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longtresses's avatar

How to acquire English to the native fluency?

Asked by longtresses (1319 points ) January 28th, 2011

What can I do to inhabit the English language more? I moved to America at around age 14–15. Overall a quick learner. Now I’m 28 and still I find that I’m nowhere near the native level.

Over and over again, I’ve found that my English comprehension can be mechanical or literal. For example, I would hear a joke in English and not laugh, while hearing the same joke in my language would bring me the totality of the absurdity of that joke, and I would laugh. This frustrates me because I would at times miss the “whole picture” of whatever I happen to be reading, or especially during socializing.

Sometimes also, when reading aloud, I would focus on the pronunciation, my reading, and I would miss the content. I wouldn’t know what just happened, but those who were listening to me would.

Other times, when speaking and thinking simultaneously, I would focus on my thoughts and my English accent would be terrible. On a bad day, I think I’d come off as stuttering.

There’s also a certain elusive distance when speaking English as well. My English self is almost a different person.

When visiting my birth country, I’d be surprised by the ease of my native language use. I did not have to try at all, and everything was so immediate to me, so easy and natural like using my hands. I would be the one who corrected others, “That just doesn’t sound right, the way you say it.”

If you have had any experience successfully acquiring a second language, what would you suggest? Is this something I would see a speech pathologist about? A language specialist? I’m very frustrated with myself.

Thank you all.

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13 Answers

cazzie's avatar

I’m a native English speaker living in Norway, (8 and half years now) so I’m trying to improve my Norwegian all the time. I have a similar problem to you. I can understand the language, but when I try to speak it, it just sound horrible or comes out wrong and I get flustered and it gets worse. When I’m tired, it’s hopeless. The other night, I sort of surprised myself. After two glasses of wine, something clicked and I was just chatting away and not even thinking about it and out came all sorts of Norwegian. Next night, it didn’t seem to work, though… I think I was too tired again.

I try to get an ‘ear’ for the language by watching TV shows and listening to local radio and practising. In our ‘norsk’ course, we would listen to an audio tape and then record ourselves talking and then play it back and listen to it. It helped a lot with pronouncing things, especially vowels. You could try recording yourself reading something, then play it back to yourself so you can hear what you’re doing. We had to practice making the sounds because some of them were simply odd feeling and odd looking to most of us. Big back of the throat vowels, rolling r’s, and diphthongs that are so incredibly subtle my 6 year old who grew up with the language is still working on his. skj or kj or sj….. not to mention ø æ and å.

Keep working on it. I’m terribly ‘English brained’ but determined.

jlelandg's avatar

@longtresses I’m having trouble helping because I don’t know you personally and don’t know if you’re just being too hard on yourself or if you’re having a cultural identity crisis. Can you give us a few more details about yourself? Do you speak English with your parents-I’d guess a mix of languages, but what is the ratio of that mix? What language do you speak when you are with friends?

your writing seems well enough (you write better than most American high school students). I’m guessing your native language is an Asian language? How much English media do you take in? Coming over at 14/15 I’d say you probably consume a good amount?

When you reference not getting jokes you should keep in mind that my understanding of English jokes is limited at times while living in China because I’m not in America catching all the new sayings/pop culture references. I think other foreigners would agree to this as well.

Nullo's avatar

All that I could recommend is that you step up your immersion. Practice, they say, makes perfect.
Jokes typically require a common background to be worth anything, not just fluency, so try to study the culture. You might also make a study of English idioms, phrases, truisms, and the like.

Tumi's avatar

I would recommend lots of reading (I hope you enjoy it!). Try not to read aloud, or worry about pronunciations and so forth. Just read to get the gist of the message and for your own enjoyment. Read comic books – Asterix is fun and grown up, or TinTin – fairy tales, anything that’s interesting for you. That will expose you to the many ways a word can be used and sentences structured. Worry about proper pronunciations later. I agree with Nullo. To understand a joke you need to understand the context. Take me for example: I don’t understand the Old Spice ad (I’m on a horse). Americans apparently think its hilarious. I just don’t get it… (I’m not American. I live in East Africa).

Buttonstc's avatar

It may be that while you know the basic structure of the formal English language (and better than some lazy native born students, in my opinion judging from your writing skills) but what might be giving you problems (particularly with jokes) is the many colloquial words and phrases which don’t adhere to literal meanings but rather depend upon cultural references or peculiar quirks in expression.

One of the best resources for these colloquial expressions and cultural references is American TV shows and movies. They are also a good way to expose yourself to how people really speak (as opposed to written language)

There are several writers of both TV and movies who have repeatedly been praised for their keen ear for realistic dialogue. Perhaps focusing on some of their works may be helpful. If you go to the website www.imdb.com you can put the writer’s name into their search bar and it will give you a full list of whichever shows or movies they worked on.

Here are some of the ones who come to my mind quickly for realistic dialogue (and I’m sure others can add ones I’ve overlooked)

David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, David Kelly, David Chase (altho he is currently best known for the Sopranos, I would strongly suggest a previous show on which he was a writer. It’s called Northern Exposure. Great show. If you’re a teen, Sopranos is a bit too violent. Plus, you really don’t need to learn the speech patterns of “Joisy and New Yawk gangstas”.).

The other source for how everyday people really talk would be reality TV shows but most of them are of such poor quality I almost hate to suggest it. Some are just absolute dreck. A few of the halfway decent ones would be Survivor, The Amazing Race, Top Chef, True Life(even tho it’s on MTV it is a well done and interesting documentary show covering real peoples lives) These shows have everyday people from all different areas of the US. It would give you a good cross section of American speech patterns.

You could also try finding American movies with written subtitling in your native language. Perhaps this could give you an ear for hearing English speech along with being able to simultaneously read in your native language.

My Mother grew up in Germany and didn’t come here till her twenties. And she eventually spoke English with no accent at all (surprisingly) even tho my Uncle (her older brother) still always had a heavy accent.

An interesting fact she mentioned to me was that she never felt entirely comfortable speaking English until she began to THINK in English rather than German. I found that really fascinating. It makes a lot of sense tho.

Perhaps that may be why you feel that your speaking is slow and awkward. If you are naturally thinking in one language, it takes time for your brain to internally translate it into what comes out of your mouth.

I doubt that you could just force yourself to think in English. I have a hunch it’s probably a gradual process. I don’t know if practicing thinking in English would be a realistic thing to try. It would be pretty hard to try to force yourself I would assume.

But, for what it’s worth, that was how my Mother described her experience.

When I was taking Spanish classes in school, I do know that it was much much easier for me to read it or write it than to speak it. Hardest of all was trying to understand speaking Spanish. Their natural speech pattern was so much faster than my brain could process it. It was just a gigantic torrent of words coming at me with me only recognizing a few words here and there. But the more I head people speaking it, the easier it got.

I guess that is the way it is with new language. Speaking/hearing always being the harder part compared to reading/writing.

That’s why I suggested the movie and TV watching. I’ve heard many immigrant folks say that they learned how to speak English from constant TV. Hope that helps you.

Odysseus's avatar

Don’t worry about it,
I moved to a country with the same native language as me and I cant understand their jokes or innuendos either.
Less to do with linguistics and more with genetics In my opinion.

janbb's avatar

I had the same problem living in England as an American and that’s with the same basic language. The culture, the history, the background left me in the dark on many a joke. You might try having conversational lessons with a person of similar age to you who can explain jokes and colloquialisms. Read the paper and watch t.v. and ask your tutor about what you don’t understand. Look for nuances between written and spoken English. Good luck!

skfinkel's avatar

I think the joke problem might be helped by getting a book of jokes (there are many) and reading them. If you don’t understand, you can ask a friend why something is funny. The Onion: Our Dumb Century reviews news from a hilarious viewpoint over the 1900’s and could give you a perspective on America as well as its humor. But as others have said, being immersed in a language seems to be the most effective way to learn. All of this advice comes, I should add, as a person who is not fluent in another language.

thorninmud's avatar

So much of language is metaphorical, and it’s this metaphorical level that’s the hardest for a non-native speaker to crack (see, that’s a metaphor right there). A native speaker is so used to hearing these metaphors that they don’t have to “decode” the metaphor (“Hmm…Let’s see, you have to crack the shell of a nut to get to the goodies inside, so this means getting through a difficult barrier to obtain a desired result”). Instead, they just know that the word “crack” can have this sense. Often, the original metaphor is forgotten completely even to the native speakers, and we don’t even remember why we say things that way, but we still get the meaning (how many English speakers have any idea what the expression “to pull out all the stops” refers to? But we still understand what’s being implied). Language is peppered with pitfalls like this (there, two metaphors in one short sentence).

I also recently read an article about how each language really comes with its own way of seeing the world. In English, when something happens, we want to identify who did what. So we would say “Longtresses broke the vase”, even if it was an accident. Many other languages are less concerned with identifying a “doer” in cases like this, and would just say “The vase broke” (literally “the vase broke itself”). That may seem like a small thing, but it actually reveals a profound difference in understanding of how the world works. Many differences like this are embedded in every language, so switching from one language to another requires actually looking at the world from a subtly different point of view.

Given all of that, aspiring to native proficiency in a language is really setting the bar quite high (another metaphor). 14 years is hardly a long time to achieve this. In addition to the suggestions already made, I found it very helpful to read books in parallel translation. Sometimes you can find books that are printed in two languages on facing pages (quite convenient), or you can just use two separate books. This is kind of like watching subtitled movies, but givs you more time to study and compare (plus, subtitles are often lousy translations).

WasCy's avatar

To give you some perspective on this…

I’m 57 years old, a native English speaker born and raised in the USA. I’m highly literate, read all the time and have a pretty well-developed sense of humor (to the point where I can sometimes get the jokes in languages that I ‘know a little’ but am nowhere near fluent in, and can’t even converse in). I’ve always scored well on (English) verbal comprehension tests, and I write all of the time.

All of the things that you describe – every one of them – occasionally describe me, too. You (we) just have to keep at it. Reading and speaking more (and writing) is the only way to improve. (I often have exactly the same problem that you describe while reading aloud: my comprehension goes out the window as I concentrate on my pronunciation and ‘getting the character’ if I’m reading dialog, for example. But that’s one of the best ways to improve your diction.)

longtresses's avatar

@cazzie Thank you cazzie. I also find that when I stop thinking or worrying, it can come out natural; I wouldn’t be grasping for the right words. The opposite of that would be when delivering something in a roomful of native English speakers; in that situation I would be very self-conscious, and I get a lot of mental “gaps”.

@jlelandg I don’t speak English with my parents. Any exposure to the English language while growing up was limited to the classroom—reading, verb tenses, grammar, etc., very basic middle school reading level, spotty at best. When I sat in my 9th grade class, I was in for a big adjustment. I didn’t even know what a binder was, what a PE locker was. Listening and speaking were the hardest.

@Buttonstc Thank you. I’ll definitely check out your list of resources. You know, nowadays I occasionally catch myself thinking in English, but when that happens it feels odd. Like it’s not me. I think the only people who can truly think in both languages are the true bilinguals.

@thorninmud Thank you. What you brought up about the differences in underlying attitude, point of view, or structure in each language is so true! While I’m aware that thinking in English is so different from thinking in my native language, I have a hard time articulating why. Maybe I’ll grab a few books on the topic.

cazzie's avatar

Oh, I wanted to explain something too, that I heard from a social worker here in Norway. She said that some people find it more difficult than others because they have an emotional attachment to their native language. The way she explained it, she knew of several children who had lived in many different countries because of conflict and asylum seeking. These kids were picking up several languages, but were difficult to communicate with unless they spoke in their ‘emotional language’... the one language they felt they could best describe their feelings and experiences in. English is certainly my ‘emotional language’.

mattbrowne's avatar

Most likely you can’t do much about your accent at the age of 28. I’m 48 and I have to live with having a slight accent. I never noticed that anyone would be bothered about this.

What matters more is vocabulary, grammar, and above all: style. You want to get a message across. No need to be perfect.

Writing helps too. Ask other people to give you feedback.

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