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How to pass for a native speaker

I was amazed by the response from last week’s post on “looking the language”. If truth be told, I’d had some second thoughts before publishing it. The whole subject of appearance, identity and cultural acceptance as a native speaker is – needless to say – a sensitive one, and one that I have been dealing with my whole life. Yet in the emails, comments, and Facebook messages I received afterwards, it seems like I am not the only person that this has affected.

One of the most best messages I got was from Michalis, a Greek student based in London who I know on Twitter, who said this:

“There’s no such thing as a ‘Greek look’,” he said, “as there are some people who could be Arabs and others who look like Serbs. What is important, though, is not appearance but the way people move and hold themselves. Like that you can spot a Greek in seconds.”

The myth was busted. As I had always suspected, there is no such thing as a Greek look. That was just another one of those things that British tourists had vaguely picked up on from the sun bed as they’d tried to remember where they’d put the after-burn. As far as people from Greece who’d grown up there were concerned, physical appearance really wasn’t that big a deal.

So why do foreigners stand out from the crowd?

As Michalis tweeted, it’s body language that makes all the difference. Foreigners move differently, they hold themselves differently, they look at things differently. Cultural differences mean that from a Greek perspective, they can eveb seem cold, awkward and hard to read. Just speaking Greek – no matter to what level – is not going to make all those other factors disappear.

So the reason why people rarely think I’m from Greece is because, surprise surprise, I’m not. I visit Greece regularly, I speak the language, and I’ve got the passport, but whatever way you look at it, I’m still from the UK. You can’t just shake off a lifetime of cultural baggage so quickly.

Selfie-Stick-7But strangely enough, this subject coincides with a question that Richard Simcott and I often get asked at the language learning workshops that we run together. People want to know how to just slip by undetected and often ask us about “accent”. How can they lose theirs and sound like a native? In fact, for some people it’s such an important issue that they ask whether they can even claim to speak the language before they’ve perfected their accent!

Richard and I normally share a look whenever this comes up. We know what the answer has to be. Both of us speak languages in which we’re told we sound like natives, and just sometimes – even for a few minutes – we can get away with being mistaken for one. But both of us know that this doesn’t come without its problems. In fact, in many instances it can make like a lot more difficult.

What are the disadvantages of sounding like a native speaker?

I wrote about the experience I had in a Budapest café a few months ago and posted it here. I was mistaken for a Hungarian native speaker, but couldn’t follow through with it. I didn’t have the cultural knowledge to know what was expected of me in that situation. I ended up being rude, which I really regretted and felt terrible about, mainly because I was totally powerless to do anything. I am sure that if the waitress had heard more of a foreign accent, she would have given me more allowances. But because I was still aiming for “native-like” pronunciation, instead I just ended up offending her.

Being able to pass for a native is not just a language issue. It won’t just fall into place if you have the right accent. Instead, you need to be a part of the culture. You need to tune in to how people think, what they value, what they fear, and how they live their lives. Until you understand that, you will always slide back to being “the foreigner”.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to get to that stage. I know plenty of people who’ve managed it, but after living nearly 50 years in the country, being married to a local and having native speaker children. And that is a huge investment, with a very slow return.

What is “sceniusness”?

A few weeks ago I was flying back from a very short work trip to London and read about something called “scenius” in the in-flight magazine. “Scenius” is apparently the buzz that certain places (e.g. Silicon Valley) have that produces more creativity and makes them top destinations for today’s designers, entrepreneurs and programmers. I liked this idea a lot, as it made me think about the different vibes of the various places I’ve lived in.

The fact is every place has its own vibe. Every city is a community with its own values, customs, and commonalities. Understanding these will get you half way there, but it’s not until you’ve lived there and experienced things like what people do on the weekend, where they go shopping, where they work, what they do, what makes them hate and what makes them love the place they live, that you can really start to blend in.

IMG_1639I always had this problem in Tel Aviv, because I used to think I was in Athens. I’d actively look for the similarities like the sea, the sun, the body language and so on, because I thought that would help me fit in. But actually that caused me problems.

By telling myself I was in Greece and then acting like it, I was committing many cultural faux pas that I never knew about. It’s taken me several more trips and a lot more contact with the culture to finally start to understanding the place better, although that will always be limited. Whichever way you look at it, I have to accept that because I’ll never live in Tel Aviv, there just will be plenty of things about the place will never make sense.

So when I’m asked about “how to sound like a native speaker” or “how to have a perfect accent”, it’s not that I’m being condescending when I answer “…why?” I feel people often don’t fully know the Pandora’s box that question opens, and I doubt they’re prepared for the challenges ahead.

The one piece of advice I do always give about accent is this: aim for clarity, not authenticity. As long as people can understand you 100%, you’re doing the right thing.

My re-encounter with the stewardess

The other day as I waited to board my flight back to Budapest from Athens, I felt like I had a score to settle. This time, I came fully prepared.

With a Greek newspaper tucked under my arm, a Greek novel in my hand, my boarding pass stuffed prominently into the two-page spread of the Acropolis that defines the noble Greek passport, and some Greek pop music blaring loudly out of a stray earphone, I waited anxiously for the moment to put the world right.

So far at every stage in the airport, people had spoken Greek to me. I’d even managed to get away with my toothpaste being 10ml over the allowance because of it. I was on top of the world.

IMG_8270As I made my way through the HSBC-sponsored vortex that led me from the gate to the plane, I spotted her straight away. There she stood in her pristine blue uniform in the archways of the plane door, the same blue-eyed, blonde-haired Greek stewardess who, by offering me a coke in English on my flight from Vienna, had sent me spiralling into the personal crisis that caused me to write two blog posts. And this time, I was going to settle the score.

I trudged forwards, listening to her greet every single passenger” with “Καλησπέρα, καλώς ορίσατε!” and an enormous smile. Then finally she got to me. I said nothing. I waited with bated breath for that moment of affirmation that I had spent the past few days obsessing over.

The nemesis took my ticket and examined it closely.

“Hello sir,” she said. “Straight ahead on the left hand-side.”


Want to find out more about how I learn languages?

Come to one of my live events! Along with Richard Simcott and Olly Richards, we will teach you:

  • the fundamental techniques required for learning any language
  • how to take your languages to an advanced level
  • how to understand the real language native speakers read in books, watch on TV, and use in conversations
  • how to deal with motivation issues and set realistic goals for your success

Our next events will be in:

Valencia, Spain | 30th January 2016
London, UK | 27th and 28th February 201
Or… Join us online! Programme starts 4th January 2016

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