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  1. Newbie
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    Attaining a 'native' level in the English language

    Greetings, everyone.

    I am an 18-year old engineering undergraduate from New Delhi, India. As you may observe from the tag right above my post, I am quite new to this forum, and I am unsure of the general conventions regarding its usage; please feel free to redirect me to a different part of the site if needed.

    My question derives from my recent obsession with achieving a so-called native level of English speech. How does one do it?

    While my family is not, for the most part, English-speaking, I have studied (and intermittently used) the language since primary school. It is the language of choice of college instruction in India. By the standards of my country, my linguistic ability in English is quite adequate. I do not tend to make major grammatical or syntactic errors.

    Despite all of that, I find my own writing and speech to be somehow distinct from people who speak English as a first language. While I understand and acknowledge that no two writers write the exact same way, I cannot account for the fact that pieces written by native speakers of English just 'sound' so different from anything that I can come up.

    What is the root cause of these differences? Are they purely idiomatic in nature? Are they the result of 'thinking in different languages', so to speak?

    Or are they a mere figment of my imagination?

    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.


    Nirbhay A.

  2. probus's Avatar
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    Re: Attaining a 'native' level in the English language

    Hello Nirbhay:

    Your English does seem to be excellent. You made one error of idiom. You should have said "than I can come up with."

    May I begin my answer with a short anecdote? A friend of my youth wanted to be a simultaneous translator, like those who work at the UN and such places. There are special colleges that train people in this, and he attended one of them. His mother tongue was English, but his French was perfectly fluent. I speak French well, but he could easily have fooled me into thinking that French was his mother tongue had he wished to. In training at the college he translated into both English and French. But he told me that in actual working conditions, simultaneous translators are allowed to translate only into their mother tongue, never into their second language.

    I think that shows a deep-seated belief held by many that no matter how fluent one becomes in a second language, one will never attain the proficiency of a native speaker. I suppose there must be some who doubt this. And I imagine that exceptions exist among people who simultaneously acquired two languages in infancy, in effect growing up to have two native languages.

    But if you enjoy English, you will probably enjoy trying to become as fluent as a native speaker. As you know, Indian English has its own special inflections and some vocabulary that is unique to the subcontinent. Immersion in another English speaking country might be a big help to you. If you can, try to find a way to spend a year or two in Britain, the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.
    Last edited by probus; 21-Feb-2013 at 01:03. Reason: fix typo

  3. Mr_Ben's Avatar
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    Re: Attaining a 'native' level in the English language

    Hi Nirbhay,

    I agree with what Probus has written: you have a very high level, there are prejudices against non-native speakers and you would probably benefit greatly from immersion.

    And I'd also like to share a story. When I moved from the US to Ireland, I had to adjust to being a non-native speaker of British English. I had trouble understanding people's accents, they had trouble understanding me, I made vocabulary errors (the hilarious pants/trousers mistake), etc. Here I was, an educated native speaker having to learn the language again!

    This experience, and some reading I've done recently, leads me to believe that language proficiency is localised, in some ways it is a social construct. There is a field of Applied Linguistics known as Second Language Socialisation. SLS explores the theory that language is not something that exists in a vacuum with a set of universal, unchanging rules; instead, language is defined by its users and the way they use it to construct meaning. It's a way of explaining why there are different Englishes: there isn't a Book Of English that we can point to and say "this is English" because people have their own particularities and peculiarities everywhere around the world. (Apologies to any Applied Linguists if I have mis-represented SLS in my attempt at a summary.)

    So what I would like to propose (and this will be controversial), is that you are a native English speaker. India has millions of English speakers and I imagine that you hardly ever find yourself in a situation where you cannot communicate exactly what you mean. And when you do have trouble, I expect that most of the time it is when you are speaking to a non-Indian English speaker. There is a huge cultural difference between Indian and British (or American) English which is a larger source of miscommunication than any structural error. Unfortunately, there is also the very complex issue of imperialism which has decreed that one accent is "correct" and all others are inferior. I understand that this is a delicate topic, but please consider the following example with an open mind. The Scots and the Irish (and the Scouse, the Brummies, the Geordies, etc.) have "incorrect" accents, but they take pride in their unique cultures and have made countless contributions to global English language and culture.

    So try to think of yourself as a near-proficient Indian English speaker (your English will keep improving as you go through university). If you want to get proficient in other Englishes, you'll have to be socialised in other Englishes. You'll have the same problems that I did when I moved from the US to Ireland, but ultimately you'll figure out how the English/Irish/Aussies/Scots/Americans (whoever you want to communicate with) communicate.

  4. konungursvia's Avatar
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    Re: Attaining a 'native' level in the English language

    Native speakers all come from a particular place, and the place you come from doesn't have an English-native-speaker dialect of its own, although "Indian English" exists as a written standard. To become near-native, you'd actually have to go and spend 2 to 3 years in a city where English is the only general language of social discourse. That would deal with the issues of pronunciation and idiomaticity.

    Your main characteristic trait is that you're more formal, and perhaps more rigid, than most native speakers are.

    Ultimately, there is no point in trying to "perfect" your English without living somewhere it's used, as I've said. That would be a bit like trying to build and perfect your own silicone doll girlfriend, making her look as real as possible. She wouldn't be real in any case, no matter how realistic you made her look.

  5. Newbie
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    Re: Attaining a 'native' level in the English language

    Dear language learner,

    Your question pertains to the holy grail of questions when it comes to language learning. Your objective, sometimes referred to as "the ultimate attainment of English as a L2", is a noble quest and there are many factors involved, but unfortunately no simple answers. What IS known is that human beings linguistically go through a number of sensitive periods where linguistic plasticity changes. These changes take place over time, and tend to make the learner less successful in achieving native speaker proficiency. This said, certain factors can compensate, at least to some aspects, such as motivation and individual learner differences.

    The German linguist Flege, who specialises in pronunciation and the approximation of phonemes, studied L2 competence in the 70s and 80s in a number of Saudi Arabians residing in the US. He clearly demonstrated that early exposure helps the individual reproduce L2 phonemes more accurately.

    So early exposure (and lots of it) will help you in perceiving sounds more accurately, thus enabling you to reproduce more accurately also.

    If you would like some less theoretical ideas on factors that have an impact on learning, visit the page Learning English as a foreign language | 5 powerful ideas | KYES - Keep Your English Sharp

    it contains interesting ideas.

    Enjoy your studies

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