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3C: Build Speaking Competence

By this point, you’ve achieved a very high level of comprehension in the domain of everyday speech. Now that comprehension itself is no longer an issue, you have enough mental bandwidth available to start paying attention to the more subtle aspects of native speech. Noticing and emulating these subtle aspects is key to sounding like a native.

Below, we explain three categories of language characteristics that you should be aware of when attempting to copy native speech:

  1. What ideas do natives express?
  2. How do they phrase those ideas?
  3. How do they verbalize those phrases?

You should not expect to master these by the end of Stage 3. Mastering all of them is a lifelong pursuit. This is just a list of things to start paying attention to as you’re listening to and emulating your parent’s speech.

What Natives Express

Speaking a foreign language isn’t simply a matter of expressing the same ideas with foreign words. There are fundamental differences in what ideas are commonly expressed in each language. To speak naturally, you need to express ideas common to your target language (TL) while avoiding ideas that aren’t.

For example, in the United States, it’s common for people to ask about your horoscope and astrological sign. In Japan, horoscopes are virtually never talked about. If you ask a Japanese person about their horoscope, they will probably give you a confused look.

Instead, Japanese people commonly ask about blood-type and associated personality traits. If a Japanese person told an American that their personality is uncharacteristic for their blood-type, the American would probably be pretty confused.

Knowing what sorts of ideas are commonly expressed in your TL is important for sounding natural and avoiding hiccups in communication.

Social Contexts

There are standard behaviors and reactions that natives expect in specific social situations. These include body language, timing, not dominating the conversation, etc. If you don’t match your behavior to your conversation partner's expectations, it can make them feel uncomfortable.

For example, in English, it’s normal to express gratitude after receiving a compliment. In Japanese, it’s much more common to deny compliments and proclaim that the opposite is true.

These reactions and behaviors are different in different languages and cultures, so you’ll need to deliberately identify and practice those relevant to your TL.

Native Phrasing of Ideas

Although you may fully understand what a native is saying, there are subtleties in phrasing and context that may not be immediately apparent.

Same Idea, Different Phrasing

Some ideas will exist in both your NL and TL but are phrased completely differently in each.

For example, in English, we say "I am hungry", but in Spanish, they say "I have hunger", and in Japanese, they say "My stomach has become empty".

You have probably noticed many of these already through your immersion. Keep paying attention to the specific way ideas are phrased in your TL to avoid unnatural transfer from your NL.

Register

Even within the same culture, different styles of speech are used in different contexts. These different styles are called “registers”.

For example, many languages have a different register for polite speech than casual speech. These differences can be in conjugation, vocabulary, or directness.

In English, a command is impolite if you don't know the person. When at a restaurant, we often phrase our requests as questions or statements rather than direct commands to appear more polite: "I would like two tacos, please" or "Can I have two tacos"; not "Give me two tacos".

In Spanish, saying "I would like two tacos please" would be considered weirdly formal. "Give me two tacos" is much more natural.

Knowing the correct register for a given context is key to blending in with natives and will help you avoid embarrassing situations.

Native Register Mistakes

Not all register mistakes will make you sound foreign. There are some register mistakes that natives make too. The play My Fair Lady is about a noble Englishman teaching the English high-society register to a lowly flower girl.

To master a specific register, it’s most effective to practice it separately from general speech, just like Eliza in My Fair Lady.

Fillers

Not even native speakers speak with perfect fluidity and without hesitation. They regularly pause to think or search for the right words. “Fillers” are words spoken during these pauses. When used correctly, they allow you to pause your speech in a very natural way.

Common English fillers are "uhm" and "like".

Because fillers don’t convey meaning, your brain tends to filter them out when listening. In fact, the better you understand your TL, the less likely you are to notice them.

To counteract this, spend some time deliberately listening for fillers while immersing with your parent. Try to get a sense of the difference between various fillers, and how often they should be used to sound natural.

Fumbling

It’s also common for natives to pivot and change what they’re saying mid-sentence. Unlike in writing, where you can modify previous ideas or phrasing at any time, in speech, you need to overwrite previous ideas in real-time to clarify or rephrase.

The specific fumbles natives use are unique to each language. Learning to pivot like a native will provide you with room to fumble without giving the impression that you lack language ability.

Examples in English:

  • “He was really tall, well, I mean, not that tall, but like, tall for a kid”.
  • “I’ve been feeling really lazy lately… well… now that I say it out loud, it’s not really laziness. More like lethargy.”

Start keeping an eye out for the specific ways that natives fumble in your TL.

Speech Connectors

Speech connectors allow you to smoothly continue an idea or transition from one idea to another. They’re important for naturally stringing ideas together when expressing multiple ideas at the same time.

Here is an example of sentence continuation and perspective change:

“So I went to the market, and there was this guy there, and he told me about this concert tonight, and I was like, “Oh my god, my friend loves that band”, and so I had to text you to see if you wanted to go.”

In the above example, there are three types of connectors used. “And” connects a string of ideas to tell a story. The colloquialism “I was like” allows the speaker to transition from the past to the present speaking perspective and quote themselves. The connector “so” creates a cause and effect relationship between the previous ideas and the future ones.

Pay attention to how native speakers connect ideas, retroactively modify their ideas, or go off on tangents. These connectors will help you speak more naturally.

Speaker Transitions

During a conversation, there are built-in ways of linking your speech to the previous speaker’s. These transitions help put your ideas in the context of previously expressed ideas.

Examples:

Speaker A: “I believe that apples are the best fruit.”

Confirmation and expansion: “Absolutely, I couldn’t live without apple pie.”

Hard Rejection: “Definitely not. Oranges are better.”

Soft Rejection: “While I agree apples are great, I prefer grapes.”

These transitions allow the conversation to flow naturally between each speaker and their ideas.

Backchanneling

When you are having a conversation and the other person is speaking, you are expected to provide feedback to demonstrate that you are listening. This is called “backchanneling”.

Backchannelling can be confirmations, verbal reactions, or physical reactions. In English, “Yeah”, “totally”, "uh-huh", and nodding are all confirmations that you are paying attention to the person speaking.

Every language and culture has different expectations about the type and quantity of backchanneling during conversation. For instance, in Japanese, you are expected to backchannel much more frequently than in English. If you don’t increase your backchanneling, your partner will consider you rude.

Native Pronunciation

Most people think of pronunciation in terms of vowels and consonants, but there are many deeper layers of pronunciation to consider.

Phonemes

When the average learner thinks about pronunciation, they are usually thinking about phonemes: which vowels and consonants exist within the language. Of course, vowels and consonants are the foundation of pronunciation and are crucial to master.

You also need to be able to pronounce how words flow together when they are adjacent. Some of these contractions may appear in writing (e.g., can’t), while others will not (e.g., youwanna = do you want to).

When you fully understand a language, you may not notice many of these contractions. Your brain will automatically convert them into multiple words. When listening to your parent, spend some time intentionally paying attention to the specific phonemes they pronounce.

Word Level

Depending on the language, there may be other linguistic features that can change the meaning of words beyond phonemes. If your TL contains one of these features, it’s important to look out for it in your immersion.

Stress Accent

“Stress” is the emphasis placed on a specific part of a word. In languages that feature stress accent, stressing the wrong part of a word can make it unintelligible or change its meaning entirely.

For instance, in English, when a word can be used as a noun or verb, stress accent is often used to denote which way it should be interpreted. Stress on the first syllable is a noun, stress on the last syllable is a verb: PERmit (noun) vs perMIT (verb).

Sometimes, when words are used together, they get treated as a single stress accent unit.

Example: bad TEMpered1

There is usually only one correct stress accent for a word in a given context and meaning. If your TL features word-level or syllable-level stress accent, it can be useful to study and deliberately practice correct word stress to sound more natural.

Pitch Accent & Tones

In some languages, changes in pitch or tone are part of the fundamental pronunciation of words. In these languages, pronouncing the same phonemes with different pitches can yield entirely different meanings. If your TL has pitch accent or tones, deliberately study and practice them.

Prosody (Sentence Level)

Stress, pitch, tone, emphasis, and rhythm can be used at a sentence level to modify the meaning or emotional state of a sentence.

For instance, in English, when the pitch shifts upwards at the end of the sentence, the sentence is interpreted as a question: “I’m in charge” vs “I’m in charge?”.

Prosody can affect the interpretation of the meaning in a sentence (e.g. sounding sarcastic).

English Example: "I didn't say that".

I didn’t say that: the emphasis on the "I" communicates a rejection of an accusation and a pivot of blame. It could be translated as "I was not the person who said that".

I didn’t say that: the emphasis on the "didn't" communicates a rejection of an accusation and could be translated as "You're blaming me for saying something that I didn't say".

I didn’t say that: the emphasis on the "that" communicates a rejection of the specific idea that was said and could be translated as "I said something but you are misinterpreting what I said".

These aspects of prosody are generally too subtle to study deliberately and must be acquired through input.

Accent

Even within the same dialect, there are often many different accents. For instance, in the US, there are different Northeast accents in Boston and New York and different Southern accents in Louisiana and Georgia. There can even be subtle differences between different neighborhoods in the same city.

When listening to someone with a different accent than your parent’s, try to notice any subtle differences. Contrasting your desired speaking style to another can help you notice subtleties in your parent’s accent and better emulate them.

Also, be aware that different accents come with cultural connotation and baggage. If you walk around New York with a Boston accent, be prepared to argue about baseball.