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Why getting mistaken for a native speaker is much easier than you think

| 50 comments | Category: learning languages, positive mentality

Someone thinking you are a native speaker of your target language is the holy grail of language learners. It’s something many of us dream about, but then sigh to ourselves that it’s just never going to happen.

Well, today I want to burst that bubble and tell you that many people genuinely thinking you are a native speaker of your target language IS possible, and way sooner than you think, without requiring you to absolutely master every possible aspect of your target language, and thus waiting until your hair has gone grey.

You see, I’ve personally been confused for a native French, Spanish and (Brazilian) Portuguese speaker on so many occasions that I’ve lost count, and this is despite not even being able to even introduce myself in any of these languages before my 20s.

To help you understand how I’ve done this, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first:

Being mistaken for a native (if you aren’t one) 100% of the time is pretty much impossible

Anyone who reads this blog long enough knows that I really hate this word “impossible”. People overuse it a lot, and I will correct you almost always if I hear it.

But I’m using it here because 100% of the time is so much as to become unrealistic. It’s a perfectionist demand and a pipe dream, even for those who are much better language learners than the norm.

I was listening to an interview with Richard Simcott the other day (best known from his hyperpolyglot video). I can’t hold a candle to his language achievements and listening to him speak on Youtube, his accent is incredibly convincing in many of his languages.

But in this interview he said something that echoes my opinion: he has never in his life come across a language learner who is mistaken as a native the entire time, including himself.

If you speak your target language enough, you’re always going to find someone that will hear you slip up, especially in demanding contexts like if you are talking to a linguist or putting a video of yourself online for scrutiny by many thousands of people. Even the most accomplished language learners have slip ups that I’m aware of myself… but it’s because I’d be listening out for them.

Realistically, most people you will meet are not linguists or are not scrutinizing you enough to notice

This lack of full scrutiny by absolutely everyone you meet is the crucial reason why being confused for being a native becomes so much easier.

For example, a mission I had a while back was to convince Brazilians that I was Brazilian. In the end I was successful, and in social situations (bars and parties), several people genuinely believed I was Brazilian, even if it was just for a half a minute of continued conversing after introductions. I’ve made it much longer in both French and Spanish though before the truth comes out.

A few months later I recorded a video in Portuguese and uploaded it. Some people felt the need to point out how they think I dreamt up all the times a native was absolutely convinced I was Brazilian and pointed out based on this video, they’d never think it in a million years.

Well duh, I’m wearing a leprechaun outfit, you’re watching the video on a Youtube channel called Irishpolyglot, you know where I’m from before you even press play, I actually say “welcome to Dublin, Ireland” and you are scrutinising the video specifically to see if I sound like a native and can easily point out a few mistakes I make. (This is forgetting the fact that it was several months living on the wrong side of the planet with no practice).

So no surprise that I’m not Brazilian! That’s one hell of a starting-point to work against!! This is not how the real world works. If the goal is to convince everyone on Youtube then I give up right now! Satisfying the entire world is not something I care much for! As Bill Cosby once said:

I don’t know the secret to success. But the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.

In social situations, people don’t know where I’m from, and they are not testing me. They are just being social. I tell them my name and what I do, and skip the “where I’m from” bit until it comes up later. People are relaxed and so if I start speaking to them in their language, then it’s just a case of not making my slip ups obvious and they will presume that I’m one of them until proven otherwise.

When your starting point is this guy is likely a native then it’s WAY easier to convince someone by trying to keep your mistakes as infrequent as possible (while still having a few that might slip through), than it is if your starting point is “this guy is a foreigner and I know this for a fact, but I shall analyse his intonation, rhythm and correct use of phrases, and then, if I’m impressed, hand him the ‘good-as-a-native’ badge”.

Thankfully, you are very unlikely to come across a huge number of such dull people in your day-to-day interactions with a language.

How it really works: way less about phonology, way more about context and how you behave

Sounding like a native does indeed (obviously) entail speaking as closely as possible to them. The way I’ve greatly improved my accent, at least in Portuguese and Spanish, was to take singing lessons. Singing is a wonderful way to train yourself, and if you get a music teacher with a good ear he/she can point out what you are doing wrong to sound more authentic way better than any language teacher ever will.

There are many ways to work on these sounds, some of which I’ll come back to another day (one such trick is what I’m attempting to get rid of my hesitations in Chinese, even if sounding like a native isn’t something I’m worried about right now; more on this later if it works well!) and of course it’s important to be good with the language overall, and use slang/expressions/have a good scope of vocabulary etc.

But this isn’t actually what truly makes the difference in someone thinking you are a native speaker. Sounding like a native and acting like a native are completely different and it’s important to be aware of this.

I’m reminded of a Swedish guy I knew in Spain while I was preparing to sit for my C2 exam. His Spanish was impeccable – he could quote Cervantes at the drop of a hat, knew the most obscure Spanish words you could think of, was writing complex essays in Spanish and when he spoke, he sounded exactly like a Spanish newscast reader. He definitely sounded like a native speaker.

So how often do you think people thought that he was from Spain? Most likely never.

The reason is that his body language screamed I’m-not-Spanish. He kept at a very unLatino distance from people, walked around with his eyes far too wide open for some reason, was stiff and unanimated whenever speaking, and even though we would be out in a party using curse words and the like, his fashion style was “preppy”, and he would keep his Spanish formal and polite. Even though his Spanish was certainly technically superior to mine in many ways, my ability to blend in was way better than his.

One reason I suggest that people are your greatest resource is that you simply can’t learn things like body language, social interaction rules and how you should act, what clothes you should probably wear and so on, from being locked away in a room with books. You can probably Google a lot of this stuff, but you can only emulate it such that it becomes a part of your personality if you spend time with people of that language’s culture.

Language, culture and context are intertwined.

For me “learning a language” involves a lot of this stuff. I analyse how people walk, how they react if they are angry, how many seconds their hugs tend to be, if wearing sports shoes is common, how fast or slow they walk and as many other things like this as I can.

When you focus so much on this stuff, then if someone walks up to you and sees the pose you have, what you are wearing and how you feel at home, then they will think you are at home until proven otherwise. Then you can give a 90% convincing job, with a few mistakes being brushed off as you coming from a strange town or having slurred speech, until you make a major enough boo-boo to get the “Where are you from?” question.

Multiple countries means multiple opportunities

To take this further, you can greatly increase your chances of being confused as a “native”, if the native you are aiming for is not the same native that you are speaking to.

Unfortunately, a Spaniard has rarely thought that I’m also from Spain after a few seconds, but many South Americans have! I obviously don’t look Peruvian or Mexican, but since it’s not so common for native English speakers to have a high level of Spanish (as unfortunate as American, British etc. monolingualism is, I use the general attitude to my advantage), if your Spanish is good then they’ll hear which accent it is and go for that.

This means that if you are as white as me, you can still be confused as a “native Spanish speaker”, if you go for a Spanish or Argentine or other accent where people look like you do.

Similarly, only one French person has ever told me I sound convincingly French. But thanks to 3 months in Quebec, I have a bit of a Quebec twang at times and if I force it then it’s so unlikely for an Irish or American person to speak with that twang that quite a lot of Frenchies presume I’m Quebecois.

Now remember, I’m not saying that I sound like a Quebecer all the time or could convince you if you were analysing me – just that a French person who isn’t intentionally scrutinising my accent who meets me in a social situation may casually think that I am one. Interestingly enough, the reverse is true, and at the end of my time in Montreal after I had improved my French greatly, several people thought I was French, since I still spoke with my Parisian-learned accent.

And finally, a country like Brazil is so large (and ethnically diverse, so no worries about having white skin), and Portuguese is, as yet, not such a studied language, that if you speak a little strange they will presume you are from some other state, or even Portugal.

In each of these languages, you know you’ve slipped up if someone says “your French/Spanish etc. is very good!!” I actually prefer not to hear this compliment, and aim to hear it ideally not at all when learning a language (in Chinese I hear it several times every day, from natives who say it mostly to offer encouragement, so I know I need to work on improving my level. The less I hear it, the better I’m doing).

The greatest compliment of all is something that I beam with pride when I hear, along the lines of “Which city in Spain/France are you from?” and the reaction that follows when I say where I’m really from.

It gets easier depending on who you are talking to

Being confused with a native speaker is a two way road. It depends on your skills to emulate the speakers (both outwardly and in how they actually speak) and it depends on the person you are actually talking to.

Most people you meet are not language experts, and are not trained in distinguishing phonemes and the like.

Someone absent minded and not particularly clever can be fooled quite easily, someone listening to you but who has probably never spoken to a foreigner before or has stereotypes you are not currently satisfying can be fooled sort of easily, someone who has met many foreigners before and sees you in a social event likely filled with other foreigners can be a really tough nut to crack, a demanding linguist should only be attempted if alcohol is involved (for him, not you), and (in the words of a fellow frustrated video poster) Youtube trolls can kiss my accent.

So keep this in mind – you can indeed get that fantastic compliment of someone genuinely telling you they really thought you were a native speaker. It’s much more complex than simply “speak better/improve your accent”. More complex, but also much easier ;)

Hold on – what about skin colour??

Since I’ll of course get this question, I’ll throw it in before I wrap up: what if you are learning a language where the ethnicity of the people who speak it is very different to yours?

First of all, don’t forget the solution I mentioned above; if it’s for Spanish you can get confused for a native because countries like Argentina and Spain have a huge white population. But there are plenty of places where this of course can’t work.

For example, I’m an Irish guy learning Chinese. So even if I had excellent Chinese – hell, even if I had a brain transplant with a Chinese person, they still wouldn’t be convinced because of my white skin.

So all hope is lost? Not quite…

Something else I can tell you about being Irish is that the reverse is also true. When I was growing up, Ireland simply wasn’t the kind of country that had immigration. I very rarely remember seeing people of different skin colour in my home town, and never even saw a black person before (in person) before going to university in Dublin.

When I did go to university I met someone with dark skin, and I asked where he was from – and he said Ireland. What?? I couldn’t accept this – Irish people are white - end of story, no exceptions. But it happened again… and again… until eventually it got through to me. Times have changed in Ireland and the Celtic tiger (the economic boom of the 90s) had such an influx of new people from all around the world, that now even my home town is a much more interesting place. There are children from my town who don’t look like me, but I don’t doubt their Irishness one bit.

What I’m getting at here is that times change. Yes, right now it’s pretty much “impossible” that someone will ever think I’m Chinese (and that’s forgetting that I still have plenty of work to do to improve my level), but the world is a small place and even a country with a billion people is not a closed country.

When I was in Thailand two years ago, I met a girl who spoke to me in English with an American accent. I asked her where she was from and she very seriously told me “I’m Thai”. She had been born in Thailand due to the large number of expats there, grew up attending a Thai school, and had an equal balance of Thai and expat friends. In fact she had only ever spent a total of a few months in America in her life and got her accent from her parents. She was a white girl (in her early 30s), but she was Thai.

She told me that nobody has any problems accepting her as Thai, even if at first it might seem strange. I suspect that as more people like that crop up, it will get less and less strange.

Nothing is impossible. Mark my words, some day, it will not be in any way strange to call a guy as white as me Chinese, and that will make it all the easier for late adult visitors like me to get confused for one ;)

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So what do you think? Ready to dive back into your language knowing that being confused for a native speaker might not be as far off as you think it is?

It’s a great buzz and a fantastic compliment, and I can highly recommend it! But much more important than the ego boost is that the locals accept you as one of them, treat you as an equal, and talk to you as they would with their local friends – even when they are consciously aware that you are a foreigner, when you act and sound like a local, the foreigner-treatment starts to disappear, and you truly feel welcome. This is what makes it all worthwhile in the end.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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  • WC

    Body language…  That’s a tough one for me.  I have no plans to go to another country, and especially not for an extended amount of time.  But then, it probably doesn’t really matter if I have the body language, since I won’t be in a position to use it, eh?

    I’d still like to learn it, because I won’t feel well-rounded until I do, but it’s not really a priority.

    Right now, I’d love to be less hesitant over Skype.  And of course that will only happen by practicing.  Luckily one of my partners has been demanding that I spend time speaking the language, so I can’t use my usual excuses not to.  All language partners should be so awesome. ;)

    I picked up one of my “goal” books yesterday and found that it was within my reach!  I’m super excited about that and I’m going to push to finish the easier book that I’m currently reading so I can move on to my first “goal” book.  

    “Goal” books are books that I picked up years ago because I wanted to read them, but couldn’t because they were far too hard.  They are my main motivation to improve, and I’ve got a few of them at different difficulties.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Best of luck – and remember that not being in the country is not that big a deal. I was speaking Portuguese with a Brazilian here in the middle of China two days ago!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    That’s one of the things I love about Brazil – that there is no “Asian-Brazilian” or “European-Brazilian” and the like. Brazil is a model the rest of the world should follow ;)

    What you say definitely sounds familiar from quite a lot of people! It will be quite hard to convince a Brit that you are a Brit, but convincing him that you are American is much easier.

    • Guest

      I know you wrote this 3 years ago… hopefully you know different now… but I want to point out that you have not been to every country in the world. When you call Brazil your favourite country, I’m sure you mean out of the countries you’ve visited. I live in Australia and I can tell you that it is extremely diverse here. I have never been to Brazil but I imagine they are about the same. Some days I can walk around the shops, go to school even, and not hear any English, all day. Please don’t put any country up on a platform (‘Brazil is a model the rest of the world should follow’) as though they are the innovative and wise ones. Of course, open-mindedness and inclusion is something to be valued but it negates it’s value by attributing it primarily to one culture or nation. I hope you understand. I love your blog but it just really upsets me when you seem to forgot about the world you haven’t seen.

    • Stephanie

      I know you wrote this a year ago… hopefully you know different now… but I want to point out that you have not been to every country in the world. When you call Brazil your favourite country, I’m sure you mean out of the countries you’ve visited. I live in Australia and I can tell you that it is extremely diverse here. I have never been to Brazil but I imagine they are about the same. Some days I can walk around the shops, go to school even, and not hear any English, all day. Please don’t put any country up on a platform (‘Brazil is a model the rest of the world should follow’) as though they are the innovative and wise ones. Of course, open-mindedness and inclusion is something to be valued but it negates it’s value by attributing it primarily to one culture or nation. I hope you understand. I love your blog but it just really upsets me when you seem to forgot about the world you haven’t seen.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Right. 100% is very much unlikely, so let’s accept that and aim for our 10-50% or whatever :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    That’s three times that you’ve written “stupid”. My guess is that it’s more in your head than people actually thinking and reacting in that way.

    • http://musingopiningandcriticising.blogspot.com/ SamB

       To an extent, possibly, but I think you’d be surprised.

      • Alex Woods

        I wouldn’t be surprised. Chinese people would constitutionally never call anyone stupid but they are totally unaware of which aspects of their language are hard to learn.

  • TLH

    That was a really interesting post.  It’s true that if the accent is good, native speakers are very unlikely to notice any mistakes; you just naturally filter out the mistakes.  I’m so glad you mentioned singing as a way to help with the accent.  It’s really an excellent way to learn where the sound is physically placed, and can really help with intonation and changes in pitch and rhythm.  Have you tried that with Mandarin yet?  How you sound is probably the “easy” part of being mistaken for a native speaker.  I’ve found that body language takes a long time to adjust, and you probably can’t successfully do it without a lot of interaction with people. 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Haven’t started singing in Mandarin yet, but expect a video some time :P

  • Alex Woods

    You are absolutely right. I’m a six-foot-tall white American and I speak pretty-good but not astounding Chinese, although it took me a lot longer than three months to learn it. My tones in particular are pretty much a mess. Yet! A number of times I’ve had phone conversations with Chinese people who were later shocked to learn that I wasn’t Chinese. Man does that feel good. One of the real advantages of Chinese in this respect is the enormous variety of regional “dialects” (really separate languages, properly topolects) and resulting second-language accents. Outside of Beijing and the urban educated class, no one really speaks Mandarin that well. So when I ask people who thought I was Chinese where they thought I was from, I get a range of answers from Guangdong (worst possible answer as they are notoriously terrible Mandarin speakers, and I actually do speak Mandarin better than they do) to “somewhere down south” (better) to Sichuan, Hebei etc. (great, from my perspective).

    • http://musingopiningandcriticising.blogspot.com/ SamB

       Yeah, there’s definitely an ‘advantage’ in that sense. Norwegian is similar, with lots of regional variants (though I’m sure Mandarin is even more so, as a much bigger country). There’s always the possibility that you’ll be mistaken for a speaker of a dialect they’re less familiar with.

      And your Guangdong point is not dissimilar to what I was getting at above with Serbian :)

  • http://amanofnonation.com/ Kevin Post

    I’m mistaken for Colombian everyday and even more so while talking on the phone where they can’t see my red hair and pale skin. To paraphrase what you’ve said, I look, move and often times dress like a Colombian. I think that it’s also a good idea to have a good level of diglossia in any language you learn to truly sound like a native speaker. When I’m with my brother-in-law I talk as if I were from the comunas of Medallo but if I’m speaking to a professor at a La Universidad Nacional I change my way of speaking accordingly; same while speaking my native tongue English. 

    Nice post Benny. I can attest to everything you’ve written based off of personal experience.

  • Isaac Davis

    All quite true. Something I find helps is acquiring an accent that non-native speakers rarely do (my best example being Québec French; I talk like a working-class person from the Eastern Townships because that’s where I learned to actually speak French). People figure, there’s no way this person learned this accent on purpose, and bam, you’re in.

    Additionally, unless there’s some serious disconnect between the language and your apparent ethnicity (as you note), you’re more likely to be mistaken for a native speaker or at least a member of the diaspora if it’s a language that people don’t tend to learn unless they’re of the culture. I find this with Albanian. I don’t really look Albanian, but people kind of assume, because almost no one who isn’t Albanian learns it, so they go with the assumption that seems more likely.

  • Josh L.

    Thank you Benny Lewis.  Some great insights.  While it is impossible to pass yourself off as Chinese, I wonder if you would get a greater level of acceptance from local people if you did the same thing that you did in European countries: mimicking local dress, social habits, etc…  This wouldn’t be as much about “passing yourself off as a native” as it would be about making the people that you are talking with feel more at ease because the way you dress and act is familiar to them (even if your Irish complexion is alien to them).  Maybe they wouldn’t label you as Chinese, but they also might not put you in the same category as Joe Backpacker who is in CHina so that he can cross it off his bucket list.  

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Agreed.

  • James McIntosh

    I lost respect for this post when you divorced ethnicity and language ties.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Ditto. I lose respect for anyone who puts race in any kind of limiting box.

      A language is just a tool to speak to people, and has NOTHING to do with the colour of your skin, even if a statistically higher number of people of one colour happen to use it at the moment.

      • Katharina

         Very true! I know an Indian girl who was adopted in Sweden when she was a baby, and apart from her outward appearance, nothing hinted to her heritage. Her native language was Swedish and all other languages she learned, like English, she spoke with a bit of a Swedish accent, not an Indian accent that many people expected her to have. Her body language and mannerisms were all Swedish – she WAS Swedish, despite having been born in another part of the world. I also know many other people who moved to another country as a child and completely adopted the accent and characteristics of the new country, despite having learned another language first. It can be a bit of a surprise to hear a perfect Viennese accent from a Korean, but it’s really just another example that ethnicity doesn’t define a person.

  • phasornc

     Benny, I think you’ve finally motivated me to learn Spanish.  I just want to add my own spin on this topic.  I believe I live in the weirdest place in the US: Miami, not Miami Beach, but mainland Miami, Fl.  Miami is mostly filled with White Cubans, so identifying a person’s language by race is impossible.  Anyway, when I walk in to a store I find there are several subtle things I can do if I want to be greated with an “Ola” instead of an “Hello”.  Even though I speak no Spanish, by working with Cubans, Dominicans and Peruvians all day I pick up on the mannerisms and sometimes even find myself speaking English with just a bit an accent. 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Great to see the post is motivating you!! :) Best of luck with your Spanish! Even living in northern California I got people to speak to me just in Spanish when in a Mexican district of San Francisco.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/H6QLTFNSN6BMXTALUMMKGPAPAM Kori O'Connor

    I love that you mentioned Portuguese and Brazil in this article! It’s so true! I’ve been speaking portuguese for 8 months. I learned it all while living in Rio, and even though I still make many mistakes, while traveling in São Paulo I had many Brazilians think that I was from Rio because of the distinctive accent. Don’t get me wrong, I still have the strongest american accent, but because I had blended in the strongest parts of the Cariocan accents, they were fooled at least for a minute or several.

  • Paula

    Just wanted to say, I really appreciated the “Kiss my accent” link. XD I found it quite hilarious.

  • Rich

    Exactly, the actors was the first thing that came on my mind. Like Mila Kunis, she sounds perfectly American to me. But it is kind of expected from the professionals. And surely it helps if you’re being raised in the target-language environment. You can sound as a native very quickly even if you’re not.

  • Randybvain

    Well, I think it’s nothing wrong with being just yourself.  As you wrote, one cannot pretend that he’s native all the time, so what to do it for? I mean, one may use it as the distant goal, just as you do with learning languages aiming for a higher level than you can possibly reach. But 100% native? Seems like the perfectionism to me. I prefer stay myself, and if somebody asks me where from I am, I will say that I am Polish.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      The problem with “distant goals” is that you can put them distant enough to be as good as lying at infinity. I prefer something more tangible. As I said at the end, blending in has helped me be accepted quicker in social settings. Being an obvious foreigner makes you stand out.

      And it’s strange that you suggest I’m aiming for 100% native, as I specifically said that that is pretty much impossible in the article, and mentioned perfectionism. I think you missed the point of the article.

      I disagree with this “stay yourself” nonsense. If I was to act 100% Irish all the time, in body language, clothing style, distance between people etc. it would be incredibly awkward. No pecks on cheeks in Brazil, no wai-bowing in Thailand etc. Be the version of yourself that is appropriate to the local culture. I see it as respectful, and a means to make the other person much more comfortable.

  • Dave

    I experienced this once once in Amsterdam. At the ticket booth to the Anne Frank house I asked for “Twee, alstublieft”, and held up my thumb and index finger. The lady handed me the tickets and started explaining in Dutch where to go. I started laughing and told her (in English) that I didn’t understand. She laughed as well and then gave me the instructions in English.

    I’m certain that it wasn’t my poorly accented Dutch that “fooled” her, but the fact that I used the European method of signaling “two”, instead of the American way consisting of the index and middle fingers.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    There seems to be a language issue happening here. “Acting” in this context means “behaving” and has nothing to do with falsifying who you are. For example, since you are continuing this argument, I could say “Why are you acting so stubborn?” and this is not complimenting your skills to be a performer :)

    As I said, I find respect towards the country I am in to be the priority. Not following important social norms is rude and awkward, no matter how much you might “respect” not doing it or doing it YOUR way. That’s not respect in my opinion – it’s just being stubborn to lack of change.

    Respecting those who I am with and trying to make them feel comfortable IS the “Irish way”, and in that sense I’m upholding the way my parents brought me up.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Precisely ;) I’m a student of culture, not of language, which is just one subset of culture.

  • chris_hall_hu_cheng

    What exactly is the point though? It doesn’t strike me as something that is high on the agenda of most aspiring language learners who haven’t started learning yet. It is so arbitrary and pointless, it might be noisy, the person you are talking to might be a little deaf, stupid or drunk or you might really convince someone for half a minute (winning what?). It is so arbitrary, convince someone in an interview or after a long serious conversation and you have achieved something I guess but otherwise???? 

    To be honest mostly doing this without talking is more significant (I often get mistaken for a German in my own country of England, by Germans without saying a word, but that is another story) . Clothing, stance, body language, smell all contribute to making people feel more comfortable around you. 

    Chinese is doable anyway, if you are darkish European then get yourself mistaken for uighur, or pretend to Russian derivation from somewhere up around Harbin, or Jewish (there have been Jews living in China for hundreds of years).  Could be fun I agree but ultimately just a vanity exercise unless you are  a spy or similar. 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Didn’t you read the very end of the article? The point is that it makes the other person way more comfortable and accepting, and helps you stand out less. Maybe this isn’t a priority for many people, but to me being treated as the foreigner all the time or making people feel uncomfortable is not acceptable.

      When I see a very loud and obvious American, for example, even if their language skills are good, the atmosphere of the room changes and people don’t feel as comfortable because that person has put no effort into trying to blend in. What makes us foreign doesn’t have to be invisible, but it shouldn’t be so damn obvious if you want to really get into a foreign culture.

      This has nothing to do with vanity. It’s sad you can’t see that.

      • chris_hall_hu_cheng

        If you read my comment I am sure that you can see I appreciate what it means to not clash with the culture you are trying to mingle with. There is a huge difference between being a bit foreign and the clashing example you give (which works both ways it is easy to bash American and similar cultures but sometimes people fail to un-humble themselves appropriately and work the other way).

        I stand by the non-verbal being more significant. If somebody is uncomfortable by you being a little bit foreign then they are either bigoted by nature, or bigoted by culture (lets face it our close ancestors probably were as well even if we are not). 

        Making any effort to fool someone that you are native could be seen as deception and deceiving people isn’t nice either. Some people will feel uncomfortable ‘suddenly’ realizing you are not a native a sensitive person has to handle that also.

        Now if you are just talking about being mistaken for a short instant whilst you mumble something on a bus to someone then yes that will happen, anybody who thinks about it knows that is possible, one days training and most socially smart people could fool someone quite quickly I think. 

        But that is not the ‘Holy Grail’ you mention if my holy grail is to pass as a native after an interview or an entire social evening then with all the bold text and spectacular headlines you are trying to fob me off with a non-event in this post. 

        If I dreamed of running in the Olympics then you post has merely done the equivilant of setting up a new competition called “The Olympics” in my local village and allowing me to run in it. If I do that and still think I have achieved  my goal then that is vanity (and self-deception). 

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          So a quick summary:
          * People feeling uncomfortable with you refusing to adapt to their cultural norms is THEIR fault for being so “bigoted”.
          * Trying to blend and show respect for a country you are in, is “deception”, both to the others and to yourself, is pure evil, and wreaks with vanity.
          * It’s all about interviews or an entire evening of talking. Anything else is “mumbling on a bus”. Long live dichotomies!
          OK, thanks for your input. Let’s agree to disagree because I find your arguments too ludicrous to write real retorts to.

          • chris_hall_hu_cheng

            So in summary :
            *Treating people differently because they come across as ‘a little bit foreign’ (my words) is fine. 

            *Being briefly mistaken as foreign  in situations like my bus example is a ‘Holy Grail’ one that is stopping many people from learning a language because they fear they will never achieve it.

            *Suddenly discovering that somebody you briefly thought was a native is actually foreign doesn’t’ make anybody from any culture uncomfortable.

            *Its all about casual conversations, loose connections and brief encounters. 

            As you quite rightly point out simple social interaction and basic needs language is EASY there are no real reasons not to get involved and to make those around you more comfortable etc. But after that point why make such a fuss or pretend it a holy grail for other people who are actually talking about the HARD bits. You seem to want to put people down for aspiring to the HARD bits and assume that they don’t want to do any of  EASY bits (why). 

            What is the post about? you haven’t demonstrated that being mistaken for foreign is ‘much easier than you think’ simply described a much diluted version that is therefore obviously much easier. This is not the ‘Holy Grail’ that most other people are refering to when THEY talk about being mistaken for native speaker.

  • Kristen Beebe

    I agree so much with what you said about the “You speak ___ so well!” I used to take it as a compliment until I realized that they were just being polite, easily recognizing it’s not your native language. I stopped to think about how I use “Your English is very good” when talking to someone struggling. Not because it actually is good, but because I’m trying to encourage them. 

    Thanks for the tips! 

  • Sad_butt_true

    Sorry irrelevant comment, but the women in the photo above are HOT! I need to get the boots on and learn some French

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Hahaha, yes they are :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    “I will never ever ever ever be mistaken for a native Chinese speaker”.
    Never say “never”. And never say ever 3 times after that!
    Hell, you can get confused for a native Chinese speaker on the phone if your level is good enough. So that immediately invalidates what you wrote ;)

    I actually did mention the expectation of encountering non-natives. But it’s a good point to bring up again.

  • Jesse Dass

    Interesting post. It’s funny because I when I go to a foreign country, I act like myself (accent and body language) and see how long it takes for the person I have just met to figure out I’m Australian.

  • http://twitter.com/Bad_Entropy Alexander Falk

    I just have to mention that as a Swede, people keep confusing me for a Dubliner due to my irish accent. On top of that, I’m blond as blond as Dolph Lundgren! 

    Only took me one year in Dublin to gain that. People, nothing is impossible!

  • My Travelo

    Hi,

    Interesting article .
    gud stuff.

    thanks for share with us.

    praveenmytravelodotcom

  • http://users.skynet.be/antoine.mechelynck/ Tony Mechelynck

    Benny, not only (as many people already said) what you say is well observed, in addition you tell it in a fun way. Your blog would be worth reading even if it were fiction; being fact makes it even better. :-)

  • montmorency

    Speaking like a native is perhaps a bit on the ambitious side for me personally, but I think that making an effort to lose one’s English accent (as you write about elsewhere), and trying to imitate the accent of the native speakers around you, is a good thing to aim for.

    I’m not a great linguist, but I seem to have a reasonable ear for mimicry, and those languages I do speak tend to be with a better accent than my actually somewhat limited abilities in the languages itself. That itself can be a little bit of a risk, but I’m certainly not going to go back to my English accent to emphasise my “learner” status.

    I think there can be an element of acting involved here … when I speak another language, I’m acting a part, and can shed my role as the slightly inhibited Englishman that I normally play :-) use different body language, ham up the accent a little bit, and actually have a bit of fun with it. Languages involve hard work, but we can also have fun with them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10049997 Jamie Kearney

    I live in Japan and speak Japanese, but being white and all I am rarely taken for a Japanese. I say rarely because it does happen on the telephone! Once a woman got frustrated with me because she assumed I was just some drunk woman calling. I cleared it up and she apologized for getting mad, and while the incident was somewhat embarrassing, I was happy in a way. Being mistaken for Japanese, even a drunk Japanese, is better than being immediately found out as foreigner!

    Also, occasionally people ask me if I am part Japanese (I cannot see how people would think that except that my hair is dark and that i buy my clothing locally) or if I was raised in Japan. What with more foreigners making Yokohama or Tokyo their home, it’s not completely illogical. To me it is the highest form of flattery! That being said, people who spend more time with me realize how my word choice is often bizarre and my vocab is lacking.

    How is it in China? I imagine there are fewer white people bringing up families there, so it must be really hard to be mistaken for a native speaker unless you are in the phone.

    By the way, have you tried learning Japanese yet? Pronunciation is really easy and people are friendly and easy to talk to, especially once you get a little off the beaten path.
    My best advice-become a regular at some place! Easiest way to make friends and avoid the expat trap.

    日本語を勉強したいなら、是非連絡してね!(^ω^)

    • Lauren Thompson

      Hi belated and kind of unrelated/tangent reply (shitsudeshimasu) but- I am learning Japanese (just a beginner, I know katakana & hiragana and a little over 500 kanji, but can’t yet read Japanese w/out furigana) I am trying to learn how to read kanji or at least make some understanding from their kunyomi and onyomi meanings, so when I saw the Japanese sentence at the bottom and tried to read it, I got:

      Japanese language [o] take? stronger? [shitainara] be? connect? join? [shitene]

      Then I put it in Google translate and got of course: If you want to learn Japanese, contact us!

      So I am pleased with my effort demo mada juzu ja arimasen.

      (please forgive the crazily-spelt romanji- I don’t use romanji so I don’t know the proper way to spell things in it, but my computer is not set up to type in Japanese so for now it is the best I can do XD.)

      <3 genki de ne

  • Pernilla K Hammar

    The looks are very important. I wear very exotic clothes for Swedish people so they often believe that I am NOT Swedish and asks me over and over where I am from, and always mean the country, whenever I meet people in Sweden. I feel it is offending, people being so superficially scrutinized. I look very Swedish, but my clothes tells them something different… It is all about clothes… and body languages! They even think I am a foreigner even though I speak Swedish fluently…

  • http://www.nutritional-supplements-information.com jaxhere

    For many years, while living in Chile, I used to tell people who asked where I was from, that I was Chinese. They never believed me, and laughed, but when I admitted the truth, I pointed out that I very well might have been born there, just as some people might have been born to parents of another nation while their parents were in the country for some kind of an assignment or holiday.

    The point I’d like to bring up in relation to what you’ve written about is that there are sometimes situations where you can take advantage of your foreign-ness to feign innocence about certain situations or customs. One is understanding what is being said by others in the language when they believe that you know little or nothing about it. I’ve used this in dealing with officials in some situations where I felt that I was being treated in an unacceptable way or to gain a bit of an advantage that I might have needed. Another situation, is the degree of latitude which people will give to a foreigner to make certain mistakes or do things which a local might be criticized for.

  • Shaydon Ramey

    The best thing I had happen to me while I was in Chile last summer was to one day walk into a classroom, ask a student if this was such-and-such’s class, and be asked, “¿Eres chileno?” Not knowing where the classroom was in the middle of a semester was her only clue that I wasn’t a native, and that was great. Spanish lends the great advantage of there being many accents and therefore many ways that you can speak without being an obvious non-native!

  • Gus Mueller

    Sorry, but it does happen. The CIA, military, and State Department have them. They’re classified as Level 5: native level fluency with native accent and college level speaking ability (i.e. they could negotiate a contract or talk about deforestation). The guy who ID’ed bin Laden’s voice on the radio at Tora Bora was one. Viggo Mortensen is another. Also Gene Simmons of Kiss, first language Hebrew. Jerry Springer, Mayor of Cleveland and TV personality, first language German. This is off the top of my head; the list am goes on.