one ‘judge’ of my accent – if anything went wrong, at least there’s only one person hearing it. In big groups, I tended to be a listener. Or I would make friends with other non-natives – at least they wouldn’t always know I had my accent.
Then something changed when I moved to France for my year abroad. I stopped caring about my accent. Thinking about it now, it’s probably because my stay in France was so temporary – just a year, so if I made a fool out of myself, I’d be out of the country and nobody would judge me again. So I really went for it and pretty much became fluent in my third month there.
The two years before that at a British university seemed more permanent and perhaps that’s why I used to care about my accent so much. When I got back from France, though, I became much more confident, I started to speak in class, speak in front of groups, I became more sociable. I even performed in a student theatre play as one of the two main characters!
So let me tell you something before I go into my tips for how to sound more like a native speaker. Having an accent is OK. It’s actually nice when you hear someone speak another language with a hint of their own. It’s part of them – it’s part of their personality and their uniqueness. It makes them interesting.
If your ambition, though, is to sound more like a native speaker of the language you’re learning, that’s OK too. I’m going to give you some ideas for how you can move towards this goal but remember –doing is better than perfect. Speaking a language at all is better than not speaking because you feel self-conscious about your accent.
Analyse spoken language
Find a recording of a native speaker and listen to it paying attention to the sounds you hear. Listen for the following:
- Which sounds/words blend into one?
- Which two words sound like one?
- Which letters are pronounced differently to how you thought they’d be pronounced? How are they pronounced?
- Which letters are not pronounced at all?
You can write down what you hear and use a different colour pen to record the information above next to the words/letters. You will easily identify patterns that come up again and again in spoken language, and put them into practice next time you’re speaking your target language.
Focus on pronunciation
Pronunciation is the most basic element of sounding like a native speaker. What I mean by pronunciation is the way you say the different sounds that make up words. I’m not talking about sentences at this point.
Start by identifying your problem areas. Which words are the ones you’re struggling with? What sounds are they made up of? In French, for example, the words I always used to find difficult to pronounce were ones containing the ‘eux’ and ‘eau’ letter combinations. They’re not sounds that you will find in English or in my native Polish so they’re quite tricky to master.
Google Translate is a great tool for practising your pronunciation of these problematic sounds because you can get it to say the words and repeat them as many times as necessary. My tip would be to listen to them and compare the sounds to very similar sounds to spot the difference between them. For example, in English they could be words like ‘been’ and ‘bin’ – the sound in the middle is long or short depending on which one of the two you’re saying.
Word stress: get it right
Word stress is the stress you put on a specific syllable within a word. It’s not the same as sentence stress (which is the stress you put on a specific word within a sentence). Word stress is very important in languages where it occurs. For example, in the Spanish word ‘mañana’, it’s the second syllable which should be emphasised.
Again, you can use Google Translate and do a little word stress exercise. Take a newspaper article and pronounce each word individually followed by listening to its correct stress in Google Translate. Focus on the stress – can you hear the difference between the way you stress it and the way Google Translate does it? Continue until you get it right.
Sentence stress: stress the right words
As I said above, sentence stress is about emphasising a particular word or (words) within a sentence. This can be done, for example, for emphasis or to clarify what you mean. For example:
I work in London.
Yes, but where do you live?
I live in Paris.
My brother lives in Madrid.
I know, but where do you live?
I live in Warsaw.
When doing your next listening activity, pay attention to which words are stressed in each sentence and repeat this pattern yourself. As you do it more and more, you will begin to notice patterns of stress that native speakers use all the time. For example, when an English native speaker says ‘Did you have a nice weekend?’, the first five words tend to be quite flat and blend into one, with the final word emphasised.
Intonation: get the musicality right
Intonation is the rise and fall of your voice when you speak. In some languages, intonation goes up at the end, which indicates it’s a question – this is the case in Polish, for example. If I use the exact same intonation in English, I’m definitely going to reveal my non-nativeness.
Something I do sometimes when practising my intonation is to just focus on intonation. To do that, you need to eliminate words and ‘speak’ using a made-up word (try ‘mi’ or ‘mimi’). Listen to a recording, sentence by sentence, and ‘repeat’ using your word (‘mi’ or ‘mimi’, or anything else you like!) – this will essentially sound like you’re just saying ‘mimimi mimi mimimimi’. That way, you don’t get distracted by meaning and you focus your full attention on intonation. Language is like music – it goes up and down, and once you get it right you’ll move closer and closer towards sounding like a native speaker.
Use connectors to make conversation flow
What I’ve found to be one of the most useful things when trying to figure out how to sound like a native speaker is what I’m going to call ‘connectors’. They are phrases that are not necessarily integral to the message you or your conversation partner are trying to communicate. They’re phrases that connect thoughts – either your own or your own and your conversation partner’s. They can also be phrases that you use to react to something somebody else has said, or phrases that you use to express your mood. Let me give you some examples.
In English, for example, they can be:
- If somebody tells you something surprising, e.g. ‘My friend has won the lottery!’, you can react with ‘Has he?!’ or ‘Has he really?’
- You can say ‘so’, ‘right’ or ‘well’ to introduce your next thought
- You can say ‘right’ or ‘I see’ to show that you’re listening to what your conversation partner is saying
Use fillers to sound more natural
Fillers are a kind of non-words that native speakers will use in the middle of sentences or when they’re about to say something. They can be sounds such as ‘hmm’, ‘um’ or ‘like’. They’re what makes speech natural and native-like.
Here’s a great article from Lingholic on the subject of fillers.
Imitate native speakers’ mistakes?
A lot of native speakers say things which you think may be incorrect. Things which go against the rules that you learned when learning their language. To give you an example, a lot of English people use the conditional ‘incorrectly’. For example, when you learn English, this would be the ‘correct’ way of saying the following sentence.
If I’d brought my umbrella, I wouldn’t have got soaked.
What you hear people in England say all the time, though, is:
If I’d have brought my umbrella, I wouldn’t have got soaked.
If you’re a native English speaker, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think this is a mistake. It’s just the way spoken language has evolved. Textbooks just haven’t caught up yet!
I’m not necessarily going to encourage you to make mistakes intentionally. However, if there’s something you notice native speakers say all the time, you can drop it into a conversation every now and then, even if it goes against the rules in your textbooks! That may move you a little bit closer to the native speaker crowd.
Get the register right
Register is simply the level of formality with which you speak. The key to sounding more like a native speaker is to adjust your register to the situation you’re in – not sounding too informal when you’re delivering a presentation at university or at work, and not sounding too formal when you’re having a friendly chat down the pub.
If I said ‘Did you receive my email?’, I’d be most likely talking to a work colleague, and if I said ‘How is it going?’, I’d probably be talking to a friend of mine.
You can focus on identifying the words used in different contexts next time you’re doing a listening exercise. Watch a TV show featuring friends and listen for words they use in informal conversations between themselves. Watch the news to listen for more formal words and expressions. Find a formal speech by a politician to listen for words connected to a very formal register. Watch a YouTube tutorial if you’re looking for something more chatty and conversational.
Keep a list of informal vocabulary
This is related to the section above which is about register. If you’re wondering how to sound like a native speaker, create a little dictionary of informal vocabulary that you will be able to use in a conversation with your friends in social situations.
When learning languages, I often find that I can talk about big and serious subjects (such as politics, current affairs, etc.) relatively soon after I start to learn the language. It’s the more ‘simple’ conversations that are problematic – I just sound too serious!
One way to solve this problem is to create a list of words that people use in informal situations. For example, in English, you’re likely to hear words such as ‘brilliant’, ‘cool’, ‘amazing’, ‘mate’, ‘cheers’ during a conversation in a pub.
Focus on body language
Perhaps you haven’t considered this but body language is really an integral part of sounding more like a native. The facial expressions you make, the amount of smiling you do when you speak, the way you use your arms to support what you’re saying – these are all non-verbal elements that help you express your message more clearly and sound more native-like.
A good way to get a grasp of the kind of body language native speakers of the language you’re learning use – apart from obviously hanging out with them – is to watch some videos and focus specifically on body language. What is it that they’re talking about? What are their faces doing and when? What’s the tone of the conversation – are they being friendly, suspicious, hostile, welcoming? Try to read their body language and if you’re struggling – ask your language exchange partner about the more unfamiliar gestures and faces you can’t read very easily.
What does ‘native’ really mean, though?
One problem with learning how to sound like a native speaker is that the idea of ‘native’ is so fluid, especially if you’re learning a language that has many regional variations.
For example, if I’m learning Spanish, do I want to sound like a person from Madrid, Valencia, Colombia, Mexico, or a Puerto Rican living in the United States? They are all native speakers, aren’t they?
A foreign accent is a good conversation starter
The bottom line of all this, as I already said in the introduction to the article, is that having a foreign accent is perfectly OK when speaking another language. As long as you’re understood – that’s what really matters!
Having a foreign accent can be part of your identity and it can be an invitation to a conversation every time you speak. Your conversation partner will be interested to hear what your background story is and where you’re from, and your relationship may be more authentic as a result.
So, good luck with whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve – whether it’s sounding more like a native speaker or simply sounding more fluent!