Speaking like a local is not all about the accent; or even the vocabulary. Gestures, clothing, mannerisms and attitude also hint at where you’re from.
All of these things can be learned and mimicked so you sound like you grew up around the block. Below is a list of hints for how to “go native.”
1. Cross Generations
Does “Dude, how was your weekend?” sound normal? Now what if it was your grandmother asking you the same phrase? What about your brother mentioning that he was “necking” with his girlfriend? Most likely both sound a little “off”.
These are examples of the generational differences that exist in language. Words are continuously dropped, added or take on new meanings. While you learn, spend time with people from different generations. Kids are always non-judgmental and forgiving when it comes to mistakes. Other than the occasional “You talk funny!” comment, their pace and knowledge will match yours (I know it’s a huge ego blow to have a 4-year old correct you, but hey, suck it up!).
At the same time, someone 20 years or more older than you will also enrich your language experience. Spending time with people of your generation is the easiest, but you will have a wider vocabulary and much more fun if you vary this.
2. Narrow It Down
So you’re learning Spanish? Chinese? Portuguese? That really doesn’t narrow it down much. You need to be aware of much more than the language.
For example, where is your teacher from? Where did she grow up? Which city? Is he a native speaker? From which socio-economic level?
Answers to these types of questions will help you better master the language you learn. As a comparison, think of how many different accents there are in the United States. Texans, Minnesotans and New Yorkers all have unique accents.
As for vocabulary, the western part of the US uses the word “pop” while easterners say “soda.” Figuring these things out will help you learn and understand the vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and accents you hear. As you become more comfortable with your language you should be able to adjust your vocabulary and accent to your local surroundings, making it easier to fit in.
3. Learn the Local Gestures
Every place has unique gestures that people in the area understand, but outsiders are clueless about. Often, these gestures are so ingrained in the native speakers’ communication that they forget they use them…meaning even if you asked, people probably won’t be able to answer you.
To get around this, spend some time sitting in a park, restaurant or café and watch the conversations around you. You will begin to see gestures repeated after several sessions. Later, ask someone what these gestures mean.
As an added bonus, you’ll hone your non-verbal skills while you observe, since at some point you will understand at least parts of the conversations without hearing a word anyone says.
4. Vary Your Instructors
This is perhaps the most important point in this article. It is easy to fall into the habit of using the same teacher and following the same schedule at the same place. The problem with this is that you will only be exposed to one accent at a time, which severely restricts your exposure to different dialects.
The best language learning programs offer a mix of teachers from different regions and countries. This allows you to begin to mimic the subtleties of the language and avoids you becoming accustomed to how one person speaks.
Even if you do not have the option of varying teachers, the internet now provides enough material for you to watch videos, listen to podcasts, hear radio announcements and read online newspapers. With a little effort you can begin to appreciate the variances in peoples’ verbal communication.
As a plus, being exposed to a variety of pronunciations and vocabulary will make your first foray into a foreign country less shocking. If your language exposure has been with only one person, the first time you visit you will not have an easy time communicating with people.
5. Focus your vocabulary development
Any time you begin to learn a language, you start with the common words. You are more likely to learn words such as car, telephone, run and ice cream, before you learn analysis, nuclear, political or border crossing.
So what are the most common words in any language? The naughty words! Not only is asking for slang words a great ice-breaker to meet people (Excuse me, my name’s Jared and I just started learning Swahili. If I get really mad at a taxi cab driver, what could I say to him?) but it’ll also help you quickly learn the most common words that most people use.
To better grasp the scale of the word, I always use the Grandma Test. Is this something you can say in front of your grandmother? mother? girlfriend? only with the guys? Ladies, why use this test? Because, believe it or not, there are some words that guys only use with other guys, so it’s best to clarify that at the beginning.
Another good vocabulary segment to develop early is the fillers that are used. In English, words like “uh”, “like”, “um,” and “well” buy time while you think about what to say next. Other languages have these fillers as well. Once you learn them (shouldn’t take more than a day or two with a little help from someone), use the local fillers instead of your own; your conversations will come across as more fluid.
6. Know your gossip
When was the first time your English teacher went over the correct usage of “ain’t” with you? Most likely never. At the start of learning a language, most of what we are taught is the formal structure of a language. This is the same with foreign languages. While the formal learning is important, to fit in like a local, you must also learn the street language.
One of the best ways to do this is to keep abreast of the gossip in the society pages of the country whose language you are learning. Most countries have news rags available that report on the newest romantic gossip surrounding actors and actresses. Often, there are also whole television programs dedicated to gossip of the rich and famous.
Most of them sprinkle in slang words, double meanings and sexual innuendo. Besides helping to fit in more like a local, this has another added benefit. Learning about current news, gossip and celebrities will allow you to participate more in conversations, better understand local jokes, and enjoy everyday life in your adopted country.
Copyright, Jared Romey, 2009. All rights reserved.
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For more practical advice, check out these ten tips to become fluent in a language in 6 months and the five ways we learn languages.