Hello everyone,

What kind of things are there that would make you think that someone is a non-native speaker rather than a native speaker of English when you read what they have written here in the forums? Of course some people make 'foreigner mistakes', but especially non-native speakers who are highly proficient can often write without making any grammar errors. I suppose people sometimes assume that someone might not be a native speaker because they are asking for help in a way a native speaker normally wouldn't. That is, sometimes one's choice of topic is more revealing than the grammaticality of one's posts.

Let me know what you think,

Englishuser
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
what you're talking about Emotion: big smile
Hello EU

Here are some things that occur to me:

1. Discrepancies of register. A non-native speaker's English may be impeccable, for the most part; but slight failures of tone or register are most noticeable, in impeccable English. For instance, the non-native may use a word which a native speaker of that kind of English would never use in that context. Or a word may be used in a grammatical but unusual way. The commonest words are the most treacherous, in this connection: "quite", "nice", etc.

2. Absence of context. It's very difficult to provide sample sentences or chat for any length of time without revealing something about your background. When non-native speakers are writing naturally, they reveal something of their native background. When they are writing carefully, however, and perhaps do not wish to be taken for a native speaker, they reveal nothing. There may be literary references, for instance; but the little everyday details are missing.

3. Literary echoes. Sometimes non-native speakers use phrases they have come across in Shakespeare, Dickens, etc., or unwittingly catch the rhythm of well known writers.

4. Overly pure or consistent diction. By which I mean the kind of vocabulary we find in e.g. Jowett's translation of Plato. Non-native speakers who have reached a certain proficiency often dislike recent additions to everyday vocabulary, for instance.

5. Rhythm. Non-native speakers often bring a little of their native rhythm into English. The clauses may be not quite the right length; the pauses may sound mannered.

6. Grammatical regularity combined with inappropriate idioms. Grammar is the weakness of native speakers; idiom is the weakness of non-native speakers.

Maybe other members will have other ideas.

MrP
Students: Are you brave enough to let our tutors analyse your pronunciation?
Thanks for the very interesting link, Nef!

MrP
Hi Mr Pedantic,

Is it possible for a person to become native-proficient in a second/foreign language? That is, if it really were your goal to learn a language perfectly, if you spent years interacting with native speakers and started to imitate them, would it be possible to succeed?

Something I find interesting, too, is that some people start making mistakes in their first (?)language as they become more proficient in a second language. A second language can become your first language in the sense that you may be more proficient in a language that you don't speak natively.

Let me know what you think,

Englishuser
Teachers: We supply a list of EFL job vacancies
Hello EU

I'm not an expert in these matters; so what follows should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.

Some stray thoughts, in no particular order:

1. I think Scandinavian, Dutch and German natives have the best chance of sounding convincingly "British English". I have several such people in mind whose original accents are very hard to detect, and whose spoken English is almost perfectly idiomatic; though their writing is more revealing.

2. A few non-natives I know (mostly Middle Eastern) speak AmE. It's much harder for me to detect the non-native signals. Moral: if you want to persuade people you're genuinely British, go to live in America (or vice versa).

3. I agree about the effect of second language proficiency upon your first language. You start to translate idioms and turns of phrase directly back into your first language. Sometimes it's almost deliberate: if you have an Italian girlfriend, for instance, it can be pleasant to smuggle her idioms back into English; or even to adopt some of her English mistakes.

Also, your accent may be affected. I know a French chap who complains bitterly that in England he's treated as a Frenchman, and in France as a Englishman. Needless to say, he gets bad service in both countries.

4. The case of writers such as Nabokov and Conrad is relevant here. I would hold that it's still possible to detect the non-native note in both writers, because their language lacks the internal musical cohesion that we find even in poor native writers. Conrad for me always reads like a very skilled translation of Conrad, for instance. (But whether I would have thought so if I hadn't known he wasn't English, I don't know.)

MrP
Hi Mr Pedantic,
I think Scandinavian, Dutch and German natives have the best chance of sounding convincingly "British English". I have several such people in mind whose original accents are very hard to detect, and whose spoken English is almost perfectly idiomatic; though their writing is more revealing.
Most linguists I know claim it's the other way around: It's much more difficult to sound genuinely like a native speaker of a foreign language; developing perfect writing skills is said to be easier. One way of testing your writing skills could be to write a sample text and have a professional, native copy-editor proofread and stylish your text. If they don't find anything to correct or stylish, you might have achieved your goal.
The case of writers such as Nabokov and Conrad is relevant here. I would hold that it's still possible to detect the non-native note in both writers, because their language lacks the internal musical cohesion that we find even in poor native writers.
What internal musical cohesion are you talking about, exactly? It would be nice if you'd give us some more specific examples of something a very skilled non-native writer of English has written that you did consider a remnant of their first language.
(But whether I would have thought so if I hadn't known he wasn't English, I don't know.)
That's a good point. Sometimes we know (or assume we know) someone's a non-native speaker of a language, and this may have some impact on how we read their texts.

Englishuser
MrPedantic5. Rhythm. Non-native speakers often bring a little of their native rhythm into English. The clauses may be not quite the right length; the pauses may sound mannered.

6. Grammatical regularity combined with inappropriate idioms. Grammar is the weakness of native speakers; idiom is the weakness of non-native speakers.

Maybe other members will have other ideas.

MrP

Totally agree. And I think the punctuation also counts. Even the advanced non-native English speakers sometimes punctuate their sentences wrong.
Try out our live chat room.
Show more