Here is the full text and summary of Marc Green’s talk titled “How to Talk Like a Native Speaker” at TEDxHeidelberg conference.
Marc’s passion is the study of languages, their manifestation in local dialects, as well as their expression in poetry and folkloric song. He has acquired a near-native proficiency in six languages and their sub-forms and has given various musical performances.
My story starts in Moscow. I was 15 years old. My best friend and I, we were part of a group of Westerners, visiting the Soviet Union. This was in 1987, a few years before the fall of the communist regime.
We were given an official tour guide who was assigned to us. And the tour would start in the morning, and we were checked in to our hotel rooms for the night. My friend said to me, ”Let’s go outside and look at the city.” I thought it was a great idea. Dumb idea.
So we grabbed our coats, and we snuck out past security and into the street. We found the entrance to the metro. The Moscow underground transportation system is the deepest one in the world. The ride down the escalator took a full minute.
Once we were down there, my friend headed right to an open train, and I pulled him back and said, “Wait! Let’s write down the name of the station so we can find our way back.” So I had a notepad, and I took a notepad, and I wrote down the letters of the station, and we hopped down the train and went on train hopping. And that was fun because – Well, actually, it was weird.
There were a lot of people, probably all coming home from work. They were all dressed in brown and gray clothes, and it looked very, very different from what we were used to at home. But the stations were lovely. There were stations with statues, with paintings on the wall, and glass displays. It was really like museums. We would never have expected that.
And everything was perfectly clean. Well, what was weird though is that the people – nobody seemed to speak, and everyone seemed to be looking at us and it kind of weirded us out. So after about 20-30 minutes, we’d had enough and we wanted to go home. I showed my note to someone and they directed me over there.
Then over there, I showed my note to another person, and they directed us to the other way. And then a third person directed us sideways. That was a little confusing. Aw, then I saw it. Over the stairs, the sign. It turned out I had written down the Russian word for “Exit.”
So we headed upstairs and we found a taxi. That was great. And we told the driver, you know, “Intourist Hotel,” and then he was willing to take us. And I remember sitting next to the driver, handing him 50 rubles. And he looked at me and he said, (Russian) No, dollar! Fifty dollars? That was like I don’t know 20 times that amount or something.
That was not an option for us. So we had to get out of the taxi, and he drove away, leaving us standing there. It was a cold night, and you know everything was strange for us, and we were teenagers, and we were pretty nervous, didn’t know what to do. Well, we started walking. We walked to the end of the block.
We turned the corner. And 200 yards in front of us, the Intourist Hotel. Well, this experience affected me in two ways. The first is that anytime after this trip that I would hear anyone speak Russian, I was just cringe. And the second one is that it taught me the importance of understanding the local language when you’re traveling. And it actually led to me learning another four languages fluently over the following years.
Now, before I go on, I’d like to know in the audience – Can we have a little bit of light maybe in the audience? I’d just like to know who’s – By a show of hands, who is not a native English speaker? It must be 99%. Anyone who doesn’t speak English, stand up! All right, so I can assume all of you have, you know, gone through the process of learning a language.
Anybody who speaks three or more languages? Wow, that’s maybe 70%. Four or more languages, anyone? That’s still quite a bit. Anyone speak five or more languages? Wow, come see me during the break. To me, learning a language is — for me, it’s like a deck of playing cards lying faced down on the table.
As you start learning and understanding, the cards start opening up for you. Now there’s no standard way of classifying this. But as you learn, you reach certain milestones. And the first one would be when about 25% of the cards are turned up, you reach like a basic level. At this level, you have a base vocabulary, some grammar, and you’re able to have maybe very simple conversations and communicate a little bit.
And your study goes on until you reach this magical point of fluency, what we call being fluent in the language. Now what does it mean, being fluent in a language? It means that you’ve turned up more than 50% of the cards in the deck, and that is the point where you have – where the language becomes part of your subconscious so that even if you don’t use it anymore for 10 years or longer, you will not forget it. You can get back into it within a very, very short time.
So this is a level where you’re comfortable thinking in a language, and comfortable communicating in a language. Now, some people go on and, you know, reach like a mastery level. By that time, you know classic literature in the other language and have maybe in-depth knowledge of specialized fields. That’s often the point taken in academia.
For me, when I learned my first foreign language, I had a head start because I was born to a German-speaking mother and an American father. Now, when I was a baby, I didn’t really understand that what my parents were speaking to me were two separate languages. But by the time I was two years old, I had figured it all out.
Women speak only German. Men only speak English. Imagine the fun my parents had when they introduced me to couples. Being a bilingual was actually pretty helpful in learning my first language. It definitely helped.
If you’re – But it also gave me something else. It gave me two identities and the ability to switch between them. When you’re a native speaker of more than one language, then your personality, your humor, your value system, they change as you switch languages. This can have huge advantages.
I mean, some studies have shown an increased problem-solving ability or even a higher resistance to Alzheimer’s disease. But what I’m almost interested in is that it’s actually given me a lot of social benefits. When you’re a native speaker, then you feel at home among native speakers or in a culture, and also native speakers accept you as one of theirs.
Now is this only relevant to native speakers? And that’s the big question. But wouldn’t it be cool if a person learning a foreign language could actually develop another identity and actually enjoy the social benefits of a native speaker that go beyond communication skills?
Well, that’s what happened to me. I was able to do that, and I want to show you from my experience how I think this can be achieved.
So if we say this green area here is the level of the native speaker, the first thing to note is that on your way to reaching fluency, there is not really any shortcut. There are some methods that you can use such as the Burrito Principle where you identify 20% of the most effective materials to study. There are some apps, like stuff for time-spaced learning, that increase vocabulary retention. They save a little time, but in the end, there’s no way around working with the material, practicing it, until you reach the fluency level.
But the second thing to note is that going from fluency to mastery is a much slower process, and it requires proportionally more effort. That’s why most people – they just stop at fluency. They know how to speak English, good enough, and they don’t even attempt to venture on, and I can understand it.
But the good news is, to get the benefits of a native speaker, at a native-speaker level, you don’t have to go through mastery in the academic sense. In fact, you can skip this step altogether. So if you think about it, there are many native speakers do not have an in-depth knowledge of specialized fields or sophisticated vocabulary.
So, that’s not really what is required. So how do you do it? What is required? Well, I want to give you three areas to focus on when you’re learning and interacting with native speakers. The first is: work on eliminating your accent. I’m aware I said eliminating. It should be at least minimizing it.
This is, in my opinion, the most overlooked aspect of language learning today, but it’s also the most important one to reach what I call a native-speaker level or a speaker-like level. If you communicate without an accent or almost without an accent, this changes how natives behave towards you unconsciously, and it also gives you an ability to adapt to a new self-image.
The best way that I’ve found – the best exercise I’ve found to improve your pronunciation is what I call the perfect-sentence technique. What you do is you find a native speaker to help you, and you take a book in the foreign language, you open it at a random page, and you read the first sentence. Then, you ask a native speaker to rate you on obvious accent, slight accent, no accent.
Then the native speaker will read this sentence back to you. You have to listen carefully and then you repeat. And you repeat this process over and over until the native speaker tells you that he can no longer hear an accent when you read the sentence.
Now, I realize it can take a very long time even just to get one sentence right. But I promise you if you are persistent, and if you patiently work on this, you’ll be amazed by what happens to your accent.
The second area to focus on is using verbs and expressions that locals use. Now, we all know the situation that vocabulary can be region-specific. Like, in the US, you use “stand in line.” In the UK, you “queue.” That’s all good.
But sometimes, the spoken word is so different, the speech is so different from what you get in textbooks, that the books are almost useless if you want to converse with natives. I want to give you an example.
In the French language, there are words like “le travail,” which is “my work.” A French person talking to his friend would probably say “mon boulot,” which is a completely different word. The same for “the clothes,” “le vestments,” but you’ll hear “le fringues.” Or money is “l’argent,” but people say “le fric,” “le sou,” or many other expressions for this.
So, obviously I’m only scratching the surface here. But here you actually have to learn all of these words and expressions one by one. And of course, you have to interact with natives to do that. But after you reach a critical mass that you’re comfortable with, it’ll actually be easier when you encounter something new.
You’ll just pick it up in one go, like native speakers would, who hear words or expressions that they didn’t know before.
The third area to work on is adopting cultural traits. What do I mean by that? So let me ask you: what does this gesture mean to you? Any Italians here? OK, now, depending on what culture you’re from, this could mean something rude, or it could just mean it’s something incredulous, like, “Why did you do that?” Or, “How could you?” Or it could just be signaling food, “Give me food!” Interesting!
In the Middle East, this is just a standard way of signaling “Please, wait!” So these kind of traits you have to internalize, and sometimes, they’re hard to spot, and it takes a lot of active listening. I want to give you a few more examples.
So imagine I am with three of my friends: an American, a German, and a Frenchman. And, like, we’re walking and maybe the American bumps his head, and his initial reaction might be, “Ouch!” That’s how you say it in English.
But the German that, you know, gets, I don’t know, elbowed in the crowd, he would say, “Ow-ah!” And the French person might step on the nail and say, “Ay!” So this, of course, in your target language, this is something you have to observe and also internalize, and it has to become part of you.
If again I’m with these three friends, and I sit with them, and let’s say I serve them tea, and I ask the American, “Would you like a biscuit with your tea?” And if he answers in the affirmative, he might say, “Uh-huh!”
And I can ask the German, “Do you know what tea this is?” He’ll say, ”Mm- hmm!” And then I ask the Frenchman, “Do you like this?” He’ll say, “Hmm!” So these differences, they really require active listening.
So all of these three things that I told you which is pronunciation, and colloquial speech and adopting cultural traits, they all require that you interact with natives as much as possible. Ideally, you should fully immerse yourself in the culture.
Now if you have the chance to live abroad for a while, that will be great. Or maybe live among natives in your hometown.
Perhaps just have a romantic relationship, or even just spend time, you know, with co-workers. So, romantic relationships, I could do a whole talk about that. That works really well for these things. But yeah – So this will be different for everybody, of course. But even when you’re not around natives, your learning must not stop.
Because what you can do is you can watch TV shows and films, you can mimic the characters, you can write down anything that you haven’t heard of before, and practice that. I also want to encourage you to learn the lyrics of songs.
Songs are really great because they tell stories. And they not only help your pronunciation when you sing them, but if they’re emotional, they can anchor these expressions into your active vocabulary. And it’s like speaking all day and really using the expressions unconsciously.
It’s a great way. So music, definitely. The other thing you need to move towards native-speaker status is the right mindset, and a belief that if you sound like a native, express yourself like a native, talk like a native and act like a native, you’ll actually achieve a native-like level.
So if I could only leave you with one thing today, it would be: work on your pronunciation. Because pronunciation helps any stage of the learning process, even in the very beginning. It’ll speed up everything. And it also is the key to reaching a native-speaker level, or almost-native-speaker status.
So before I go, I’d like to tell you how I was able to overcome my fear of the Russian language. It was a very, very elegant solution. I married a Russian girl. And I now have little kids in my home that speak Russian to me every day. So I want to thank you.
And before I go, I just want to wish you… (Spanish). A lot of success with your language studies… (French). It was a pleasure to present for you today… (Hebrew) I wish you lots of success with your studies. (Yiddish) Thank you for listening. Good luck to you all and…. (Russian).
Want a summary of this talk? Here it is.
Marc Green’s talk, titled “How to Talk Like a Native Speaker,” delves into his personal experiences and insights gained from learning multiple languages and achieving a native-like fluency in them. Here are the key points from his talk:
1. Importance of Learning a Language: Marc’s story begins with a misadventure in Moscow during a visit to the Soviet Union. This experience taught him the significance of understanding the local language when traveling, which eventually led him to learn four languages fluently.
2. Language Milestones: Marc compares language learning to flipping over a deck of cards. He suggests that achieving fluency, where more than 50% of the language is understood, is a crucial milestone. Fluency allows one to comfortably think and communicate in the language.
3. Benefits of Multilingualism: Speaking multiple languages can have numerous advantages, including increased problem-solving abilities and a higher resistance to diseases like Alzheimer’s. It also provides a sense of belonging within different cultural contexts.
4. Accent Reduction: Marc emphasizes the importance of minimizing or eliminating one’s accent when learning a new language. This can significantly impact how native speakers perceive and interact with you.
5. Using Local Expressions: Learning regional vocabulary and colloquial expressions is vital for effective communication with native speakers. This goes beyond textbook knowledge and requires interaction with locals.
6. Cultural Adaptation: Adopting cultural traits and understanding non-verbal cues are essential aspects of sounding like a native speaker. These traits help integrate language into one’s subconscious.
7. Immersion: Marc suggests full immersion in the language and culture whenever possible, such as living abroad or spending time with native speakers in your hometown. Even when not surrounded by native speakers, language learning should continue through activities like watching TV shows, learning song lyrics, and mimicking characters.
8. The Right Mindset: Believing that you can achieve a native-like level in a language is crucial. Confidence and a determination to sound, express, and act like a native speaker are keys to success.
9. Personal Example: Marc shares how he overcame his fear of the Russian language by marrying a Russian woman and raising children who speak Russian at home.
In summary, Marc Green’s talk highlights the journey of achieving native-like fluency in a foreign language. He emphasizes the importance of pronunciation, adopting local expressions, and cultural adaptation. By doing so, language learners can not only communicate effectively but also enjoy the social benefits that come with sounding like a native speaker.
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