Primer: Native Fluency

21 October 2010 | Last updated 27 Aug 2015 | Shortlink:

NATIVE fluency.


A psychotic state of mind induced by years of formalised education of the type that is geared for passing examinations whose passing criteria are less to do with real-life application than with dragging out the learning process in order to make money from the learner (or the learner’s parents).

Its signature characteristic:— an insanely delusional belief that native fluency can come about merely through study — reading books, watching TV and movies, listening to tape recordings, CDs, radio shows, chatting online, etc.

By definition (even in the perverse field of linguistics), a ‘native speaker’ has to grow up using the language in that universally native-speaking country or environment to be one. In short, native English-speaking does not (and cannot) come from mere tuition.

A killer disappointment

People sold on this ‘native fluency’ spiel are nearly always unable recognise this simple, commonsensical truth of the matter, much less accept it. This makes their psychosis even funnier and much more entertaining for those who are actual native speakers.

Even more hilarious is the case of adults who want to learn to speak English ‘natively’ — their kooky way of saying to speak like a native speaker. These fine adults are setting themselves up for a killer disappointment, were they to realise East End Londoners, the Cockneys, Yorkshiremen, Kentucky hillbillies, drawl-and-twang Texans and a whole slew of English yakkers around the world are also native English speakers.

These people need to go back to elementary school and relearn the meaning of the word native from the standpoint of geography, history, philosophy, language, linguistics, politics and common sense.

Abusage and self-pwnage

People trying just a bit too hard to sound like a native speaker all share one highly noticeable defect — overuse of adjectives and adverbs.

Asians tend to fall into this trap much more easily than Europeans will.

Europeans in their funny and adorable accents already know it’s bad form and social stupidness to overuse adjectives and adverbs in their own mother tongues. They know this since when when they’re very young. They also know not to do the same in another European language (like English).

Any English speaker with a modicum of learning or common sense long realised the French (and by extension the Belgians) are past masters of l’adjectif et l’adverbe. They try not to compete.

Very sensible too.

You see, too many adjectives and adverbs make you sound insecure. It’s as though you’re shamelessly and unabashedly lying yet vacillating about it.

If you must lie, at least sound unequivocal at it.

The merry-go-round

When spreading ‘nativeness’ a bit too thick, the worst offenders are those from countries with a past history of being colonised or double-penetratedly abused by the European powers. Owing to the pull of that history, they start littering adjectives and adverbs everywhere in the hope their speech or writing sounds more like the European pattern.

The situation is much worse for the English language because English has the most number of adjectives and adverbs than any other European language.

The “CJKs” (Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) have a yen for American English, mainly because its cripped grammar (rebadged as ‘simpler’) has many points of similarity to their own native grammars.

Hong Kong Chinese and Singaporeans are into British English — both British ex-colonies (Hong Kong, 156 years: 1841–1997, and Singapore: 139 years: 1824–1963). In reality, the Hongkies and Spores instead end up speaking and writing 70% American English but with British spelling. The other 30% is a mishmash of Chinglish, Britspeak and whatever else they fancy from their English-language TV channels.

Meanwhile, Hongkongers try to crank up the ‘nativeness’ factor by mimicking the language patterns of two despicable language extremes.

One extreme is Victorian-era writing whose detestable verbosity, superciliousness and talkingdownatcha qualities are (had they known) hateful to the eyes and hurtful to the ears of 99% of English speakers anywhere in the world.

The other extreme is the gangster comebacks on TV or the movies. Those old enough to have watched Hong Kong movies with English subtitles from the 1970s will recall only too well what is meant here.

The peoples of the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean territories go totally overboard with their Ayyo English (see Glossary).

In their incredible, self-induced delusion of some lost glory of the British Raj, these long-suffering folks teach that horrifically longwinded mock-Gothic Victorian Edwardian Municipal Disneyesque Administratorial English as High English and a paragon of good taste.

They never realised that that pathetic brand of English had been invented for the movies. And it makes them sound like a bunch of flippin’ clowns.

Lately in TWAT (The War Against Terror), that roundabout locution of mock-Victorian ‘nonsense English’ (littered as it does with adjectives and adverbs so enamoured of many Asian learners) actually makes the person sound like a fundamentalist suicide bomber (whatever the religion) — nobody understands what the hell you’re on about.

Money is tight. The bailout is long drawn out. The Americans, the Brits and their allies don’t have the time or the facilities for ‘extraordinary rendition to detain you. So they’ll just blow your brains out with a .50-cal rifle round and skip the paperwork.

The point is, if you overuse adjectives and adverbs or do any of those things that the ‘native fluency’ spiel seems to dictate into your thick head, then you’re seen as an irrelephant (see Glossary).

Refusing to ask a different question

The deathquest for native fluency also translates into various kinds of embarrassment and annoyances.

It takes an effort of will to not notice the massive number of second-language learners explain their language situation in almost identical format like it’s rolled off from factory conveyor belt.

They’ll relate how they almost never use colloquialisms or slang and shy away from some uncertain idioms because it’s very hard for a second-language speaker to feel them exactly.

That’s fine, because we native English yakkers have the exact same problem when using or learning another language. So what’s new?


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

Sorry, come again?

demotiv trying too hard

A subscriber once wrote in with a rather good observation:—

In Beijing, a fair number of residents there who were originally from the other provinces tend to plaster their Mandarin with the characteristic Beijing ‘r’ sound in a bid to train themselves up to sound as local as possible.

The true Beijinger can still suss out the provincials. Most thought the whole antic to sound ‘Beijing-like’ “rather pathetic and laughable,’ as the subscriber put it.

It wasn’t the overcompensation in pronunciation. It was the obviousness of trying too hard that showed them up they’re not authentic Beijingers. All things being equal, things might have turned out better (and more graceful) had the provincials just stuck to speaking Standard Mandarin instead.

That picture parallels the situation of people trying to sound ‘native’ in English.

The same answer, anytime, every time

To rephrase the question above:—

What can a non-speaker do to achieve native fluency?

I get asked this a lot — usually by my colleagues’ kids and sometimes by friends and even total strangers.

Disclaimer:— For the avoidance of doubt, I could never pretend to be a sociolinguist. I have had only two years’ worth of linguistics instruction (and not by choice or interest but a degree programme requirement). All I can say is I’m out of my depth if I were to dispense linguistic techniques or tips on how to achieve naytif flooensy in eny langwidge.

The answer, short and sweet:—

Time and practice.

The real answer that most people don’t want to hear:—

A second-language learner of any language will never attain true native fluency.

(I could just hear the groans right now.)

The longer, more honest answer is this:—

‘Native’ (in the sense of language) means to grow up speaking that language in the natural surroundings of that universally native-speaking environment. In short, speak and live with others who have grown up exactly under the same language conditions. Unless that happens (or has happened), a learnt fluency will always be off (even by the slightest of margins) when compared with the Real McCoy. Of course, everyone’s mileage may vary, but that is the general truth of the matter.

Another inconvenient fact:— Many monolingual native English speakers are so bad in English that pretty much they’re not speaking English ‘native’ enough either. Look at the speakers of your own native language for a confirmation.

‘Naive’ fluency

Yet some of us (still) insist on believing the fantasy that a non-native could achieve native fluency just by instruction alone — and well after early formative years.

Then 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 the claims, having seen the same myself. Everyone’s mileage may vary, like I said.

The idea is very appealing that anyone with the right determination could achieve native fluency merely by a process of instructional learning in a non-native speaking environment.

But use common sense too.

These people might as well be trying to achieve (what the wags call) “naive fluency.”

How could we be ‘native’ unless we were born or had grown up there? That’s what ‘native’ means. It’s no mistake that ‘native’ is the operative word, not something like ‘formatively acquired’ or some other pretentious label.

Hook and bait

I don’t wish to be unkind so I usually explain it this way:—

I myself could never hope to speak German, French and Italian like a native, even though I grew up partly in those countries. That being the reality, my policy is not even bother to try sounding like native.

After all, I know the languages well enough to get by and pretty obvious to others that I’m no native speaker of those languages, so I just let things run their own natural course. Quality of life just improved.

To be truthfully honest, the absolute majority of second-language learners of ANY language will almost certainly never see the light of day as a ‘native’ speaker. A learner isn’t one who acquired the language naturally. Articulation will improve as time goes by, but native fluency, nada.

Indeed, if I were to tell you that I’m not a native speaker, but learnt it in a few years and yet can write and speak like this, that’s an even worse indictment on both your abilities as a learner and your learning strategy.

But the idea of native fluency in a language learning process is the hook and bait used by language schools. It help to draw in fee-paying customers … err … students. Native fluency through study only works for a tiny, tiny fraction of the population, not really for most.

That truth is as good as it gets.

Academic hellhole

Even if people are not hooked on the ‘Native Fluency Through Study’ marketing spiel, they still have some bizarre beliefs about language and learning.

And those bizarre beliefs are often almost religious in intensity.

Far too many latch on to the idea of the high desirability or educatedness of that thing called Academic English, French, German, etc — Academic Toiletry, Academic Kitchenry, Academic-Whatever-Bloody-Hell-We-Slap-A-Name-On-It.

Too many too often treat this ‘academic’ label as something high-classed, educated, desirable, you name it. It’s like it’s near enough as the be-all-end-all of language.

Anyone who buys into that is delusional. It doesn’t produce good, clean, crisp English. It’s just a language format for that academic purpose and a standardised presentation format for academic analysis. There’s nothing ‘high-classed’ about it. Indeed, it hurts the ‘language personality’ of the individual in the long run. It tends to kill off any chance of self-improvement too. Do not be stuck in Language Hell.

This business of academic English is a question of register. There are many registers and they have diffused boundaries, but most can be classified into five main categories. The quality of the sentence might be formal, neutral or informal, but the register depends on the scenario and the relationship between the parties. See Primer: Language Registers.

It’s said to say the Chinese are especially prone to believe this academic-is-king drivel. A lot of the reasons has to do with the ‘pull’ of long history and institutionalised social perceptions of academic learning.

Protip:— Once you’ve reached a certain level of ability in English, you should reduce gradually your contact with textbooky (academic) stuff and move on to other forms of the language.

If there’s no effort to move away, then we’re basically stuck in Textbook Language Hell. Lots of students in China know this already about their English-language learning environment as a daily fact.

Look at it from another angle. In your own language, you move into other types of reading, writing and speaking as you grow older (and therefore more fluent). So why not with English or any other 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?

Bottom line, bottoms up

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 — out of 10, 12 or even two dozen other possible registers (depending on the language classification system used).

If that were to happen in your own language, can you still expect to be fluent like a native? Can it work in your own language, in fact?

Draw your own conclusions.


Images: No Myths sign via Patric-ChocolateTwat Inside via ♦ Trying Too Hard via Cheezburger ♦ Fluency Venn diagram in author’s collection ♦ Change ahead via ♦ Sign Language Spoken Here via Just Landed ♦ Spanish Sign Language via ♦ Cash register via Kollewin ♦ ‘How workers learn’ chart adapted via Knowledge Communities

© Learn English or Starve, 21 Oct 2010. Last updated 27 Aug 2015.

Cite this page as:—

Lee, R.C. (2010). Primer: Native Fluency. Learn English or Starve [website]. 21 October 2010. Last updated 27 August 2015. Shortlink:

4 Responses “Primer: Native Fluency” →
  1. Amazing article this


  2. Article is great ….but the point is that we all know in any language listening is priority to speaking and reading is necessary to writing but we don’t know how to implement it to achieve the desired result…


    • Exactly. Listening is the gateway to speaking and reading, and then on to writing. The desired result is within reach of everyone, not just those who are (shall we say) talented in languages. Look at the even the less-well-schooled regular folks in Europe and in India — many are able to speak multiple languages and/or dialects within their own regions. How did they do that? By watching and listening to everything around them.


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  1. How can I become fluent in English? | BabaPencho.Com

    […] For an incredibly long explanation of this "native fluency" thing, see this article: Primer: Native Fluency. […]


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