From Excellent to Fluent: 9 Ways to Be Mistaken for a Native English Speaker
When you reach a level of English that your teachers describe as excellent, it’s not uncommon to find yourself on a sort of plateau, beyond which it feels impossible to make any noticeable further progress.
At this point it may be tempting to rest on your laurels, and make do with just being good at English. For the most determined students, however, this is where the process of becoming completely fluent begins, and it’s one that takes place away from the classroom. In this article, we take you through some of the techniques, approaches and attitudes you’ll need to employ if you want to take your English to the very highest level and be mistaken for a native English speaker.
1. Step away from the books and adjust your mindset
The time for studying books, though a vital part of the learning process, has now been and gone; you’re never going to blend in with native speakers if your only experience of English comes from books and the classroom. If you’re at a level of English that could be described as “excellent”, it’s time to abandon the grammar books and start speaking English more spontaneously. English grammar is notoriously complicated, but your knowledge of it is almost certainly good enough for the purposes of holding a conversation. If you get too far stuck into the books, you may find that you get so bogged down with irrelevant explanations and intricate rules (which few English people actually understand anyway) that you lose touch with why you’re learning English in the first place. Just like when you learn to drive a car, the real learning takes place after you get your licence, through driving yourself, learning to cope with new situations and learning from your mistakes (more on those later).
A crucial part of this advanced stage of the learning process is to adjust your way of thinking. You now need to think of yourself as an “English speaker” rather than an “English learner”. Being confident in your own ability to manage without referring to books is important; your books may be your comfort zone, but to make real progress you need to step outside your comfort zone, which is where the learning takes place.
2. Engage regularly in conversation with native English speakers
Once you’ve put your books away, the first step towards improving your fluency is to get out of the classroom and start conversing with real Brits. Those who manage to achieve near-fluency and sound natural when speaking English are distinguished by having spent plenty of time in the company of native speakers, absorbing the sounds of the language and being alert to the nuances and colloquialisms that few if any books will teach you. The more you listen, the more new phrases you will hear; you’ll then be able to use these new phrases yourself when the situation arises. If you don’t understand something that someone’s said, just ask. Remember that you need to speak English regularly if you’re to acquire and maintain a fluent level of English, because you’ll soon forget things if you don’t keep the knowledge alive. And then all that hard work you’ve put in to get to this level will have gone to waste, or you’ll have to spend weeks getting back up to that level.
The best place to learn to speak English like a British person is, of course, Britain. So, if you can, travel to the UK and pluck up the courage to strike up conversations with locals. Better still, immerse yourself in the English language with a longer stay, perhaps to study (at an Oxford Royale Summer School, for example – more on these later). There’s nothing like throwing yourself in at the deep end to force you to improve. If travel to the UK isn’t possible, get yourself a British Skype friend and arrange regular chats over the internet so that you can still practise your English skills with a native speaker. And if you can’t do that, at least speak aloud to yourself and follow the other advice in this article. It’s the actual process of speaking aloud that develops your confidence, improves your ability to make the right sounds and helps you remember things.
3. Learn phrases, not just individual words and grammar
Enhancing your vocabulary and getting good at grammar are standard ways of achieving fluency in English, but you may find you’re able to achieve a more fluent level by learning phrases as well. Just as we learn a few set phrases when we go on holiday to a country in which we don’t speak the language, learning phrases in English will help you learn how to create British-sounding sentences. Learning a phrase as a whole will also make it easier to remember the individual words, because you have a context for them. Start trying to think in English, too; if you’re constantly trying to translate everything in your head, this will hinder your progress.
4. Use contractions
Native speakers of English use contractions in everyday speech to ensure that sentences flow better; not doing so can sound stilted and formal, and unsuitable for conversational English. Thus you should try to remember to say “don’t” instead of “do not”, “can’t” instead of “cannot”, “should’ve” instead of “should have”, and so on. It may be harder to pronounce, but it’s worth putting the practice in to get yourself used to producing these sounds.
5. Use slang, idioms and colloquialisms
If you want to sound like a true Brit, you’ll need to master the art of slang. This means learning that a “television” is often referred to as “the telly”, a “sarnie” is a sandwich, a “spud” is a potato, and so on. Also, don’t be afraid to use colloquialisms that are grammatically incorrect. It sounds contrary to everything you’ve been taught, but it’ll help you blend in with native speakers, whose grammar often leaves much to be desired anyway (not that this means you can lay off learning your grammar!). To give you just one example, you might hear someone say “and what have you”, as in “The shop sold outdoor stuff – jackets, tents and what have you.” This sounds wrong, because it’s grammatically incorrect (unless in the context of a question, such as “what have you done?”); you’re probably expecting them to say “and what you have”, but the phrase doesn’t appear to make much sense in this context anyway. It’s actually a strange way of saying “and similar things that needn’t be mentioned”, but no book would teach you this, and it’s something you’d say in spoken English rather than writing it.
Idioms are another example of colloquial language that you might like to learn more about; here are twenty to get you started. There are newer colloquialisms too, many springing from television shows and magazines; we used one earlier, in our heading, “step away from the books” (it’s something one perhaps expects a policeman to say – “step away from the vehicle, sir” – though lots of people now employ it in many different contexts). Nobody usually knows where expressions like these originate, but once one person starts saying them, they spread like wildfire. Take the word “random”, for example, which now has an idiomatic usage meaning “bizarre”, while its literal meaning is “in no particular order”. Such usages are so new that you almost certainly won’t find them in your language books; the only way to learn them is by speaking to native Brits or watching current British television, which we’ll now discuss in more detail.
6. Study and make references to popular culture
Many students develop their English fluency by watching or listening to English-speaking news, but this is a mistake. This is because newsreaders and reporters use a particular style of English, one not suited to everyday conversational English. The result of depending on the news for your exposure to the language is that your own English may sound overly formal or stilted. Instead, you’re much better off watching English-speaking television shows and films, ideally those produced in the UK if you’re studying UK English (US English is similar, but there are many differences that will be glaring if you say them in the UK). Try watching popular shows such as Top Gear, The One Show and Graham Norton and you’ll soon start to get the hang of British humour as well as the language itself, and this will help you tune into the way British people really speak.
You’ll also blend in a lot more with native English-speakers if you’re able to employ expressions that come from popular UK television shows. There are numerous catchphrases that come from popular television characters, such as Victor Meldrew’s “I don’t believe it” from One Foot in the Grave or Little Britain’s “computer says no”. It may help your English fluency if you try watching cult TV shows such as these. Another example is Alan Partridge, which will certainly give you an insight into the British sense of humour. From this comes an expression that has entered relatively common usage: “Back of the net!” – which is a way of expressing pleasure at an excellent result, such as a vending machine giving you two chocolate bars when you only paid for one.
7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Everyone trips up now and then – even native speakers of English. Unfortunately, though, being afraid of failure hinders many students from making real progress, because they’re scared to make mistakes in front of others. However, the best EFL learners know that there’s no shame in the odd error, and that, on the contrary, it’s the mistakes that we learn most from. English speakers aren’t going to deride you for making a slip-up; in fact, they’re more likely to admire you, because you’re probably a lot better at speaking their language than they are at speaking any other language (we Brits are not known for our linguistic skills).
8. Don’t be too literal-minded
English is, as we’ve already seen, full of nonsensical idioms and colloquialisms that, when taken literally, don’t seem to mean anything. A mistake many EFL learners make is to try to translate in their head every word they hear, and to interpret the words literally. A better approach is to figure out the gist of what someone is saying from the context, perhaps asking the odd question about what something means, but also making a mental note to look up certain words and phrases later if there’s anything you don’t understand. This means that, rather than inhibiting the flow of the conversation too much or misunderstanding what someone is talking about, you’re able to converse based on a grasp of the gist of what the person is saying.
9. Go on an Oxford Royale Summer Schools course
Finally, you can make sure your English comes on in leaps and bounds by taking an Oxford Royale Summer Schools course with us here in Oxford. With your excellent existing level of English, it doesn’t necessarily even have to be an English as a Foreign Language programme that you join; after all, we’ve already advised you to ditch your language books in favour of conversation. But going on another of our summer courses, will mean that you get to spend at least two weeks in the UK, being taught by native speakers, visiting various famous British places, and surrounded by other students, including plenty of native English-speakers. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in English and refine it in a way you couldn’t do just by sticking your nose in a book. What’s more, the experience of English culture will allow you to place your English skills in context, hopefully providing you with the inspiration and impetus you need to take your already excellent language skills to new heights.