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.