Why getting mistaken for a native speaker is much easier than you think
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!
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 by 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 attempted is getting rid of my hesitations in Chinese, even if sounding like a native isn't something I'm worried about) 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 😉
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.