When I’m working as a cross cultural communications trainer, my non-native speaking clients often tell me their number one objective is “to become fluent in English”. But what does this really mean? If you didn’t grow up speaking English, how realistic is it to expect to become fluent?
In my opinion, fluency isn’t necessarily all about perfecting grammar and vocabulary, but rather about something different.
Sounding natural is the key to fluency
I believe it is more important to improve pronunciation in order to sound natural in English - and here I do not mean losing your accent! To explain what I do mean, I’m going to quote Alex Bellem from BBC Learning English’s introductory programme to The Sounds of English:
“Good pronunciation is very important for good spoken communication. This does not mean speaking English like a native speaker. It’s fine to have a different accent, but what is important is that you are able to speak clearly and that you don’t prevent other people from understanding what you are trying to say”.
I would take this even further by saying that if you can sound natural and speak clearly in English, the native listener won’t really notice if you make grammatical mistakes. This is because they will understand you – but if you produce the wrong sounds, they won’t!
It surprises many people to learn that English is in fact a very musical language, strongly linked to sound which, with its highs and lows in pitch and tone, tends to be “sung” by its native speakers. These sound patterns are completely different from more monotone languages like German or the raised end of sentence pitch and stress that is typical of French and Italian speakers.
There is a very well-known football manager – who I won’t name – who speaks almost perfect English, grammatically speaking. However, he speaks English in a virtual monotone which makes listening to him uncomfortable as he sounds unnatural. He needs to start going to karaoke singing in English – I’m serious – which is a fun practise activity I always suggest to those who struggle with pitch and tone.
Another problem is the fact that you cannot pronounce English the way it is written – because it is not a phonetic language. For example, there are many silent letters which are not pronounced or stressed. Learners of English often tie their tongues in knots trying to produce all the letters they see in a word, even when it is not physically possible or even necessary. Speakers of some languages, for example, Brazilian speakers of Portuguese, can also add sounds onto English words that are not there, for example, “park” becomes “parkie”, which can be very confusing to the listener. Learning when and how not to pronounce these letters or sounds is a skill that can be learned.
Then there are the differences in stress patterns. Although there are exceptions of course (this is English after all), most English words are not stressed at the end, but rather on the first or on various mid positioned syllables. Sentence stress also varies because some words, for example pronouns like “his” and “her”, articles and prepositions are hardly stressed at all – and to stress them sounds unnatural. Again, singing practice in English can help here.
Paradoxically, when the end sound of a word is important, non-native speakers can often have difficulty remembering or producing these. When this occurs, the listener can, for example, be confused about:
· Time – “they work” (every day) or “they worked (in the past)
· Number – “he go” (he or they?)
· Meaning (Jane knows / Jane’s nose?)
To help with this, listening exercises, in my opinion, should not only aim for comprehension of gist, but on developing familiarity with English sounds as well. This approach is particularly beneficial to Japanese learners of English who, in my experience, are less familiar with the sounds of English than many other non-natives.
You need to exercise your mouth, just like going to the gym
Critical to being fluent in English is the ability to both understand and mimic the important sounds made by native speakers of the language. To produce these sounds of English, native speakers generally open their mouths more and smile when speaking. Whether we have a regional accent or not, we also use our tongues differently, for example either up against the palate or through the teeth and lips. It requires sustained practice and physical effort to be able to perfect this.
For most non-native English speakers, perfecting the sounds of English in order to sound natural involves using the mouth and facial muscles in a completely different way which feels very strange at first. But just like going to the gym, the more you train, the easier and the better it becomes.
There is an incredible array of free resources available on the internet today, especially the BBC’s Learning English platform, which can help with facial and tongue exercises.
Where should I begin?
Start with one basic sound and keep practising this until you can produce it with ease, just like you would if you were perfecting your game of tennis or your skill at anything else.
My suggestion is to start with the Schwa sound which is the most common sound made by native English speakers but which has an unexpected and almost silent sound to the non-native. To help improve this sound, I recommend the following two links from the BBC’s free Learning English website:
As you progress further, the main pronunciation page of BBC Learning English which goes through all the sounds of British English is really helpful. Here you can explore each sound individually and Alex Bellen shows you exactly how to use your mouth and tongue to produce the right sound and then follows this with a short practice session:
To give an idea of what else is out there, here is a link to a video on YouTube in which an American teacher explains the non-use of the silent letters B, D and L:
A myriad of websites offer karaoke resources but here is one which highlights how singing can help with phonetic recognition:
It really works!
I can offer two examples of non-native speakers of English who in my opinion have successfully mastered the art of sounding natural in English while at the same time maintaining their native accents.
The first of these is former Labour Member of Parliament, Gisela Stuart, a native German speaker who has lived in the UK since 1974. She sounds natural because she has perfected the use of the Schwa sound and because she articulates clearly and slowly – and as a result, the few grammatical errors she makes are not noticeable:
My second example is the French actress, Marion Cotillard who is on record as saying that she has worked long and hard on perfecting the different sounds of English. In 2007, she could hardly speak English but she had to address this when invited to work in Hollywood. She realised that learning grammar was not enough to ensure she would be accepted as credible by an English speaking film going audience. Her solution was to begin working every day with a voice coach in order to perfect the sounds of English. As she was working in the USA, she began to produce a “d” sound instead of a “t” sound in the middle of words in order to sound more naturally American, so for example, “fascinated” became “fascinaded”. For the more recent film, Allied, Marion changed this sound to pronounce the middle “t” to reduce this effect.
These two ladies are both fantastic examples of how it is truly possible to become fluent in English if you can master the invaluable skill of sounding natural.