General Question

janbb's avatar

Can you ever learn to speak a foreign language as a native does?

Asked by janbb (54968points) February 27th, 2018

As some of you know, I am wrestling with the French language weekly. There are billions of rules but there seem to be even more exceptions to the rules. (And why countries, states and cities need to have gender, I’ll never understand.) In addition, there are always the little expressions and idioms that one just hasn’t learned.

So I’m wondering, even if one lives in a foreign country for some years, would one still be able to speak exactly as a native does or would there be certain “tells” that would expose you as a non-native speaker?

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8 Answers

imrainmaker's avatar

It will depend on how much you interact with native speakers and try to internalise as your own and overall time spent.

funkdaddy's avatar

I think so. I mean, you probably know someone who didn’t learn English as their first language but you wouldn’t guess it without some other information.

I know quite a few people from the middle east who you’d never guess didn’t learn English as a first language. It takes years, but if you heard them on the phone you wouldn’t guess.

I would think regional dialects and accents would be a bigger tip really. You can usually tell someone from New York or Texas but wouldn’t think they’d started out speaking Italian or German. If they have a Spanish accent though, you’ll fill in other information.

Mimishu1995's avatar

Fluther is like a foreign country to me. I came in with some knowledge of English that I thought was enough. Then I realized that it was not how English worked. Then I interacted with people and my English was influenced by them and changed over time until it looks like this.

So I think it’s possible to sound like a native, though you will still be influenced by your own language.

Yellowdog's avatar

Since our language development comes from our earliest years, the way our parents and others around us spoke, subtleties are picked up that cannot be studied. It has to do with the brain’s development. What language do you (and will you likely always) THINK in?

However, how good is ‘as good’? I’ve known people whom I never knew spoke something else first. I knew a girl from Denmark who ‘thinks’ in English even though she is a native Danish speaker—because they speak English from the time they enter school or at least fourth grade. She still has an accent—but then again, so do many who have only spoken English have some kind of accent, depending on where they are from.

Zaku's avatar

It might be theoretically possible with enough attention, understanding, immersion, etc.

Consider that everyone has their own ways of speaking, the details of which go far beyond just grammar and vocabulary.

For example, I have a friend I met when I was two years old, and we grew up in the same city but went to different schools. In middle school, I was talking to him on the phone and handed the phone to a few friends from school (we’re all from the same city and social class), and they immediately remarked at how he sounded “exactly like me”. I wouldn’t have thought we had a distinct way of talking, and the way he talks seems pretty distinct from the way I do, to me. That’s the same native language, same city, same age, same social class, and still there are detectable differences in how people talk.

So, I think that for a non-native speaker yes there will almost surely still be qualities of the way someone talks that are distinct and may be noticeable to native ears. But what they will think it is, is another matter. Many countries have distinct regional language differences for the same language.

I know someone who moved to the USA from France in her 20’s, lived here for decades and still has a charming and distinct French accent, though she knows English completely. Once we were in Paris and she was given a hard time trying to order a simple sandwich – though Paris has a reputation for such things.

I’ve known many Europeans who spoke English so well that I wouldn’t know they were non-native speakers (though I might think they were European or Canadian).

I also know an American who just studied German in high school but learned it quite well and then went to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (all places where German is spoken), and who was generally assumed to be a native-speaker of one of the other German-speaking countries by the native speakers who didn’t know where she was from.

Consider Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came to the United States in September 1968 at the age of 21 knowing little English. Almost 50 years later, he still has a thick Austrian accent. Then consider Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (the guy who plays Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones) – he’s Danish and has been convincingly playing native-English speakers since Black Hawk Down (2001).

Sometimes it helps to not speak perfectly. Studying a language tends to give a more detailed knowledge of grammar than a typical native speaker has. I’ve been accused online of being a native-speaker before because I knew a language too well, and also native speakers have said I wrote in their language better than they did.

Behavior, facial expressions and body language can also strongly shape assumptions of where someone is from.

Finally, it is also possible to study linguistics and dialects and pronunciation and speaking to the point where minute differences of many kinds are well-known, and can be performed. I’ve known such people who can reproduce various dialects remarkably well.

kritiper's avatar

I knew a guy who spoke English and Spanish fluently. He learned both as a child growing up with Latino parents, in Carlsbad, NM. So that would be the best way.

janbb's avatar

@kritiper Oh yes. My grandsons are growing up bilingual in France. I have no doubt of their ability to speak both although they may miss changes in English if they don’t spend time here.

I’ll have to ask my DIL who was a French ABD and now lives in Paris if she is recognized as American still.

MrGrimm888's avatar

It’s probably a bit subjective. I mean, varying from case to case…

I. E. If you have a strong personality, I think there will always be a recognizable part of you, no matter how much you assimilate into another culture.

Others could be completely absorbed into a culture. That would be a good survival trait. It would/should be the predominant trait surviving evolution. As I would think those people would have greater chance of coexistence in their own group, or being able to “fit in” in a new group.

I feel a person’s psychology, would determine what amount of their linguistics were changed as they better understood a language.

As usual, Mimi had an excellent response. I love learning about our international jellies!

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