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Native Speakers Don’t Exist

Maybe. Or not quite. This might be an exaggeration but it’s meant to provoke, and to illustrate a common theme of misaligned expectations among language learners. It was during a workshop with a group of sales consultants for an EFL course that I essentially blurted out this sentence – the title of this blog – to the effect of getting them to think about how they can be honest when dealing with their clients expectations.

What exactly, the question is, do we mean when we say that we want to learn to speak a foreign language like a native speaker? Is it a realistic goal? Indeed, what is a native speaker accent? The topic ties in with other reflections on this blog about accents and dialects.

I would say, to put it bluntly that to sound exactly like someone from Yorkshire, for example, you’d have to travel back in time and orchestrate events so that your mother and father somehow transplanted their life to Yorkshire, lived their long enough for you to grow up surrounded by the local accent more than any other, and not leave until you were in your late teens, at the earliest.

Think about people you know that have a native-like command of your native tongue. Do they sound like the come from some place in particular? Probably not. They can function in the language equally as well as you, they have an equal, slightly weaker, or perhaps even slightly stronger grasp of the grammar of your language than you do, and they get along just fine most of the time, just like you do. What is the difference, then, between you in terms of your “nativeness”? 

Let’s think about a few other examples first before we answer that. Imagine someone from another region of the Anglo-Saxon world trying to imitate your accent. You’ve probably heard it. It probably sounds just a bit off at best, ridiculous at worst. 

That gets me thinking: if we can’t – or most people can’t – even accurately imitate or adopt a different regional parlance in our own native tongue, imagine the challenge faced when that accent we’re trying to adopt is of a completely different set of phonemes, intonation, tone or other general musical quality.

It seems fitting that it’s time, in this global world, to separate the ideas of native-level “functionality” in a language (i.e: I can greet people, talk about my job, express my opinions, talk about my field of expertise, read and understand subtle cues of feeling and expression, etc.) and native-level pronunciation and intonation. The former, I believe, is acquirable and we have to admit even some native speakers are better at certain “functions” of language than others. The latter, I think it’s safe to say, is not so much about competence and ability than it is a marker of origin.

Everyone’s accent, dialect, particular grammar and vocabulary, it can be said, is a like the little tag on a garment that reads “made in China” or “manufactured right here” which in many cases make no difference to the fact that the garment is made with cotton, fits well and is of good quality.

Metal chopsticks, made in Korea, pick up the noodles of a stir-fry essentially the same way as wooden chopsticks in China, even though they may look a bit different, and a Professor with a degree in astrophysics from India can probably communicate more knowledge in his Mumbai-accented lectures than a Londoner with a certificate in customer service can answering the phone at a call center – not that either is necessarily more valuable than the other.

Sounds that are hard to ‘spit out’

Accents are a way of life. Everybody has one. I remember a while back I was talking to my mother and mentioned something about our Newfoundland accent, and she seemed to be convinced we don’t have an accent. I asked her what she meant by that and she told me that accents refer to something truly noticeable, like British or Australian.

“What about Irish?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Hmmm… you know our accent is decidedly similar to an Irish accent.”

Anyway, I never did make much headway with all of that. It turned out that my mother was doing what a lot of people do: confusing accents with familiarity. In that respect, I guess I’m also falling victim to a certain ignorance. I have to admit, after living in Korea for a while, the accents around me tend to meld into one. No longer does a British accent sound quite so distinct, and my own pronunciation sounds more or less neutral even to others.

“I just can’t place where you’re from.” I often hear.

“Huh? Well do you like pasta?” I say with a clearly Canadian “a” that Americans like to poke fun at.

What is it about the way we pronounce sounds that gets so hard-wired in our psyche that we can’t even recognize that the way we speak is different from the way others speak. The languages I’ve had the fortune of dabbling with offer up quite a variety of sounds, many of which are extremely difficult. In ‘Easy’ is in the eyes of the beholder I mentioned that one of the biggest challenges of learning a new pronunciation is getting your head – or should I say tongue – around new sounds.

Half the battle of pronouncing a new language is actually hearing the new sounds. Children are equipped to hear the entire human linguistic spectrum, but that skills quickly gets lost to as we tune our ears to our mother tongue. If you’ve ever spent hours trying to hear the difference between hard and soft sounds of Russian to absolutely no avail, you know what I mean. Another example can be heard in foreign accents. Think of the way a Japanese speaker of English says “thank you”, now a French speaker and finally a German. They’re all different, because speakers of each language hear something entirely different as they try to incorporate the sound. The commercial where the German coast card responds to “Mayday! Mayday! We’re sinking, we’re sinking!” with a timid “Hello? Zis is ze German coast guard. What are you sinking about?” is a great example.

If hearing the sound doesn’t get you down, then pronouncing it just might. There are plenty of examples: many a Canadian gave up on rolling their French ‘r’s a long time ago. Americans, well, how many of you can pronounce “gringo“, “real” or “repetir” authentically? Those are by comparison to other tongue acrobatics required by some of the world’s more difficult to pronounce languages.

Take Chinese, for example. I remember reading a statistic somewhere that it takes a good three months to pronounce Chinese tones adequately enough for a native speaker to have the slightest idea what you’re trying to stammer out. Take the following phrase:

妈妈骂马吗?/ Māma mà  mǎ  ma? / Is mom telling the horse off?

I’ll never forget when I told my Chinese teacher 我喜欢喝血 (wǒ  xǐ huan hē  xuè  or ‘I like to drink blood”) when I meant to say “I like to drink sprite (雪碧 or xuě bì ).

Or how about Arabic? Whether you think it’s beautifully hypnotic – as I do – or rough and ugly, there’s something to be said for a language with 27 consonants, depending the dialect you speak. Especially when so many of them are made by contorting your throat in seemingly impossible ways. One Arabic textbook I owned in university described the pronunciation of one consonant something like this: “The sound is made by constricting the muscles in your lower throat. The only time native speakers of English use these muscles is when vomiting.”

“Is everything okay in there, dear?”

“Yes, mom, I’m just practicing Arabic.”

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