Is it possible to speak a foreign language like a native speaker?

Kjell Kühne
2007 „Tú no eres Cubano, verdad?“ several people asked me when I was in Cuba. And it made me very proud. After only three weeks of travelling the island I had picked up the accent in a way that local people started wondering whether I was actually Cuban or not. So for me the issue was clear: you just need to connect to the vibe of the people and you can be perfect at their language. But then again I come across people saying “You’ll never learn to speak like a native”. Saying there is a critical period and when it’s over it’s over. And all kinds of other things that discourage people from learning a language. So this essay is an attempt at dismantling the myth about the impossibility of learning a foreign language perfectly. There are some scientific studies, but they do not cover all possible aspects. In order to kill the myth for good, I need to try and look at the issue from all sides. I will cite the scientific evidence where available and use my personal experience and other sources for the rest. I will look at the question from the angle of pragmatics, phonetics, neurology, motor skills, vocabulary and finally – and most challenging – grammar. In each and every one of those fields we will find many reasons for people not to speak the foreign language like a native. But that does not mean that it is impossible. But let us go one by one. Phonetics Small human beings have amazing abilities at differentiating between different spoken sounds. But this ability diminishes with time. In the beginning infants can distinguish all phonemes of all languages, later on only those of their mother tongue (Kuhl 2004). This seems to be a clear case of a critical period: in early childhood we are receptive for subtle differences and will develop according brain structures. This is a manifestation of the amazing power and flexibility of our brain. But the inability to differentiate between similar sounds of a foreign language is not the same as the inability to learn to differentiate between them. The first is a fact, the second is part of the myth. Okay, you may say, understanding is probably learnable, even at a later stage, but what about speaking correctly yourself? This leads us to the area of motor skills. Motor skills In order to speak, you need a mouth with many different components, a larynx and some air. To coordinate the movement of all these is a rather sophisticated task and has to be learned. Babies’ babbling is believed to be mainly an activity to train the motor skills that will be necessary for spoken language later on (Pinker 1994). There could be a critical period for learning specific motor skills of a certain language. The tongue-R could be such a candidate. Could it be that you need to learn this before age five? It would definitely help. But I learned it at age ten. And speech therapists have methods to teach it. To say it is impossible would be quite misleading. But besides foreigners who fail to learn the tongue-R, I have repeatedly encountered native speakers of Spanish who failed to say it. So now we even have to think about which natives we mean by saying “like a native”. In my opinion speaking in a certain way is like a habit. It can be changed. For some people it is easy to change, for others it takes great effort, for some it takes too much effort, so they do not change. Just as some might say that it is impossible for them to swim, people can claim it is impossible for them to speak certain phonemes. The German Umlaute (spelled ä, ö, ü) are a popular example. But so far anyone

who cared to take my five minute training has learned them. It is a psychological barrier, not a physiological one. As long as you say “I can’t”, of course you will not be able to do it! Of course there are accents which many speakers of foreign languages have and which frequently make it possible to identify the mother tongue of a speaker. They are mostly made up of the words of one language spoken with a different setup for producing sounds. So this relates to motor skills. Some grammatical distortions add to it, but the funny sound is the main feature of an accent. Since a funny accent is often an asset and it reinforces the national or cultural identity of its speaker, many people do not care to work on their pronunciation to the degree that they lose their accent. But those who do are amazingly able to speak “accent-free”! If these accent-free people are hard to find, this has two reasons: Firstly it is easy to simply overlook them. Secondly it takes a lot of work to find and eliminate all the subtle differences in pronunciation that make up an accent. There are not many people who are willing to do that. In the end, you lose your accent, but what do you gain? Many try at first, but then give up. Of course would be less threatening to their self esteem if there was actually some biological impossibility to drop an accent. But the accent-free speakers unmask this as part of the myth. Neurology What about the findings through brain imaging studies, one of the most recent and exciting methods of cognitive science? Since they allow us to actually look into the brain while it is working, we should be able to identify differences in the ways a language is processed by different people. And we should be able to answer the question whether there are any qualitative differences between natives and non-natives. So what are the findings? There is a theory about “native language neural commitment” (NLNC) which means that once you have hard-wired the structure of your native language into your brain, new input will be learned a lot faster when it fits into that structure (Kuhl 2000). At the same time other options are suppressed. If a corresponding neurological mechanism was found, it would validate our notion that learning the first language goes effortlessly, but for learning a foreign language we have to overcome some barriers. One of these barriers would be the neurological structure of our brain which is fit for our mother tongue and excludes other possibilities at the same time. One group of researchers found native and foreign language to be represented in different parts of the brain region called Broca’s area (Kim, Relkin, Lee & Hirsch 1997). But these theories and findings are irrelevant to our question as long as they do not manifest themselves in one of the other areas that we are considering here. If people arrive at the same result (speaking the language) through using a slightly different part of their brain, well – so be it! Vocabulary How many words you know and how you conceptualize them depends on your past experience. This applies for both native and non-native speakers. Since lifestyles vary, the experiences with single words vary accordingly. And so does the exposure to a wide range of words and the mastery of a vast vocabulary. Fluent speakers of a foreign language have often read a lot in that language - sometimes more than the average native speaker, especially in cultures where reading is not an activity done with frecuency by most of the people. So it should come as no surprise if some foreigners even have a bigger vocabulary than some native speakers who hardly went to school. Pragmatics Pragmatics deals with language as a tool to reach goals. How and when do you speak and to what purpose? When it comes to non-natives, the mastery of pragmatic aspects of language boils down to

intercultural competence. If you know when and how to say things, you’ll fit in. I admit that this is not an easy one. You have to live among persons of the culture for quite some time, observe closely and be able to adapt and integrate the experiences into your own communication. I guess that this aspect of language and its non-obvious nature makes up for the bulk of intercultural misunderstandings. But it is quite obvious that this can be learned. Grammar A study at my university (Irmen & Knoll 1999) indicated that Finns did not use grammatical gender for the analysis of sentences when reading German. But the question of this study was not whether it is possible to process the foreign language exactly like native speakers. The question was rather whether non-native speakers generally do or do not process it in the same way. So after showing that most people take a different route, we are still left with the possibility that some do use the natives’ way. But what about the critical period hypothesis? There is definitely a period in which children learn at an astonishing rate, when grammatical structures appear seemingly out of nowhere. But it would be wrong to conclude that everybody who misses that period is excluded from the circle of perfect speakers. Having said that, it is surely right to conclude that whoever misses that period will have to make a great conscious effort to get where others have gotten naturally. It is possible! After looking at all this evidence, we can conclude that in each of the fields mentioned there are challenges. But none of them is insuperable. I now have to give our myth the final blow. Actually showing that something is possible is a lot easier than the opposite. One example would be enough. So we need a very good example of a person who is really perfect at a very difficult language very distinct from his own, right? So let us take Chinese. One of the features of Chinese that I find personally most challenging is the tone system. Chinese do not only differentiate between vowels and consonants, they also care about whether you say a word in a rising or falling voice. (There are actually five tones but I will not go into the details here.) It is maybe comparable to the parts of a melody. Many foreigners - including me - have a very hard time speaking the tones correctly. Besides, there are a number of other challenges that make Chinese especially difficult. So if we say that it is impossible to speak a foreign language like a native, this should especially apply to a difficult one like Chinese, right? So here comes the ultimate proof: I have found a person that has made it. Mark Rowswell, alias Dashan ( 大山 ) learned Chinese as a young adult. He comes from Canada and is so good at Chinese that he regularly hosts TV shows on Chinese National Television. He even acts as a Comedian in a traditional form of funny dialogue called Xiangsheng ( 相声). If you do not believe me, you can download some of his conversations from his homepage at Of course Dashan is no doubt extremely gifted, but he shows clearly that with the right mindset, a favourable environment and enough time, it is possible to become fluent and even perfect in any language! Good news for wannabe-Cubanos, isn’t it? You might still be wondering whether speaking a foreign language is possible for YOU. So please go ahead and read the second part which is about how to do it!