Native fluency, or just naive fluency?

Posted on Thu 18 Aug 2011 @ 1.07pm UTC

A SUBSCRIBER graciously posed an interesting, though often-asked, question:

“I almost never use slang and shy away from some uncertain idioms like the ones in this lesson, because it’s very hard for a second-language speaker to feel them exactly. For example, when I was reading the annotations the other day and one of you commented such-and-such metaphor was outdated, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know that and have no way to know.’ […]

What can second language speakers do to make up for style that is often hindered by their lack of native precision and ease? Or should they just drop dead?”

The subscriber recounted that, in Beijing, a fair number of non-locals there tend to use the characteristic ‘r’ sound of the Beijing accent as much as they can in a bid to train themselves up to sound as local as possible.

True Beijing locals can still suss out the non-locals and thought their efforts to sound local is “rather pathetic and laughable,” and, all things being equal, things might well turned out better and all round more graceful had the non-locals just stuck to speaking Standard Mandarin instead.

In a way, the subscriber sees the Beijing situation parallels that of second learners of English — both “trying too hard [to attain native fluency in another dialect or language] not only doesn’t help, it can make you sound and look ridiculous.”


For the avoidance of doubt, I could never pretend to be a sociolinguist, though the parallels that the subscriber suggested seemed fair enough.

I have had only two years’ worth of linguistics instruction (not by choice or interest, I should add, but by compulsory requirements of the programme I was in at university). All I can say is I’m out of my depth here if I were to offer linguistic techniques or tips on how to achieve native fluency in any language.


To rephrase the subscriber’s question — what can non-native speakers do to achieve native fluency?

Actually, I get asked this a lot — usually by my colleagues’ kids and sometimes by some friends of mine.

The answer, short and sweet, is time and practice.

The real answer that most don’t want to hear is this: a second-language learner of any language will never attain true native fluency.

The longer answer is this: put simply, ‘native’ (in the sense of language) means to grow up (and have grown up) speaking the language in natural, native-speaking surroundings —that is, with and amongst others who have grown up exactly under the same language conditions. Unless that happens (or happened), a learnt fluency will always be slightly off — even by the slightest margin — when compared with the genuine article. Of course, every person’s mileage may vary.

But some of us (still) believe in the fantasy that a non-native could achive native fluency just by instruction and just after early formative years. Then you need to reassess your understanding of the meaning of the word ‘native.’

Annoyingly, almost as if according to the laws of physics, such a vision is frequently met by an equal and opposite ‘revision’ on hearing this response. They assert that there ARE indeed people who’ve become extremely (and natively) fluent in a learnt language. And they want to know how. As if I knew. Derp.

I don’t doubt their claims, having seen the same as they did. Like I said, everyone’s mileage may vary.

Common sense: How could we be ‘native’ unless we were born or grew up there? That’s what ‘native’ means. It’s no mistake that ‘native’ is the operative word rather than something like ‘formatively acquired’ or some other pretentious label. These people might as well be trying to achieve what the wags call ‘naive fluency.’

I usually explain that I myself could never ever hope to speak German or French or Italian like a native, nothwithstanding having lived in those countries in my formative years. That being the case, my personal policy is I won’t even bother to try and sound native and just let things run their natural course (if that should happen at all). Quality of life just improved, so to speak.

Generalising from what I’ve seen over the years, the absolute majority of second-language learners of (say) English themselves will almost certainly never see the light of day as a native English speaker. Articulation will improve as time goes by, but native fluency, nada.

The idea is very appealing that anyone with the right level of determination could achieve native fluency merely by a process of instructional learning. But the truth is, it is also the hook and bait used by many language schools to draw in fee-paying customers students. It works only for a tiny fraction of people, but not really for the most of us. That truth is as good as it gets.

What to do?

Not one usually to leave things dangling uselessly in midair, I’ll offer some suggestions. People who ask sensible questions deserves to get proper (even workable) answers. People who read and even subscribe to Learn English or Starve show good taste and judgment, and you are no exception.

The best workable answer I have so far is one I got myself in my schooldays. In short, the protips are:

  1. listen and speak first, read and write second (if you can listen and speak well, you can generally read and write well)
  2. listen and read the language as much as possible
  3. (even better) listen and read as widely and differently as possible
  4. incorporate the language into daily life as much as you could manage
  5. use the language (read: not show off you know the language)
  6. realise that grammatical rules are factually only guidelines (for the simple factual reason that all languages are continually developing and evolving)
  7. realise that grammatical rules are merely dubbed ‘rules’ by grammarians who (in concert with academic publishers) have a vested interest in selling their books over and above your own vested interest to learn the language
  8. realise and accept that there are loads of exceptions to textbook rules in any language, including your own

The sad and honest truth is, everybody knows what to do already. Man up! Just do it! DO IT NOW!

Tip 3 is especially important. It’s all common sense, really.

We have some real bizarre beliefs about language, almost religious in intensity. One of them is quite a lot of us truly believe that Academic English/German/French/etc, Academic Toiletry, Academic Kitchenry — Academic Whatever-The-Bloody-Hell-You-Could-Slap-A-Name-On is ‘the ultimate.’ The be-all, end-all to the language.

Think about Tip 3 if your choice is limited to using this

The Chinese are especially prone to believing this academic-is-king nonsense, what with the ‘pull’ of their long history and institutionalised perceptions of academic learning.

Tip 3 is important because it’s the same with me in German or French — if I’m not making an effort to move away from textbooky stuff, then I’m basically stuck in German/French Textbook Hell.

Basically, once you’ve reached a certain level of ability in English, you should reduce gradually your contact with textbooky stuff and move on to other forms of the language. You do that with your own language, so why not with English or any other language? Did you forget how you did things in your own language? How did your command of your own language reached your current level? You don’t eat fish every meal, so why do the same with language?

I don’t wish to be longwinded, boring and making waves, but here’s the deal:

  • You can (and could) read 1,000 books in academic English — that’s 1,000 books in just one single register (see later) out of 10, 12 or even two dozen other possible ones (depending on the language classification system used).
  • If this were to happen in your own language, can you still expect to be as fluent as a native?

Come on, pee’pl! Will that work in your own language? See what I mean.


If it were true that textbook and instruction leads to future native fluency, then why in sweet roses’ name do so many Ph.D. foreigners still struggle with their English after years and years of reading and writing stuff in English?

Let’s explode some myths:

Myth #1:
Academic English is best because ‘academic’ means knowledge and culture. 

FACT: Academic language in any language has a more inflexible structure because generally it has fewer variable conditions to deal with. Real life calls for a much more flexible language structure because real-life conditions are many and highly variable.

Indeed, it is questionable whether academic language is cultured or graceful, since, if you think about it, it is the subject matter that may or may not have that culture or grace.

Myth #2:
Academic English has higher worth because it’s always been taught. 

FACT: Academic English is easier to teach because of its relatively inflexible structure for the reason already given above.

FACT: There is reason behind the inflexible structure of academic English: it makes for a relatively more predictable way of passing on knowledge. The inflexible language structure helps reduce language interference on the subject matter itself.

Myth #3:
Academic English is constant and widely understood.

True enough, but only in the general sense. But realise that academic language is only one way of expressing things, and it’s for a particular purpose. There are other, possibly more exciting, ways of expression.

FACT: Academic language stays fairly constant within one field of study, but varies from field to field, so people working in one particular field becomes quickly accustomed to the quirks of usage for that field and not of another field.

That tells you there is actually no single kind of academic language.

Scientific language is generally more direct and terser than the dense, convoluted, polemic-sounding academic language usually seen in the humanities and liberal arts. Legal English might sound unnecessarily repetitive, often with threatening undertones, because ambiguities lead to lawsuits.

FACT: Language for real life is more fluid and changeable than academic language. Real life involves relationships, circumstances and sequences that often vary from time to time even between the same parties.

Real-life language has to have a changing and changeable quality to reflect that:

I seek employment concerning the advertised position
in this diurnal periodical. (1) (Stuffy)

I wish to apply for that position advertised in Exchange & Mart. (2) (Formal)

I would like to have that job as dispatcher
listed in the local news.
(3) (Formal-Informal)

I would like to have the dispatcher job you’ve got in the paper. (4) (Informal)

I want to work in the dispatcher job you advertised. (4A) (Informal)

Myth #4:
Academic English is widely understood, so no need to know any other. 

That’s actually a goddamn wrong attitude to take in anything, not just in language. It shows you have a strong streak in your thinking processes for confirmation bias and sneering at others.

You’d be surprised how many people actually have this attitude.

FACT: Not only do we have to learn the grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc, we also need to make sure we use it appropriately and in the right context.

The fact that other types of English usage also exist means it is your duty to familiarise yourself with those, and learn how and when to use them.

Just because you happen to believe academic English is next to godliness doesn’t mean some other sonofabitch (who might know academic English better than you do) thinks the same way.

Just because you persist in speaking academic English to the greengrocer doesn’t mean the greengrocer will respond in kind — or regard you in a better light. (If anything, the greengrocer will think you’re a pervert and call the cops on you.)

Protip: Your duty first and foremost is to be a versatile English user. ‘No peace for the wicked,’ as the saying goes — so a constant vigilance in language learning is also required. Choosing the right language and tone for the right situation is important to keep you out of trouble.

Myth #5:
Academic English always worked for me in class, so no need to change. 

You’d be surprised at how many people also have this dotty attitude.

FACT: Too much experience in one language register (see below) means you’re under-experienced in the other registers.

Just because you’re still making yourself understood outside the classroom doesn’t mean you’re doing it well or looked upon nicely.

It’s your loss, baby.

* * *


Language registers

(or choosing the appropriate language for the context)

This is a big problem for Asian learners of English, and I’m sorry to say the Chinese are the biggest sufferers. This is mainly because the Chinese language has more formalised forms of expression than any other language.

A register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. Register denotes the choice of language (whether that be formal or informal) to make you match a given situation. In short, register is about language variation. Don’t confuse register with formal/informal language — they are not the same.

The problem here is that the word ‘register’ is a linguistics term. Like everything else in that perverse field, ‘register’ has no generally agreed definition. It has variable meanings even within linguistics itself. Different linguists’ definitions often contradict each other.

Most textbooks on grammar and linguistics usually give five registers (see below).  In fact, there tends to be a spectrum of registers rather than a discrete set of obviously distinct registers. In other words, there is a countless number of registers we could identify, with no clear boundaries.

The Joos model of registers (Martin Joos, The Five Clocks, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961) is the one usually taught to people:

  • Static or ‘frozen’ register is a style of communication that rarely/never changes. It is frozen in time and content, such as the Lord’s Prayer, a bibliographic reference and statutes (laws).
  • Formal register is used in formal settings and the language follows a commonly accepted format, usually impersonal and one-way, e.g. sermons, rhetorical statements and questions, speeches, legal judgments, announcements.
  • Consultative register is the standard form of communication. Simply put, consultative register is two-way communication, essentially formal but not impersonal, between two people who are not otherwise friends or relatives, e.g. doctor and patient, superior and subordinate, lawyer and client, teacher and student, etc. The truth is that linguists are unable to recognise or define this standard form of communication properly because the language here often overlaps (combines?) formal and casual/informal qualities.
  • Casual register is informal language used by peers and friends, so that colloquialisms, slang and vulgarities are normal. This is ‘group’ (even ‘groupie’) language. This register is highly two-way: you must remember to ‘engage’ the other party in this register. Used by buddies, teammates, chats, emails, blogs, letters to friends, etc.
  • Intimate register is private communications and reserved for close family members or intimate people (lovers, spouses, siblings, parents, children).

The main trouble with this (and other language variation models used in linguistics) is the classifications are themselves static. They cause people to think there are fixed boundaries between registers (in fact, none). And they contribute nothing more than any schoolkid who can describe the same in less pretentious language.

Gee-whizz, man! We all know formal, neutral and informal already! But what about the in-betweens?! Variations on a classic theme may be fun and cute, but not when you’re looking for answers!

BUT, there are two rules of thumb worth knowing:

  1. You can transition from one register to the next adjacent one without encountering repercussions. But skipping more or more levels is usually considered inappropriate, maybe even offensive.
  2. Once you have mastered the language of each register, you can turn them on their heads and mix registers for special effects and impacts (but that’s another post).


Would you like a cup of coffee? (5) (Essentially formal)

Can I get you a coffee? (6) (Neutral)

Joe — coffee? (7) (Informal)

Lend me your car, will you? (8) (Informal)

Could I borrow your car? (9) (Neutral)

I was wondering if I might use your car. (10) (Formal)

In fact, examples (5) to (10) could all be classified in any number of way according to your favourite model of language variation. (I’m using formal, neutral and informal just for convenience here.)

Which register to use often depends on the scenario and the relationship you have with the other person. It depends on the time and place, and person you’re dealing with.

For instance, if your brother doesn’t want to lend you his car, example (10) may set the right tone to get his approval (or not), but maybe not with example (8). Your best buddy might be okay with (8) even if the car was new and special (or indeed any of those variations). Most will be happy with the general-purpose (9).

The quality of the sentence might be formal, neutral or informal, but the register depends on scenario and relationship.

I said the Chinese have a big problem with knowing when to use formal, neutral and informal English. The problem stems from their throwing themselves completely into the formalised language of their textbooks, thinking that that kind of English is the only English to be had.

Many times I have seen my longtime Chinese friends replying suddenly in formal sentences — this is the kind of stuff that can cause misunderstandings and resentment. But I usually make huge allowances for most things, so that doesn’t bother me because I understand. No many are like me.

* * *

Life is a two-way communication, and books are only one-way. Do well to appreciate this fact.

Leave a reply and tell us what you think.

(B11146) © Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Images: Trying Too Hard via Cheezburger ♦ Sign Language Spoken Here via Just Landed ♦ No Myths sign via Patric-Chocolate ♦ Electronic cash register via Kollewin ♦ How Workers Learn (adapted) via Knoweledge Communities.

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