How to sound like a native English speaker

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Let’s look at some of the most frequently asked questions we see from Students regarding speaking English like a native.  We’ll first discuss what students mean and why we think it’s important to think differently about some of the questions asked.  Then you’ll find 5 top tips for sounding more natural in your English usage.  Finally, we’ve included a free guide to sounding more English at the bottom of this page.

 

Native English Speaker Meaning

We often get asked ‘How can I speak English like a native?’ Let’s start with the basics.  What does someone mean when they say ‘speak English like a native’.  ‘I’m a Native English speaker’ is interchangeable with ‘English is my mother tongue’.  It simply means the language of the speaker’s native country.  The language that they were born into and/or grew up speaking.  You are a native speaker of a language if it is your first and main language.  What language are you a native speaker of?

Can a foreigner speak English like a native?

Yes.  Although, when asking this question it is important to understand if you are looking to be able to speak fluent, effortless English, like a native or if you are trying to sound like a native.  

Can a foreigner sound like a native?

Again, yes! But if you are talking about accent specifically, this is a different skill than being fluent and effortless when speaking English.  Just look at famous actors, there are a number of great native and non-native speakers who have worked on their pronunciation in order to sound like native speakers of different parts of the world and you can too. 

Top tip #1 – It may sound obvious but… remember, you’re speaking a different language.  If the way you speak English feels familiar, easy and similar to speaking your native language, you’re probably not doing it right!  You should imagine yourself as a native English speaker and try to feel like you are making the sounds of a native English speaker.  

Top tip #2 – When speaking English, pretend you are making fun of an English person’s accent. You’ll be surprised how much more confidence and progress you’ll make when you’re not taking yourself too seriously.  

What is a native English accent?

A native English accent is any accent of an area where the speakers have English as a mother tongue.  This can be any national (British, American, South African, Singaporean) or regional accent (Cockney, Boston, Jordie, etc). 

Which English accent is best?

No English accent is best.  A better question is perhaps ‘Which English accent is best for me?’  And the answer to that is ‘The best English accent is the one which serves you the best.’  For our head teacher Anna, her northern accent that she grew up with was holding her back at work and she worked on her speaking and pronunciation to develop a Received Pronunciation accent.  Importantly, Anna still has and is proud of her northern accent and roots, but is able to naturally and confidently use her Received Pronunciation accent in daily life and for work.  A Received Pronunciation accent may not be best for you however, if another accent, including your natural accent, serves you best. 

If, however, you are looking to work on your pronunciation and speaking fluency and clarity, it’s worth choosing an accent and sticking with it.  If you are not sure which accent will serve you best, all of our courses are taught using the Received Pronunciation accent as it is unlikely to serve you poorly in the future, wherever you move.  Wherever you move or work, the Received Pronunciation accent is considered a neutral, non-regional British accent, is easy to understand and is excellent for the workplace, in any country.  

Is fluent or native better?

This is a strange question as native speakers are typically fluent.  In our view, students should aim to be clear, easy to understand and able to cope in English in the environment they are trying to use it in.  You can be a clear, accurate, fluent communicator with excellent English and a strong foreign accent.  There are lots of examples of wonderful English speakers with strong foreign accents. Conversely, there are not many good examples of people who speak with a ‘native English accent’, but are not fluent.

Why do you want to speak English like a native?

Wanting to sound like a native English speaker is a popular desire for English as a Second Language students (ESL).  Before we start on some top tips to sound like you speak at a native English level, let’s first think about why you would want to.

 

  1. You want to achieve a fluent, effortless English level: This is a healthy ambition where you are looking to improve your English level to a point where it is second nature.  
  2. You want to be able to clearly make your point:  This is another great ambition, nobody wants to be misunderstood and it’s important to be able to communicate in a way that is relevant to the situation.
  3. You want people to focus on what you say rather than how you say it: Many students on our Pronunciation Course have expressed frustration that after feeling very satisfied with delivering an excellently worded question in a work or social situation, they’re not met with a response to the question, but rather they’re asked where they are from!
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We love all kinds of accents and our two founding partners have both changed their accents from those they grew up with to help them succeed in their life goals.  We believe accents, like carisma, should be able to be turned on and off at will.  If you’d like help to improve your pronunciation and be able to switch on a British Received Pronunciation accent when it suits you, we provide an Accent Assessment service that focuses on your key areas for improvement.  Now, let’s look at some important ways to make you sound more natural in your English speaking.

Tip #1 – Use shadowing for English speaking practice

When it comes to sounding natural, there is much more to it than your accent.  The intonation, word and syllable stress and overall flow and speed of your sentences has as much to do with sounding like a native than your accent and your word choice.  The comedian Trevor Noah often shows us that you can easily and accurately mimic people speaking their native language from anywhere in the world, just by using gibberish combined with the flow and intonation of the language.  So I would highly recommend using shadowing lessons and repeating the speech of your favourite teachers, or even actors, and try to match them exactly.  You can learn more about shadowing on my Free English Speaking Practice blog. 

Tip #2 – Use idioms that are common to native English speakers

Idioms are phrases where the words used do not literally mean what the complete phrase means.  An example of this would be a) to have your ‘finger on the pulse’ or b) to be ‘over the moon’.  The words here mean that you are literally touching your pulse with your finger or that you are actually in space!  Whereas what these phrases actually mean is that you are up to date, or very happy, respectively.  Idioms are not meant to be taken literally, and native speakers both know what these phrases mean from prior exposure (and sometimes from context) and will use them off the cuff in the right circumstances.  Idioms are used a lot by natives, and to sound natural and confident, you should familiarise them and practice using them.  

Tip #3 – Use slang in both formal and informal settings

It’s a common belief that slang is only for informal settings.  However, that’s not entirely true.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not advised that you say ‘Hiya Lizzy, how’s it goin’?’ if you were privileged enough to meet the Queen!  However, every setting has its own slang and abbreviations, as you will likely know from your own work place.  Using slang appropriately for the context helps demonstrate you are confident and in control of your language.  Slang helps to give a loose feel to an exchange and without it, interactions can feel robotic.  Let’s look at two quick examples.  

Senario a) A very informal interaction at a party

  • Without slang – Hello friend, oh, isn’t this party good. 
  • With slang – Hey buddy, wow, this party is popping! 

Scenario b) A banker talking to their MD during a finance meeting

    • Without slang – We are two billion, five hundred million pounds above our forecast. 
    • With slang – We’re two and a half yards over budget. 

    As you can see, even in the formal example, the slang is not rude or inappropriate but adds natural fluidity and confidence to the speaker.  

    Tip #4 – Use Phrasal Verbs

    Phrasal verbs are less a function of grammar and more like an enhanced vocabulary list.  Typically, a phrasal verb will contain either a verb + adverb or a verb + preposition.  You can see our list of 25 phrasal verbs that natives use daily to find some more examples.  Like idioms, phrasal verbs can mean something different to their literal translation, often however, they are just a combination of words that are so commonly used together they should almost be considered a single word e.g. put on your clothes – there isn’t really another option other than ‘put on’ that doesn’t sound unnatural. 

    Tip #5 – Master the use of stress and intonation

    Native speakers of English play with the language in a way to add a lot more variability to the vocabulary they have than the words themselves offer.  Word stress and intonation can change the literal meaning of what is being said to inject sarcasm, ask a question, make a statement, level of seriousness, anger, intent, surety and much more.  For example, if your partner tells you it’s your turn to do the washing up.  If you don’t think that is true you might say ‘It’s not my turn’. Alternatively you could say: 

    • It’s NOT my turn – if you are angry and putting your foot down. 
    • It’s not myyyyyy turn – if you were playfully suggesting it’s actually their turn
    • It’s not my turn – with a rising intonation to make the not into a question would suggest you’re surprised if they suggested it wasn’t your turn and you thought it was

    We could go on for hours of lessons on stress and intonation but the key here is the ability to play with the language.

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