I’ve written about what you can do if you are trying to practise a foreign language and the person you speak to wants to use English with you, and even what to do when they are really pushing it, but sometimes you can’t avoid having to speak English with someone who happens to speak a language you want to learn.
In these situations, all is not lost! You can pick up from some of their mistakes to give you valuable information to help you even when they speak English.
To explain how this works, Gabby Wallace is going to explain what she does. Over to you Gabby!
Want to know how to sound and seem more like a native speaker?
You can learn a ton about speaking other languages by listening to other people speaking English. This technique works a treat as long as English is their second language.
A keen ear and a little bit of thought will take your foreign language pronunciation and communication style to a native-like level.
Back when I was a monolingual English speaker, I’d hear someone speaking English with a thick accent and I’d think: “Hey, that’s sexy,” or “Wow, he’s really hard to understand.”
Since I started speaking more languages, the way I think about accents has changed. Now when I hear a heavy accent, I think, “That’s so interesting! That’s first language interference. I can learn from this!” I ask myself, “How can I apply his mistakes so that I can better understand the rules of his native language?”
Here’s what I’ve learned to do…
Use Other People’s Mistakes to Improve Your Pronunciation
When a Hindi-speaker working at a Boston salon asked me if I wanted my eyebrows waxed in the “Sim ship,” I was at first confused and annoyed that I couldn’t understand. Then I thought about it and realized she meant “same shape.” Logically, her first language was interfering with her pronunciation in English. And because of that, I can assume that her language doesn’t use the long a vowel like in the words “same” and “shape” in English do. This is also why when you get a call center representative from India, they can be difficult for Americans to understand. Anyway, I said “yes, please” to the beautician and my eyebrows turned out “amizing.”
Here are some examples of similar experiences:
- One of my Brazlian friends said he was from “Hio de Janeiro” and that he wants to drive a big “Hange Hover.” Lesson? In Portuguese, the “r” at the beginning of a word is pronounced “h”.
- Brazilians also say “cohect” instead of “correct,” and “ahange” instead of “arrange.” A double rr in the middle of a word also equals an “h” sound.
- My Brazilian friends invited me to be their friends on “Facey Bookie.” Brazilians have trouble with words that end on a consonant, because this doesn’t exist in Portuguese. English-origin words like “Facebook” and “Internet” are pronounced with an extra vowel sound at the end in Portuguese.
- A Tunisian friend and I got into a “meaning of life” conversation. He told me he just wanted “a-penis.” It took me an awkward moment to realize he meant “happiness” and that the “h” in French is not pronounced.
- An Arabic-speaking friend told me he suggested I eat crab, except the “b” came out as a “p” sound. After a moment of feeling offended, I realized the “b” and “p” sounds are the same in Arabic.
- My Japanese friends add extra syllables to words. “McDonald’s” becomes “Macu Donarudosu.” It’s useful as you can instantly speak hundreds of words of English origin in Japanese simply by sticking to the consonant-vowel pattern in the Japanese syllabary.
When I noticed these pronunciation mistakes, I took note and used them to help with my language learning. You can do the same.
What if you don’t live in a big international city and have a hard time making foreign friends? In Benny’s post, How to Practice a Language for Free without Traveling, he explains how to find foreign language groups locally and online. This can be a great way to make international friends and communicate in English and your target language.
English Learners Can Use This Trick Too…
Conversely, if you are learning the English language and would like to have an American accent, observe how Americans sometimes butcher words in your native language.
- A typical gringo mistake is to make “gracias” sound like “grassy-ass.” The long American “a” (which always sounds like the a in “awesome.”) interferes with the Spanish “a” (which sounds like more like the a in “ant”). English has more vowel sounds than Spanish. For speakers of other languages, this is important to note.
- My Brazilian friend used to make fun of me because I would put the wrong emphasis on the verb “celebrar.” I transferred my English habit of emphasizing the first syllable and would say “CELebrar.” It should have been “celeBRAR.” He could have also made a mental note that in English, the proper pronunciation is “CELebrate.”
No matter what language you’re learning, pay attention to how speakers of your target language make pronunciation mistakes in your native language. Use those mistakes to learn rules about your target language. You can do this when you travel to your target language’s home country, or from your couch. I learned a lot about languages while I was living in the US. I use online resources to support my language learning from anywhere.
This trick isn’t limited to pronunciation…
Use Other People’s Word-Order Mistakes to Improve Your Foreign Language Grammar
Because many people still learn language in a traditional classroom, they pick up the bad habit of directly translating words and phrases from their native language to their target foreign language. You can use this to your benefit. Find out how these words are used in their native language, and you may discover some of the most commonly used words and how to use them like a native.
- Japanese speakers will say “foreign country people,” an awkward way of saying “people from other countries.” The direct translation from Japanese causes this — gaikokujin — literally, foreign country people. Remembering the direct Japanese translation into English actually helps me remember the word in Japanese.
- I’ve heard a native French speaker say, “I would like a coffee hot.” In French the adjective comes after the noun.
- My Brazilian friend’s mother asked me, “Do you want to come to the shopping with us?” I learned that Brazilian Portuguese speakers use “shopping” instead of the word “mall.” False English cognates in Portuguese such as “the shopping,” have helped me to learn how to speak Portuguese more like a Brazilian.
- When dancing forro, a kind of Brazilian salsa, my partner told me, “congratulations.” English speakers would never say that after dancing. I was totally confused until I learned that Brazilians use their equivalent, “parabens,” as a compliment, like “that was great!”
Take advantage of other peoples’ traditional classroom learning. Use others’ mistakes to inform when and how you use vocabulary and grammar in your target language.
Clearly, speaking like a native is about phonology and correct vocabulary use. Yet, even more importantly, it’s about the cultural context and how you behave. To learn more about this topic, check out Benny’s post on getting mistaken for a native speaker.
Learn from Differences to be more Native-Like in Your Communication
Another trick you can use is to notice how people from your target language culture have distinct communication habits. This includes the use of fillers (the sounds, words or short phrases used to fill silence in conversation) and turn-taking in conversations.
Even though I’m not fluent in Japanese, I can continue a conversation and show my understanding by using fillers. I was in a bar talking with a Japanese business man who did not speak any English. I understood a lot of what he said, but didn’t know how to respond in Japanese. I simply used the fillers I had picked up from observing Japanese conversation — “so, so, so” to agree and “ehhh?” to show surprise. The conversation went like that for a good 15 minutes or so, and then I had to admit to him I didn’t really speak that much Japanese.
I once facilitated a debate in an English class that included students from Japan and Spain. The native Spanish speakers were verbally trampling the Japanese, and were visibly frustrated that the Japanese speakers were not participating much in the debate. Often, native Japanese speakers get a reputation for being quiet. The reality is these students were quite fluent in English — it’s just that their speech timing and conversation patterns allow more silence between speakers to show respect.
I’ve adapted the way I communicate in Spanish and Japanese. When I speak Spanish, I don’t hesitate to jump into conversation quickly. However, when I speak Japanese, I allow a bit more room to breathe between speakers.
Native English speakers will have to leave their comfort zone — either interrupting more or becoming more comfortable with silence — depending on their target language.
Keep in mind that adherence to cultural norms and the way you speak says a lot about your communication, perhaps as much as what you say.
What Will You Discover?
You can learn a lot about your target language even if you can’t speak it yet. Observe how native speakers of your target language make “mistakes” in English. When you notice something that seems strange to you, find out if you can apply it when you speak their language. It’s an interesting way to become more native-like in foreign languages and to better understand your foreign friends!
Join Gabby for more free and unique language learning tips on her website, including a free online language learning toolkit.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.