How To Speak Like A Native

This entry is part 1 of 13 in the series Secrets of Speaking

This is another comment that grew so long as to deserve its own article. First, the original question:

See, everyone is so discouraging when you learn a new language and say you’ll always ’sound like a foreigner’ and this is a bit depressing. I realize that certain speech patterns are set and all that but what would be your advice and aquiring an authentic accent (Japanese or any other language)?

And my response:

ACT. Pretend you ARE from that country. Pretend you’re that Jared kid from The Pretender, and that your life depends on you convincing people that you were born and raised in whatever country has native speakers of your language. Pick specific people (often, actors) to imitate and copy their mannerisms, look at the way their mouths are shaped, their hand gestures, the facial muscles they use. Be like a comedian doing impressions.

You stop being foreign when you stop believing you are foreign, at least in terms of the language. Hold yourself to the same standard as a native speaker — if someone had to talk to you on the phone, they shouldn’t be able to tell. Never fall for the excuse of “oh, it’s not my native language”. You needn’t be harsh on yourself, just always be looking for ways to improve.

I had a Japanese friend who self-taught English, and when I first met her I thought she was Japanese-American: it was that flawless. She told me she’d watched a lot of TV and movies, and had changed the way she acted and used her facial muscles and shaped her mouth when making sounds.

So, input and imitation. Input, because you have to hear a lot of examples not just of certain words, but certain COMBINATIONS or strings of words. Words change a bit when people shout, intonation changes based on emotion.

Also, pauses. Use the same pauses and bridges as native speakers. So, no “um” because “um” is English, find the equivalents of “um” and “uhhhuhhh” in the languages you are learning.

What else…YES! I call it “doping“. In semiconductor production, doping is the process of deliberately introducing impurities into an extremely pure material in order to obtain better/desired performance properties. In learning a language, doping is the process of almost “dumbing-down” or de-streamlining your spoken language by introducing inefficient elements that have function but no meaning, and serve to make it more natural and native-like. You see, foreigners, tend to learn from texts and textbooks. And text is much, much more efficient (“pure”) than speaking. In text you get straight to the point:
A) “This is an example”. [4 words, 0 long pauses]

But in speech, you amble zig zigzag-zag toward your point:
B) “Well, um, this is, like, an example or whatever…kind of, I dunno”. [13 words, 1 long pause]

Native speakers are wasteful and inefficient. This is why the Borg in Star Trek despise human communication. In my experience, native speakers use perhaps 2 or 3 times the number of words they “need”, and all that extra baggage has no lexical meaning. “Um” does not mean anything. “Like” does not really mean anything. It’s all just filler.

Make your speech more native-like by making it more wasteful — I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s the truth. If you speak too plainly, without any flavor, you come out sounding robotic or just foreign (often both). Also, the wasteful pauses can help buy you time when you need to remember a specific word — you do this in your native language, too — you don’t remember a specific word or phrase, so you keep stringing words or phrases that are close to it in meaning and until you hit the jackpot. Examples:

A) “Is it like a wiki or a blog, or, like a CMS or something?”.
B) “I’ve never, like really had Japanese food, Or, I guess, been to a Japanese restaurant or whatever, at least on my own. I mean, I can, like, read the menu, but, um, you know, what’s actually inside it — the stuff, you know, the food, the tendon or whatever…Is what I want to know?”.

Not very good examples, but I think you get the point.

Finally, you want to swallow the words that native speakers swallow. For example, in Japanese, there is a word: 雰囲気. Technically, it should be pronounced “fun-i-ki”, but native speakers swallow it and say “fuinki”; I say it the garbled, native way.

Oh, one more thing: pick an accent. The easiest to pick is the standard accent since it tends to have the most materials produced in it. Either way, pick a focus: pretend the people who speak that dialect are your parents and classmates — functionally, they are.

Finally (for real), try recording yourself now and then. It can reveal where you need work. For more, try out these articles:

Series NavigationMastery is Mastering the Basics >>

  26 comments for “How To Speak Like A Native

  1. October 28, 2007 at 22:04

    雰囲気 — I love that word. I laughed the first time I heard it.

  2. Christina
    October 29, 2007 at 00:03

    Thanks for the post. Im trying to decide between a Beijing accent (Since my boyfriend is from Beijing and thats where I would mainly be visiting if I went to China), or a Taiwan accent (Since 99.99% of my movies, tv shows, books, podcasts, etc are trom Taiwan so I hear it a heck of a lot more often.)

    Since you’re learning 繁体字 I assume you’re going with the Taiwan accent?

  3. Nivaldo
    October 29, 2007 at 00:18

    Wow, now that I saw your post I remembered that I was unconsciously acting. I didn’t know that I was actually imitating someone. I just watched english and american movies and started talking like the actors without even knowing I was imitating them. Maybe it was the willing force because “before” Japanese I was VERY MUCH addicted to English. Thanks for the hint, Khatzumoto. I will surely do the same for Japanese.

  4. Pete
    October 29, 2007 at 07:10

    So, um, how do you say “um” in Chinese?

  5. ハクション大魔王
    October 29, 2007 at 09:49

    Great post!
    I don’t have the facilities to record my voice, so I ask Japanese friends for advice. While most of them tell me I am ‘more Japanese than Japanese’ and I have nothing to work on- grrrr- one friend is nothing but honest and told me I need to work on my katakana words. It seems like I often pronounce them too close to the English original. Opps.
    While I do find myself copying the way Japanese hold their mouths while talking etc, I haven’t been consciously copying a particular actor. Great idea! Hmmm who should I choose…

  6. khatzumoto
    October 29, 2007 at 12:48

    Some unholy alliance of Beijing and Taiwan I suppose. My dictionary is based on Beijing pronunciation, but my TV shows are either from TW or HK…
    Beijing tones, Taiwan sound? I dunno…

  7. quendidil
    October 29, 2007 at 22:06

    I think the official “Received Pronunciation” Standard of Mandarin is same in both Taiwan and Mandarin. Here in Singapore, there are occasionally interviews with authors from Taiwan who pronounce hanyu pinyin “s” and “sh” and “x” quite distinctly. Even many pop-singers pronounce it like this in songs. 王心凌 蔡依林,are two I recall right off the bat currently. Jay Chou has a unique accent, sort of like your neighbourhood homie’s I think. A cooking show that I heard on radio with a chef from Taiwan slurred his vowels very heavily however. At any rate, I don’t really like c-pop music as they are mainly based on covers. I’d advise foreigners not to memorize the songs too hard, I dunno whether you might misapply the tones from the songs. Song lyrics are great for poetic vocabulary however, regardless of genre, even pop has some really great phrases.

  8. quendidil
    October 29, 2007 at 22:10

    oops, i meant Taiwan and Beijing.^

    Also, an actual Beijing accent (along with many other Northern Chinese accents) is very rhotic. I believe you would have heard of this, with all the -儿 sounds at the back. I personally dislike this accent, I dunno why, I dislike most rhotic English accents as well, except Irish and Scottish ones lol. The standard Mandarin is (thankfully) much less rhotacized.

  9. quendidil
    October 29, 2007 at 22:21

    Another note: 法国 (日本語の仏国) is fa4 guo2 in Taiwan while fa3guo2 in Bejing. I think I have heard fa3guo2 on Taiwanese shows recently though. 俄国 I believe is also e4guo2 and e2guo2 in Taiwanese and Mainlandese Mandarin respectively, I think.

    Btw, isn’t 仏 the simplification of 佛 in Japanese? I find it odd that 佛 is still present in the IME, anyone got anything on this?

  10. quendidil
    October 29, 2007 at 22:41

    So, um, how do you say “um” in Chinese?

    I personally do use a sound like mmmmm. Sort of like umm, without the vowel; in other words without opening your mouth make a long “m” sound. This may be an idionsyncracy of Singaporean speech however.

    4啊,or often simply just a pause, with lengthening of the preceding vowel is also used. The 啊 is more like a vocative in Latin however.
    咳哟is another example. Though it is more for indicating exasperation. All these are actually very similar to Japanese よ、ね、さ、な but may be used anywhere in the sentence.

    那个mmmm,叫什么,凉宫春日的小说啊,在哪里可以买到? “That ummm, what’s it called, Suzumiya Haruhi novel , where can I buy it?”
    我要mmmm排骨王,mmmm 芙蓉蛋,mmmm还有咖喱鱼头。 I want ummm, pork ribs,…. furong eggs, mmmm and curry fish-head.

  11. quendidil
    October 29, 2007 at 22:45

    Oh and mmmm in this case would be pronounced with the 3rd tone.
    another mmmm is like japanese うん in fact, with the same meaning, and I have heard うん pronounced as nnnn/mmmm by some anime male characters before. This is pronounced with the 4th tone. This should be standard. Some Taiwanese dramas also use this.

  12. khatzumoto
    October 29, 2007 at 23:45

    Btw, isn’t 仏 the simplification of 佛 in Japanese?

    Yeah. As I understand it, the traditional 繁體字 are still standard (正字); the visual simplifications forced by the US/MacArthur occupation govt. are merely abbreviations (略字). So the trad chars are still valid and you are free to use them, which many people, in fact, do. For example, there is a university called 佛教大學. But I could be wrong…

  13. GZ
    October 30, 2007 at 22:59

    hey khatzumoto,

    being a fellow chinese learner, I’m wondering if you’ve developed any techniques to deal with recognizing tones. i can more or less produce them on my own, but i’ve been studying for over a year and it seems i’m no closer to recognizing tones in rapid (i.e. normal native) speech than when i started. anything you suggest, aside from listening to lots and lots of chinese, and assuring myself that if a billion chinese people can do it, eventually I’ll be able to do it, too?

  14. khatzumoto
    October 30, 2007 at 23:07

    Yeah…I have been through the exact same experience as you. But, lately, I notice that the more I listen, the more I can correctly pick out what tone something is…it’s like “hearing” your hearing is all a blur, but then your “audio focus” starts to kick in — you hearing “sharpens”. So…yeah…just keep listening. Haha, it’s not the sexiest idea, but it works :).

    I think…and this is just a hunch…but I think we learners can tend to overemphasize tones. Before anyone freaks out, let me explain — of course bad tones will cause confusion, I’m not saying to throw caution to the wind. What I mean is, thinking too much of words being “this word + this tone”. Perhaps it would be better to think of it as just being the sound of the word. In English, words have stress/emphasis, but we don’t go around freaking out about “hey, what’s the STRESS on that word”…we just think of it all as “the sound of that word”.

    Anyway, I’m just walking the path myself, so, there’s not much I can say. This is just what’s going through my head right now. There are definitely folk out there with better answers for you…

  15. Mark
    October 31, 2007 at 14:25

    Just one thought about the tone issue. How do Chinese native speakers view it? Do they think of their language as having vowels which can take a variety of tones? Or do they view each vowel/tone combination as a distinct sound?

  16. khatzumoto
    October 31, 2007 at 14:47

    I’m not a native speaker of Chinese so I really shouldn’t be sticking my head in here (quendidil, help!), but I think that Chinese native speakers probably view their language the same way that native speakers of all languages do.

    We may know, for example, at a theoretical level, that English has stress, but we (well, I) don’t think about it consciously at a more applied level, when speaking. It’s just “the sound of that word”. Sometimes we put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLAble to be funny, but, I think it stops there; it’s only conscious when we deliberately make it so. Similarly, I imagine native speakers of Chinese just think “that’s how this word sounds”. Whenever I’ve asked Chinese friends “what tone is that?”, they always seem to have to think about it for a while and sometimes they even give me the wrong tone, even after trying to analyze it and even though they always say it correctly. My teacher (also Chinese) was the same way, and she’s an academic professional.

    Where is the stress on the word “exchange”? I’m sure you say it right all the time, but I betcha you’ll stop and think.

    Or not…I don’t know, really.

  17. October 31, 2007 at 15:58

    I’ve come across this in the opposite way. Japanese people asking me about English stresses. Like Kats said, before I came to Japan I didn’t even know English speakers did it. Only when having to try not to stress things in Japanese did it become apparent.
    One of my teachers had to give a small English speech and asked me to read it while he marked the stress points in. Then of course he tended to over-stress those points so it still didn’t sound natural.

  18. Glenn
    October 31, 2007 at 16:05

    >So the trad chars are still valid and you are free to use them, which many people, in fact, do. For example, there is a university called 佛教大學. But I could be wrong…

    That university looks familiar. I think it’s funny how Japanese will sometimes be inconsistent with their character set. For example, I’ve seen signs that had 灯籠 on them, and signs that had 燈籠 on them, and I’m pretty sure even one that had 燈篭. Then there was an episode title of One Piece (I think) that was something like 灯を燈せ, where it’s the same character in two different forms. Then there’s the anime 東京魔人學園剣風帖2, that doesn’t bother with 劍, but uses 學 for 学. Then there are some 異体字 that are interesting, like 㐂 and 噐 (not sure if Chinese uses those).

    By the way, about 雰囲気, I was pretty sure that the standard pronunciation was still ふんいき — I’m pretty sure I heard it that way and I remember reading an account of a girl being corrected by a guy when she said it ふいんき and getting her feelings hurt. Anecdotal evidence, I know, but it’s what my experience with the word is. And by “standard” I mean “most commonly used,” by the way, not “prescribed.”

  19. beneficii
    October 31, 2007 at 17:44

    Mighty Matt,

    “I’ve come across this in the opposite way. Japanese people asking me about English stresses. Like Kats said, before I came to Japan I didn’t even know English speakers did it. Only when having to try not to stress things in Japanese did it become apparent.
    One of my teachers had to give a small English speech and asked me to read it while he marked the stress points in. Then of course he tended to over-stress those points so it still didn’t sound natural.”

    This leaves me to the belief that the whole let’s-analyze-the-language before we actually listen or use it, because you know, we’re too old to just get the sound of it is bunk. You should keep listening to the native speakers, try to imitate them, and leave your native language out of it. The whole analysis, as Khatzumoto said, is “verbal diarrhea” unless you already know the language, at which point it becomes insight and let’s you see that you had been following a system all along without realizing it.

    Right now, I’m just trying to listen to the langauge as much as I can, even if I don’t understand every word. It seems to be helping–I can discriminate the words and phrases that the characters use better–if I basically understand the topic I can generally read and pick out what each word and phrase is being used for, etc.

    Right now, I’m learning PHP using Japanese learning materials (right now I’m looking at and I’m wanting to build my own SRS because though Khatzumoto’s is great I want to be able to add any features I’d want. BTW, Khatz, do you have any recommendations for any PHP learning sites?


    It seems like posts in this blog disappear and reappear at different times. There are a whole lot of posts missing off this particular blog post.

  20. khatzumoto
    October 31, 2007 at 22:52

    Hey Glenn,

    I read some sites about it, and you were right. It appears that most people self-describe as ふんいきers (some people are self-confessed ふいんきers, especially younger folk), but are often unable to determine, as listeners, whether a speaker is actually saying ふんいき or ふいんき. My bad…

  21. Mark
    November 1, 2007 at 12:08

    A bit about stress and tone.

    From what was said, it sounds like Chinese speakers probably think of each vowel + tone combination as a distinct sound. Another way to think of it would be a contrast between a nasal and a non-nasal vowel, like you get in French and many other languages. French speakers don’t think of their language as having vowels that can be either nasal or oral, so learners probably shouldn’t think that way either. English doesn’t distinguish vowels this way, so it’s confusing for us, but I suspect it’s probably counter-productive to think of Chinese as having vowels that can take a variety of tones. It’s probably better to think of each vowel + tone combination as a unique vowel (i.e. sound). Could be wrong though. I’d follow the perceptions of native speakers.

    As for stress, that’s completely different. Most languages have stress of some kind, even Japanese has a kind of pitch-stress. Stress is actually very important in English, but unfortunately most Japanese try to learn English stress by putting little stress marks in their notebooks rather than by listening to tons and tons of English and actually listening to people speaking with natural stress patterns. Not to mention that most people putting the little stress marks in their notebooks don’t actually understand what stress is or how it works, and they just end up trying to shout one syllable really loudly.

  22. khatzumoto
    November 1, 2007 at 12:37

    >just end up trying to shout one syllable really loudly.

  23. quendidil
    November 1, 2007 at 18:28

    Yeah, we Chinese speakers probably view the word together with tone as “just-the-way-it-is”. We can usually understand foreigners even if they make tone mistakes; even when the whole sentence is out of tone. People from Sichuan in fact, sound like foreigners to people from other parts of the Chinese-speaking world due to the weird tones or zero tone that they use; even Cantonese from Hong Kong find it hard to say the tones properly in Mandarin. Even in songs, which follow the melody and don’t follow the pronounced tone at all, we can usually understand it immediately even without the lyrics. It’s mostly due to context, I think. Take for example, 目標, it is one word, if you say mu1biao1 or mu4biao1, it still can be understood. The only problem inteferring with comprehension because of tone errors is with monosyllable words(馬,麻; 茶,叉) and different compounds with the same consonant-vowel combination (仙人,先人;夫人,富人).

    It could be considered on the same level as a stressing error in English, or maybe more accurately a pitch error in Ancient Greek, except that there are 5 tones (or to make the comparison easier, levels of stress) in Mandarin (including the tone-less tone); it can be understood in most cases save homophones. The problem is just less marked in English and Greek because even the homophones have similar meanings.[one prominent exception I can think of is that drama of Aristophanes wher “galen” is wrongly accented-giving “frogs” instead of “clear skies” or something like that] (‘project’ as verb, and ‘project’ as a noun). Even in English, the intonation patterns of American and British English can be quite different but a Briton and American can still understand each other; this could be similar to Chinese I think. Once again, context can usually work these problems out.

  24. mpz
    February 20, 2009 at 11:43

    雰囲気 isn’t actually that special if you ignore both the ふんいき and ふいんき proponents and make up your own theory. ん before a vowel or the や row actually sounds a lot like a nasalized n/m (ñ) or i (ĩ), and in this case blends into the following vowel which is also i.

    Thus the pronounciation is sort of like fuĩĩki, and neither ふいんき nor ふんいき describe it perfectly. (Well, the latter does, if you’ve subconsciously learned to pronounce it correctly, but then we wouldn’t be having this discussion now would we. 😉

  25. tcm
    July 6, 2009 at 16:29

    I found this little article quite helpful, specifically the general points section. Even though it’s geared mostly toward developing an American accent, you can certainly apply it to Japanese or any language for that matter. It’s basically just a matter of mimicking and repeating.

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