How to Talk to a Native Speaker

When it’s time to put your language to the test, set aside grammar and vocabulary. (1) Confidence, (2) precision, and (3) tact will help both you and your counterpart walk away satisfied. (A companion article to How to Talk to a Non-Native Speaker.)

In 2016, I left the US for Turkey to get my certification as a language teacher and begin a bike tour across Europe. Before leaving, I took some time to learn Turkish. After months of studying, hours of conjugating, and singing dozens of songs I didn’t really know the lyrics to, the moment finally arrived. It was time to speak to a native speaker.

I arrived at the airport, assembled my bicycle, and walked out to the taxi pick-up area.

I greeted a taxi driver in Turkish and tried to explain my situation.

I am a bicycle.

“Hey there, how are you? I want to go to Istanbul.”

The driver looked at my bike loaded with gear. “You’ll need a bigger taxi.”

“I do not want a taxi. Just directions.” I pointed at my ride. “I am a bicycle.

His face twisted in confusion. Then he broke out in laughter.

Embarrassing moments aside, all second language learners will eventually face the need to use their second language in high-stakes environments. That might be in an actual life-or-death situation where you need to get to a hospital. It might also be something as banal-but-stressful as a job interview.

If you’re lucky, interaction with native speakers will happen early during your language education. Perhaps your teacher is a native speaker of your target language. Perhaps you have a friend, family member, or partner who will help you practice.

But if speaking with native speakers is not something you’re used to, then you’re certain to feel blocked or intimidated at first. Words won’t come out the way you want them to. Phrases you’re sure you learned will be forgotten and linger on the tip of your tongue.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably make a fool of yourself more than once.

That’s natural! Uncomfortable though they may be, misunderstandings are a normal part of learning a language. That said, there are a few techniques you can implement to speed up the process of communicating effectively with native speakers.

When speaking in a foreign language, you’ll need (1) confidence to successfully deliver your ideas, (2) precision in how those ideas are delivered, and (3) tact to skillfully navigate the cultural and individual needs of your counterpart.

1. Confidence:

Be confident in what you want to say — even if you’re not confident in how to say it. It may seem self-evident, but you can’t communicate well unless you have something to communicate. If you can’t explain an idea successfully in your own native language, it’s unlikely you’ll succeed in doing so in your second or third.

This idea has been marketed in a number of ways. A student recently told me she’d taken a course titled “Master Your Message,” the central idea of which was to explore her own topic in detail.

In the process, she figured out not only what she was doing but also how and why she was doing it.

That same process must be followed in order to successfully communicate any idea you have.

The answer to the central issue of “what do I say next” is to always have a communicative objective and to give consideration to the ideas that you want to deliver to your audience.

You do not need to know all of the key vocabulary. You do not need to have all the answers. What you need is a destination and a plan of how to get there.

Build your confidence in how you deliver your ideas. True though it may be that you must first have confidence in what your ideas are, we can’t dismiss outright the need to improve how we deliver the message itself.

When you communicate in a foreign language, what is holding you back?

If it’s pure presentational skills, you’re in luck. Skills like public speaking and storytelling translate across languages and cultures. If you’re good at conveying your ideas in one language, chances are you’ll have those same skills when speaking in another.

If you lack communication skills, don’t worry. Two paths present themselves: (1) you can work on those skills in your native language with the plan that they will transfer over to your second language, or (2) you can train your communication skills in your second language directly for the extra challenge and immediate application of your new abilities.

Don’t apologize. Improvise. One of the first pieces of advice I was given when I began doing extemporaneous speaking at university was to never apologize. If you forget a point from what you want to say, don’t apologize. If you veer off track, don’t apologize. If you didn’t understand something your counterpart said, don’t apologize.

Apologizing may seem the natural thing to do, but it distracts from the point and it makes you look weak.

Much of the time people don’t notice when you make mistakes or deviate from your agenda. When you defy your listener’s expectations, there’s a chance that it was a mistake. There’s also a chance that you’ve improvised a better way to convey your idea.

Apologizing acknowledges the mistake and closes the route of improvisation not just for the listener but also for yourself.

Imagine that you’re giving a presentation in your second language for work. You need to present to a client about the four services your company offers. It’s the first time you’re working in this role alone and, in your nervousness, you accidentally skip the third of the four services you offer. You begin talking about the fourth one, only to realize mid-sentence that you’ve skipped the third point on your presentation, and there’s a moment of evident confusion on your client’s face.

In this situation, there are two choices: (1) apologize and backtrack, or (2) keep going and improvise.

Acting on option (1), your client realizes that the confidence that you’re projecting is just a façade. Maybe they’ll be understanding. Maybe they won’t. In either case, you’ve placed the outcome of the situation in their hands.

Acting on option (2), you keep going. The moment of confusion passes on your client’s face because they’re focused on this new topic you’re speaking about. Then you come back to the third service you’d mistakenly skipped. You throw in a phrase like “Our service that might benefit you most is…” or “One of our services that requires the closest attention is…”

Choosing option (2) saves the day and your dignity.

2. Precision:

Do not go out of your way to employ figurative language. When communication is your primary objective, you don’t need to worry about saying things beautifully. You need to worry about saying things clearly.

There’s always the temptation to say things in a more evocative way. But if you’re not certain of your own skills, it’s often better to be conservative and instead rely on more literal expressions.

This is not to say that you should not employ idioms when you speak. It is to say that if you don’t have full mastery of an expression, think twice before using it. It is also general commentary for language learners not to prioritize learning idioms. I would much rather speak to someone with deep knowledge of their craft than a deep knowledge of arcane expressions.

Second language learners grossly overestimate the extent to which idioms are employed in daily speech. This is no fault of their own. When consuming language material, learners tend to focus on the few parts of a conversation that they had to translate or research. In practice, that means that once or twice per conversation in a Netflix TV series you end up getting that “oh, that was an idiom. I didn’t know it. I understand it, but I hadn’t heard/employed it before.”

But that sudden focus on the difficult-to-grasp phrase creates the false impression that daily speech and conversations are rife with metaphorical expressions. We forget that 95% of the conversation we listened to or the article that we read had no such expressions.

What results is the stereotype of a non-native speaker who over-uses idioms in daily speech. Such non-native implementations of “native” speaking norms are very jarring to native speaker ears, and they risk drawing even more attention to your language skills rather than pushing attention away from them.

This goes not just for idioms but also daily language. Why use a more complicated word when a simpler word or phrase is more accessible?

Use short sentences. Again, you are not looking for art. Especially when composing emails, focus on creating simple sentences with all the basic units of language present. In English and most other languages, that means you’ll need a subject, verb, and object. Once you’ve composed a series of simple sentences, then work on combining them to increase the flow of your writing.

This issue is so prevalent that the GMAT explicitly tests for it in its “Sentence Correction” section.

3. Tact:

Know the stereotypes of your own culture and those of your counterpart. Then adjust accordingly. One of the most difficult things for second language speakers is to adjust our own cultural background to that of the language we speak. If you do not know what the stereotypes of your own language and culture are and how to account for them when you speak, you will never succeed in communicating across cultures with tact.

Such interactions go beyond language. Cross-cultural communication is more than words. It is also body language, cultural courtesies, and even talking time.

For example, when Mandarin and English native speakers meet, things can get a little complicated.

To make a gross generalization, in Chinese culture it is common for one person in a conversation to speak for an extended period of time, then for their counterpart to speak for an extended period of time. In American culture, we trade short phrases in a conversation. The maximum speaking time of a single speaker is unlikely to surpass a minute.

You might think of the Chinese norm as trading paragraphs back and forth. Americans trade single sentences.

When these two cultures meet, it can be very frustrating. The Chinese person speaks at length, and the American waits patiently. Then when it’s finally their “turn” to speak, the American drops a quick phrase acknowledging what the Chinese person said. The Chinese person takes this as a signal that the American’s “turn” is over, and again begins speaking at length!

Similar exchanges happen when any number of cultures collide.

As a German NATO officer told me, “Cross-cultural competence, and in particular cross-cultural communication, is extremely important nowadays. Talking about cultures and countries is always generalizing, but I wouldn’t consider it racist. On the contrary, awareness of cultural differences is important to create mutual understanding and trust.”

Knowing what cultural baggage you carry into a conversation will permit you to better adapt to the needs of your counterpart.

Develop strategies for clarifying misunderstandings. Quickly answer the following questions:

  • What moments of miscommunication have you experienced recently?
  • How about communication difficulties at work?
  • How about communication difficulties at work while speaking with a colleague?

If you’re anything like me, that last question was probably the easiest to answer. The truth is that when someone asks us a question that is too general, we have a difficult time reframing things in a meaningful way or giving a good answer. The more direction we receive in requests, the easier it is to give an answer.

The same thing happens to your speaking partners when you say “I didn’t understand that.” They don’t know what “that” is. Were they speaking too fast? Was there a word you didn’t understand? Did they employ an idiom you weren’t familiar with?

To make things easier for your counterpart, give them direction when you ask for clarification. Instead of saying “I didn’t understand that,” try one of the following phrases:

Can you rephrase that? This is an excellent way of telling your partner that there was a word you didn’t understand. You also succeed in avoiding an embarrassing situation in which they just repeat the same thing they said before, but slower or louder.

Can you break that down for me? This is another way of getting things explained to you. However, the power of this phrase is that it’s a question that a native speaker might ask of another native speaker. By asking this specific question, you’re able to keep the “language factor” out of the conversation.

Because …? Wait for a pause in the conversation. Then build off the speaker’s idea by asking “Because…?” while offering a possible explanation of their idea. This is an excellent way to build natural conversation while also getting the clarification you need. If your “Because…?” is correct, you’ll receive a confirmation. If it’s not, you’ll receive the explanation you needed while also demonstrating to your language partner that you’re closely considering what they’re speaking about.

A: I’m not sure that negotiating on the price is appropriate at this stage.
B: Because we haven’t decided what will be a part of the final package?
A: Yes, and because I’ll need confirmation from my board before we can proceed.

Just to make certain I’ve understood that correctly… Summarizing your partner’s idea is a good way of (1) demonstrating that you’re an active listener and (2) receiving clarification on any ideas that you’ve missed. That said, it’s a technique to be used with caution. If you’re way off the mark, you risk frustrating your counterpart.

For many second language speakers, communication with a native doesn’t happen until after they’ve spent months or even years learning the language.

This is growing increasingly common with the rise of online learning platforms. Sites like Duolingo have permitted a wide market of language learners to teach themselves. Even when learners opt for instruction on sites like Preply or Cambly, native speakers are almost always the pricier option. (And oftentimes a native speaker is not as qualified as non-natives to teach the language.)

Any number of activities can help you prepare for the moment when your language skills are truly put to the test. Language lessons, singing in the shower, and reading comics are all powerful and fun ways to maintain an active language learning process.

Your language skills will inevitably falter no matter how well you prepare. Practice and implement the techniques above, and you’ll be ready to pick yourself up when you stumble.

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N.G. Rees

N.G. Rees

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Teacher trainer and ESL instructor based out of Morocco. Head of Training and Development, Resilient Communities NGO. hmu @rees_is_