Let’s look at more ways to sound more like a native English speaker.
Recall from Part One of this post that none of our recommendations involve losing your accent. As discussed previously, accent elimination or even marked reduction is virtually impossible for most adults (learn why).
But sounding more like a native English speaker? Yes you can!
In Part One, we focused on understanding idioms and what you say in your conversation (the content).
Here, in Part Two, we will look at key aspects of your speaking skills, including vocabulary and grammar.
Please note: In this post, I use examples from American English. Remember, the U.S. is a big place! So not all of my examples apply to different regions in America, and certainly not to the English spoken in other countries.
1. Use contractions
Native English speakers in the U.S. typically use contractions when they speak.
If a native speaker doesn’t use a contraction, it’s usually for extra emphasis or clarification. For example, if you say, “I’m hungry” and your listener says, “You’re not hungry?”, you'll respond: “No, I am hungry.”
Some of my clients have difficulty pronouncing certain contractions, such as I’ll. That’s ok. Don’t use it. Just say I will. But, wherever possible, use contractions to sound less formal and more local.
2. Use phrasal verbs
Another way to sound less formal and more local is to use phrasal verbs.
A phrasal verb is a verb made up of 2 or more words. There, I just used one: “made up” (meaning comprised.)
Because phrasal verbs are more informal, English speakers tend to use them frequently in their everyday speech. Some examples:
Just like idioms, there are thousands of phrasal verbs. You don’t need to learn every one; just the most common ones used in your target English.
3. Use the local vocabulary
What’s one of the top tourist phrases in any language?
That’s right. “Where’s the bathroom?”
But should you say “restroom”, “loo”, “WC”? It all depends on the country, or region, or even city. One of the easiest ways to sound like a native speaker is to simply use the local vocabulary.
Here's an example: I am originally from New York. I call soft drinks, such as Coca-Cola, “soda”. One of my college roommates from Illinois (in the Midwest) called them “pop”. My other college roommate from Kentucky (in the South) called any soda “Coke”.
But that’s why it’s so important to interact with native speakers, as we suggested in Part One. It’s a surefire way to learn the local lingo.
4. Use the local pronunciation
English pronunciation also varies by location. I am not referring to the accent, but things like singular versus plural, silent letters, or syllable stress. For example:
There is no right or wrong pronunciation. Again, there is just the preferred way in that region. As with vocabulary, listen to and copy how the locals say it.
Another key to sounding like a native English speaker is to use the grammar typically used in the area. For instance:
The grammar of our first language is deeply embedded in our brains. So even advanced English learners, who score 100% on written grammar tests, can make these minor mistakes when they speak.
The good news is that these types of grammar errors don’t typically interfere with your listener’s ability to understand you. But it is a sign that English is probably not your first language.
So if your goal is to sound like a native English speaker, you’ll want to try to eliminate as many of these small mistakes as you can. There is no magic pill: improvement takes dedicated time and practice.
We’re here to help!
If your accent is making it difficult for people to understand you, Well Said Coaching can help you gain clarity and confidence in your spoken English. If you’re not sure about your intelligibility, schedule a free consultation with us. We’ll let you know.
But if you’re already easy to understand, then we hope you will embrace your beautiful accent. Instead, try some of the other approaches we suggested to sounding more like a native English speaker.
Cheerio. Later. See ya. Bye for now. [How do they "goodbye" where you live?]
When people meet me for a consultation, they often start out by telling me: “I want to sound like a native English speaker.” That’s a great goal, I say.
Next, they mention their solution: “So I need to lose my accent.”
Here’s the challenge with that solution: losing your accent is virtually impossible for the vast majority of adults (learn why.)
Because accents are so resistant to change, Well Said Coaching focuses instead on intelligibility: how easily other people can understand you. If your accent prevents people from understanding you easily, then it makes sense to work on it.
However, once you have achieved intelligibility, sounding like a native speaker can be more easily accomplished in other ways than by losing or even reducing your accent.
If you want to sound like a native English speaker without losing your accent, here are our top tips. Part One of this post covers the first five tips. Part Two covers the next five tips.
10 Tips for Sounding More Like a Native English Speaker
1. Choose which native English speakers you want to sound like.
English is the official or most commonly used language in dozens and dozens of countries. That means there is a vast number of different English dialects and accents.
So which English are you aiming for? Is it the English used
If you identify which native English speakers you want to sound like then the following tips will give you better and faster results.
2. Understand Idioms.
Idioms are sayings or expressions that can’t be guessed from the actual words in the phrase. In other words, idioms are not literal.
For example, “It’s raining cats and dogs” means it’s raining a lot, not that animals are falling from the sky!
So why do I suggest understanding idioms, but not using them in your own speech?
a. Because idioms are not literal, they are difficult to memorize. In the middle of a conversation, it’s hard to remember exactly which animals are falling from the sky. So you might pick the wrong animals and say: “It’s raining rats and hogs”. Whoops!
No one will notice if you don’t use an idiom. But they will notice if you use it incorrectly. So keep it simple. Just say: “Wow! It’s really raining hard.”
b. On the other hand, understanding common idioms is essential for listening comprehension. As in any language, native speakers use lots of idioms in their speech. Some examples:
To respond appropriately, it’s important that you understand that “a piece of cake” means easy, “hit it out of the park” means you did a great job and “wolfed it down” means you ate it really fast.
There are thousands and thousands of idioms. They vary by region and change all the time. So you don’t have to familiarize yourself with every single idiom; just the most common ones for your target English.
3. Get comfortable with small talk
Sometimes my clients tell me: “I hate small talk! What’s the point?”
Small talk, with its focus on unimportant or trivial topics, may seem pointless. But this kind of informal conversation serves an important purpose. It builds connections and relationships between people. And creating rapport was one of the main goals of losing your accent, right?
So in a place where small talk is customary, try to get comfortable with it, if you are not already. There are many good blogs, YouTube videos and books devoted solely to improving your small talk skills.
4. Talk about the local scene
There are two main reasons why some of my clients struggle with small talk.
a. They run out of topics quickly.
One of the best ways to keep a conversation going is to become familiar with the local scene. By "local scene" I mean the food, the pop culture, the sports teams, common getaway destinations, etc. You don’t have to actually enjoy any of these. You just have to know just enough about them to be able to make a bit of small talk.
For example, you have no interest in American football? That’s ok. I don’t either! But if the local football team is in the playoffs, that’s helpful to know. If your conversation partner brings up the team, you’ll at least be able to acknowledge their successful season.
b. They put too much pressure on themselves to do the talking.
My favorite piece of advice about small talk is to ask questions. People love talking about themselves or their interests. Going back to the football example, there are lots of potential small talk questions: “How long have you been a fan?” “Did you ever play football yourself?” “Do you go to the games?, etc.
If you express curiosity and ask questions, then you don't have to do most of the talking. But you’ll still be building rapport. It's a win-win!
5. Talk to native speakers
If you are new to your English-speaking environs, or your English level is still not quite advanced, it’s tempting to continue studying English in classes or events specifically for ESL learners. I completely understand why.
But try to branch out. In order to speak like a native, you have to hear the language spoken. Yes -- TV, movies, and YouTube are all helpful. But you don’t have conversations with video. You have conversations with people.
So seek out opportunities to mix with native speakers. Focus on events and interactions that don’t rely on advanced language skills. Do you like the outdoors? Join a local hiking group. How about cooking? Sign up for a class. Want to help a native speaker learn your language? Join a language exchange group.
Feeling nervous? Ask a friend or family member to join you. Just make sure you agree to talk to other people!
Choose your English. Understand idioms. Chat with native speakers. These are a great place to start if you want to sound more like a native English speaker without losing your accent.
In Part Two we’ll look at five more tips. These will focus on your speaking skills, including vocabulary and grammar.
“I want to change my accent. Like actors do.”
I hear this frequently during my consultations with prospective clients. These are non-native English speakers who would like to speak with an American English accent. They tell me that they know actors learn specific accents for different roles. So, losing your accent and speaking with another one must be doable.
Let’s talk about actors and accents. I used to be an actor, many moons ago. So I can speak from a bit of experience. Here are three key points:
1. Accents within your native language are the easiest to learn.
If you are an American actor and you need to speak English with, say, a British or Australian accent, it’s typically not as difficult as having to speak with an accent from a foreign language. Many (not all) of the native English accents spoken around the world have lots in common already – particularly the overall “music” (the phrasing and stress.) You have to make some changes, of course, especially to the vowel sounds. But generally speaking, swapping one English accent for another is the easiest scenario for native English speaking actors.
Even in this case, not all actors are successful. I recently attended a play where an excellent actor from the UK was trying to use a New York accent. Unfortunately, she kept slipping back into a British accent. So it happens, even to the best of us.
The relative ease of speaking with different accents in your own first language is not unique to English. One of my clients from Spain was able to imitate accents from around the Spanish-speaking world: Spain, Mexico, Latin and South America. It was a tour de force! But he couldn’t imitate my American accent – which is perfectly understandable.
2. How many native English-speaking actors do you hear doing foreign accents?
In contrast, there are relatively few very actors who are able to convincingly master a foreign accent for a role. American actor Meryl Street and Australian actor Cate Blanchett come to mind. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. And even those who are exceptionally gifted at accents may have help, lots of it, from #3 …
3. Actors have the benefit of prepared language and dialect coaches.
Unless you are an improvisational actor, you deliver memorized lines from a script. Prepared language provides three enormous advantages over impromptu speech.
But … you might say … I heard this actor in an interview, and they were using the accent they learned for a role in their impromptu speech. How did they do that?
Well, not all actors can retain an accent without the benefit of prepared lines. But for those that can, remember, they have probably immersed themselves in that accent for months and practiced their little hearts out. And that level of intensity can carry over from scripted to impromptu speech. Believe it or not, I can still do a pretty good Cockney accent from a play I was in decades ago.
So, back to the question: If actors can change their accents, I can too. Right?
Hopefully, the answer is now clear.
The last point is key. It can take years (no joke) of tedious daily practice to try to acquire an American accent in your impromptu speech, if it is even possible. That’s why I always ask prospective clients in my consultations: “Why do you want to lose your accent?” That helps me steer them toward an achievable goal – one that, yes, requires practice, but won’t take years.
After all, the old saying “time is precious” is oh-so-true, no matter what accent you say it in!
A common reason that people schedule a consultation with Well Said Coaching is that they want to speak English with a native accent.
Leaving aside the fact that there are dozens of native English accents across the world (10 or so alone in the U.S., depending on how you count), my first question is often, “Why?”
Not because I doubt the person's sincerity or discount their concerns, but if I know why someone wants to lose their accent, then I can help them set an achievable goal.
When I ask, “Why do you want to lose your accent?”, the most common answers I hear are:
All of these are perfectly valid reasons. But losing your accent is not necessarily going to address these concerns. Here’s why:
Case in point: I was once visiting a very rural part of Wisconsin in the Midwest, and a clerk in a convenience store asked me where I was from. He thought I was from South Africa (I'm from New Jersey!) But to his ears, I had a foreign accent.
I completely understand that being asked, “Where are you from?” can be tiresome and even, in some circumstances, insulting. But remember, the U.S. is a big country. Use that to your advantage. My suggestion is to answer the question and then ask it in return: “What part of the U.S. are you from?” And then, when you hear the answer, strike up a conversation. Ask questions about their home state or town. Mention that you have visited there, or would like to. The point is to get them talking about where they are from, rather than where you are from. It’s called “re-directing”. And it works like a charm.
Of course, accents can sometimes provoke discrimination and unfair judgment. I don’t want to minimize that. But given the arduous, if impossible, task of eliminating an accent, it's important to explore alternate ways to address the reasons for wanting to lose that accent in the first place. In short, aim for what is doable, not what is dubious.
Well Said Coaching focuses almost exclusively on reason #1: speech clarity. We help our clients acquire the speech patterns of another language, in this case English, rather than eliminate their accents. In other words, we strive for accent clarity, not accent elimination.
So why do you want to lose your accent? If you clearly define the reason, it can lead you to the best intervention--one that you can help you achieve your goals without losing your beautiful accent.