Speaking any language like a native is the highest possible level of fluency a foreign speaker can achieve, and it has several benefits. Speaking a foreign language fluently puts native speakers at ease and allows you to communicate with them more effectively. Research has found that communicating using a common language allows people to work better together and solve problems faster and more efficiently. That makes it all the more important for students and professionals with English as a second language (ESL) to learn to speak English fluently.
But what does it mean to speak English like a native? More importantly, what does English sound like to foreigners? As per the standard definition, speaking like a native means being able to speak without a foreign accent and using phrases and colloquialisms that are standard in everyday conversations. While learning to speak English like a native might seem like a tedious task at first, regular practice and effort can take you a long way. Here are a few key aspects of English that you should be familiar with to speak like a native English speaker.
Important aspects of conversational English
Like any other language, English is full of little idiosyncrasies (small, unique characteristics) that you should be aware of. Keep in mind that these factors change with different variants of English (British English, American English, Australian English, and so on).
Idioms: Using English idioms is a great way to connect to native speakers and get your point across in a comprehensive manner. So knowing idioms can improve your communication skills drastically. That being said, they can be tricky to understand and learn the first time around.
Idioms are essentially phrases that have a meaning that’s different from the literal meaning of the words. For example, when someone says they’re “over the moon”, what they mean is that they’re extremely happy or overjoyed. Learning English idioms like these can help you understand native speakers better and talk to them more confidently and with cultural context.
Slang and contractions: Slang and contractions are another slightly confusing but important aspect of spoken English. Slangs are words that are popular in usage but do not appear in any dictionary (except the Urban Dictionary 😆). Like idioms, they often do not have a literal meaning or, sometimes, have no standard meaning at all. They are often combinations, contractions (shortened forms), or variants of English words that have become popular over the years.
For example, when an American mentions ‘Mary Jane,’ they’re most likely referring to marijuana and not to a person. The first thing to keep in mind about slang is that they are often specific to a culture. For instance, when a person is drunk, the British say they’re “knackered”, whereas Americans call it being “sloshed”. The second thing is that slang is only acceptable when used outside formal or professional settings.
Accents and Pronunciation: A 2018 research paper published by Iowa State University (ISU) states that accents are “heavily laden with social information” and can have a great social impact, especially while communicating with native English speakers. Catching on to a specific English accent involves paying special attention to the phonemes (the sounds that make up spoken words) and the combination of nasal and oral sounds native speakers commonly use. Listening to native English speakers in person or on podcasts or TV shows can help you learn different accents.
You can also make use of special dialect courses found online that focus on regional accents and the cultural context behind them. Some teachers on Immigo like Alex suggest using certain tongue twisters like ‘she sells sea shells by the sea shore’ and ‘the swan swam over the pond’ to master accents.
Sarcasm: Learning to detect sarcasm is arguably the most difficult part of becoming fluent in any language. Native English speakers are known to use sarcasm frequently, making it all the more important for you to be able to recognize it and learn to use it.
Sarcasm is the use of irony or humor to convey ridicule, contempt, or irritation. A sarcastic comment often means the exact opposite of what is being said. For example, when somebody struggling with a physically demanding task says sarcastically to those around them that they “don’t need any help” or that they are “enjoying the challenge”, it might mean the opposite. A native speaker will immediately understand what is really being meant here, while a non-native speaker may take it literally and stand back from offering help.
Keep in mind that sarcasm is heavily dependent on the tone of voice being used. For example, if you say “What a great day” in an upbeat manner, it will be considered a simple statement. On the other hand, if you say the same thing in a mildly annoyed or exasperated manner, the sarcasm rings loud and clear.
Pace and clarity: Once you’re familiar with native phrases and expressions, you can start focusing on your pace and diction. A very important part of speaking English like a native is pronouncing each word clearly while maintaining a healthy pace. You can do this by enunciating (breaking down each word into syllables) when you’re speaking by yourself or practicing with a friend or a training app like Immigo. As you gain confidence, you can start picking up pace and sounding out entire sentences for practice.
It is also worth paying attention to the speaking rhythm that comes with different accents. Variations of English like Scottish or Irish English can have a sing-song rhythm, whereas others like American English sound flat and monotonous. You should try and catch on to these specific ways of speaking to sound more like a native speaker.
Now that you know what things you should learn to speak English like a native. Let’s explore practical ways in which you can improve your English fluency.
Ways to practice speaking English like a native speaker
Practice makes perfect, and spoken English is no exception. Languages that seem alien to the tongue at first become easier to articulate with frequent repetition. Here are a few ways in which you can practice your English speaking skills.
Master the common vocabulary: It is always helpful to have a strong base of familiar words and phrases before you start exploring the cultural variations and peculiarities of English. Mastering common vocabulary involves using the correct tense while speaking, knowing the difference between active and passive voices and being able to switch between them easily, and using phrases and idioms to get your point across. Grow your vocabulary with a series of simple steps, like ordering by yourself at a restaurant or making small talk with shopkeepers and passers-by on the street.
Keep Reading: One of the best ways to get familiar with speaking a new language is by reading it frequently. Reading helps you discover new words, phrases, and ideas that you can learn and incorporate into your speech. You can also get more familiar with the rhythm and syntax of the language by reading aloud regularly. This doesn’t have to mean picking up a new novel every week. Rather, you can pick up a lot more by reading newspapers, magazines, brochures, signage, and advertisements. As for creative expression, short stories and cartoon strips can help you catch on to the way native English speakers use the language in everyday conversation.
Watch local shows with subtitles: Watching movies and TV shows is another excellent way of becoming fluent in a foreign language. Many people across the world credit the hit sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S with helping them become more fluent in English. The reason is simple. TV shows are an engaging audio-visual medium that helps you learn a language in an interesting and entertaining environment. This prompts viewers to put more effort into understanding the language and decoding its peculiarities while trying to follow the plot-line better.
If you’re trying to learn an English accent that is currently unfamiliar to you, you can try watching TV shows with subtitles on. Subtitles allow you to follow spoken words more clearly and instantly associate them with spoken words. This can make it easier for you to understand and retain new information while engaging fully with the process of learning English.
Try following cooking or craft instructions in English: While this might seem like an unusual method of polishing your spoken English, it can prove to be a helpful learning tool. Learning new skills is known to make people more confident and receptive to new information. It also helps them sharpen their cognitive abilities and focus better on everything that they’re currently doing. You can use these psychological benefits to improve your language skills by following instructions in English while also picking up a new skill in the process.
We recommend starting small, by following a recipe or origami arrangement instruction, for instance. Once you get comfortable with this, you can improve your spoken English skills by taking up online courses or classes.
Engage in collaborative learning: Social media platforms have given millions of people a chance to connect and share information and knowledge about various subjects. These forums are a new and revolutionary way for learners to engage in collaborative learning processes from the comfort of their homes. Studies show that collaborative learning helps students understand concepts much better and in a much more holistic way than studying by themselves.
Engaging in collaborative learning activities also allows learners to make use of an important psychological phenomenon called The Protege Effect, which says that explaining or teaching a concept to a peer helps the teacher learn it better as well. Another way you can benefit online is by becoming a part of an English learner’s forum, where members can guide you to becoming more fluent in English. These online activities give you a chance to practise speaking in advanced English (laden with phrases, idioms, and sarcasm) without fear of judgement.
Additional tips to keep in mind:
Here are a few other points to keep in mind while you practise speaking English like a native.
Develop an ear for the rhythm of the language: Like any other language, English has a particular flow and rhythm to it. Connecting with native English speakers regularly and actively consuming media (radio shows, podcasts, TV shows, etc.) can help you get familiar with this rhythm. Being aware of it can help you detect mistakes when you read English sentences out loud. Once you’re familiar with how a language sounds, it is much easier for you to recognize and correct mistakes that you might have been making.
Change the language settings on your phone for a while: While most people suggest making flashcards and placing them all over your house, we understand that it might not be the most convenient option for everyone. The main idea behind this exercise is to include what you’re learning in your day-to-day activities so it becomes easier for your brain to catch on to new information. A much more convenient alternative to flash cards is simply changing the language settings on your phone, laptop, and other devices to English. This will allow you to get familiar with specific conversational English terms in a practical, holistic manner.
Understand and respect the culture you’re adopting: While speaking like an English native will certainly help you communicate more effectively, you can only truly connect with people once you develop a deep understanding and empathy for their culture. No matter what foreign language you’re learning, it is important to understand why people talk the way they do and what is the deeper cultural context behind it. Understanding the culture and its finer details can help you understand and master a complex language like English much better!
At Immigo, we specialize in helping people speak English like native speakers. Our specially curated courses take you through everything from idioms and proverbs to fluently using colloquialisms in day-to-day conversation. Complete with live speaking courses, an intuitive AI bot, and a one-on-one learning manager, all of Immigo’s courses are tailored to help you master the English language at your own pace.