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Going from fluent towards near native

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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Super Polyglot
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United States
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Speaks: English*, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic (Written), Dutch, Swedish, Portuguese, Latin, French, Persian, Greek

 Message 1 of 17
02 September 2011 at 7:59am | IP Logged 
I doubt there is anyone who wouldn't like to have near native abilities in his or her foreign languages. But, although those of us who belong here in lessons in polyglottery may be adept at getting pretty good, pretty fast, pretty efficiently in a given foreign language, what, if anything, can we do to push ourselves towards that ever elusive final goal?

First, some sobering points to keep in mind for the sake of perspective:

1.     Developing near native abilities almost always requires years of living in a culture, generally early in life. Perhaps in our increasingly globalized world it may become increasingly possible to find personal or professional linguistic bubbles (marrying into a language or working in an environment that uses it) that no longer make it a sine qua non to move abroad. Nonetheless, the effective need for years of protracted total immersion obviously remains. And, while language enthusiasts can do a lot on their own, this is not something that it is always possible to arrange, even with the best of will.

2.     Even if you do emigrate to another language environment for life, there is no guarantee that you will ever develop near native abilities in it. In fact, most immigrants never do, despite decades of immersion and countless quantities of comprehensible input. So, it is clearly a general truth that the great majority of foreign language learners reach a permanent plateau that is quite short of near native.

3.     Even if you do manage to make continued progress, it must come at a cost of thousands of hours of active effort. Looking at FSI-type charts, there seems to be a "twice again all over" rule of thumb in order to progress from any one measurable level to another.

4.     Even if you do make this continued progress, you will be fighting against a law of diminishing returns. That is, you will be fine tuning many points of minutiae that collectively make a difference, but that are individually imperceptible and, for most people, fluent is quite good enough.

All that said, are there any techniques that those of us who are already quite advanced in a language can use so as to continue advancing more and more?   Obviously, we ought to seek out as many opportunities for use as we possibly can. But, I refer here not so much to means of interacting with speakers of the language, as to things that we can do on our own, in private, to interact with the language itself. Here are the two that I know and use and that I credit with bringing me closer to this goal than anyone of my personal acquaintance:

1.     The first is polyliteracy as I have been promoting it here recently, or at very least, the main idea behind it, i.e., extensive reading of rich texts over protracted periods of time. While I'm not sure what, if anything, one can consciously and deliberately do to approach native accent, accuracy, use of idioms, or many other features of foreign language mastery, it does seem obvious to me that by means of reading great quantities of high quality, lexically fecund material one ought to be able to develop a vocabulary range equal to or even exceeding that of native speakers who do not read as extensively.

2.     The second is to make a conscious effort to control the selection of the language you think in. Turn off English or whatever your native language automatic default system is and deliberately use a different operating system. Doing this actually grows most easily out of practicing polyliteracy: when you've been reading a book (or listening to an audiobook), it is quite natural to stay thinking in the language for a while after you close the cover (or turn it off). So, just make a deliberate resolve to prolong this, and to switch yourself back to it if you find that you have reverted to automatic. After a while, this becomes quite natural. Of course, this is no substitute for getting maximal amounts of interactive input, but when you do not have that opportunity, this is a good means of building many hours of language use into your day.

Could others please share what they do on their own to engage their languages in order to try to advance even further once they are already advanced?

One last thing: please, please, please, let us keep this thread on track! Let's only discuss specific individual techniques for moving on beyond fluent towards native, not general means of exercising our languages. Let's not go off on tangents about what "fluent" and "near native" mean, and let's not tell anecdotes about exceptional individuals who have attained extraordinary results in record time. Let's make a collective effort to share what "normal polyglots" (is there such a thing?) can do to keep making their skills better and better when they are already quite good.
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 Message 2 of 17
02 September 2011 at 10:00am | IP Logged 
I share your idea of this thread. Thanks for opening such a wonderful topic.

In my instance, English is the language that I really love to push it towards "near native" level.

During the learning process till now, I'd feel, from time to time, that my English has stopped advancing. And in those times, I did feel quite bad. But fortunately, I felt, in most of those times, even more empowered and determined to break through the plateau. So I usually started my own projects to review or enhance my vocabulary or pronunciation or grammar.

My main weakness right now is probably vocabulary, especially terminology of fields which I didn't learn in English such as Chemistry, Physics, etc.

From my personal experience, I completely agree that read, read and read more is the way to go. Besides, watching films, listening to radios and talking to people have also helped me a lot.

At the end of the day, what I think is really behind my progress is that I continue to be interested and passionate about learning English. I'd feel very glad to come across an interesting word or idiom or a useful construct.

The other factor that keeps me going is that in recent years, I've been doing my thought reasoning totally in English, which creates a need to learn more vocabulary so that I'd be able to express my thoughts precisely. And I'm a huge fan of clear and accurate expressions.

And last but not least, I figure it does help that I've always believed that the day would come when I would "make it": truly reaching a high-level of fluency or "near native" in English.
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Trilingual Hexaglot
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 Message 3 of 17
02 September 2011 at 11:03am | IP Logged 
I think part of the problem is that as we want to talk about how to pursue native
ability the issue itself becomes harder to articulate. It's fair enough to say that a
learner who hasn't learned all the conjugations yet has a particular piece missing in
his knowledge, but what is it that you can measure that would tell you that a learner
is fluent but not native? It's hard for me to narrow it down to any particular thing
(or things), I mean you can just as well learn lots of new words but that doesn't in
itself make up the difference. What is it that comes to mind when you judge someone to
have native ability? Somehow it is the sense that you understand each other really
well, this I-can't-explain-how-but.. I think that is a sense of shared culture.

Anyhow, to more practical things. I have been putting all my eggs in the "polyliteracy"
basket lately (nice that there is a word for it). I started from a literature guide and
decided I would try to read all the important books in Italian 20th century literature
(let's say around 50 to ball park it). I'm about 80% underway and occasionally I also
read older classics. Unless I find a better strategy, I will probably try to complete
some manner of comprehensive reading throughout Italian literature starting with Dante.
Let's say perhaps 100-120 books in all (I'm sticking to prose because I don't like
poetry). This might take another 2-3 years.

Now, if anything is a good test of polyliteracy this is, and I will report on my

Literature is one strategy. Another is non-fiction. In Dutch (which is very far behind
my Italian) I have opted for a different plan. I started from an introduction to
philosophy. Then I read half a dozen books about contemporary philosophy and I plan to
stick with this topic for a while still. It has a quite different feel to it, because
most of the books are translations and the cultural content is much lower. But the
language is more technical, more functional, and it's good training for understanding
the presentation of complex ideas.

So there, I have zero answers but I invite you all to critique my strategies. I realize
this is not a well rounded plan, but it is an aggressive attack on the enemy (my lack
of language skills). It accounts for probably 80% of my activity.
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 Message 5 of 17
02 September 2011 at 5:08pm | IP Logged 
[Background and disclaimer: I claim to speak English at a near-native level. I know it’s a very strong statement to be making, and as a linguist, I fully understand the implications, but I wanted to convey my experience in the matter. I’m not claiming absolute perfection, as I do sometimes catch myself sounding odd and I correct myself (though we all do that in our first language, too), but it’s common for native speakers to tell me they thought I was native whenever I tell them I’m not, and when people do notice an accent, it’s usually because they think I come from another part of the country. S_allard has mentioned many times before that native speakers usually learn language from one single place; consequently, as a non-native speaker, my sources of language were varied and I feel no attachment to one particular accent. I’m married to a native speaker and she claims I always sound like a native whenever I downplay my ability (such as before non-natives who can’t judge my accent). I believe I had already reached near-native level when I met her, so I wouldn’t credit living with a native as a defining factor.]

If a person wishes to reach near-native level, I think it’s fair to assume that they have a strong, unrestricted desire to speak like a native and pass off as one. If you don’t, you will fail.

But above all, I think strong critical and analytical skills are essential. Yet, I’m not sure these can be acquired.

I used to think that if anyone was going to reach near-native level, they’d have to aim for perfection (or excellence) right from the start. If you don’t, there will be so much to correct later on that it would be overwhelming and it would delay everything beyond a reachable timeframe. More and more, however, I think that aiming for perfection is not a condition, but rather a symptom: if aiming for perfection is not your goal instinctively, then perhaps you are missing the skills needed for the job. If you aren’t already critical of how you speak, you perhaps never will be.

When I teach pronunciation, my students are often astonished when they realize that natives don’t pronounce things the same way they do, even when they are very common phrases like “I didn’t even go” or “I want to go” or “I shouldn’t have bought it”, etc. Somehow, the average learner starts to say things one way, and never questions it again, even when they’ve been hearing it for years. Anyone who is going to reach near-native level will need the ability to question what they say against what they hear, and they will need the desire and ability to work at fixing any discrepancy. They will need to be flexible enough to alter their habits and create new automatic ways of speaking.

I don’t think vocabulary is a significant part of the equation. To sound like a native, you will need perfect grammar and perfect pronunciation. The first step is to be able to achieve this on a small scale; the next step is to do it all at once, (almost) all the time. You claim that self-talk (you say “think in the language”, but I see that more or less as the same thing in practice) is less effective than interactive input, but I disagree. Perfect flow in a foreign language requires perfect, split-second linguistic planning that the brain can only achieve through practice. Not random practice in live situations, but targeted practice through preparation and repetition BEFORE using it in live situations. I think you are right about diminishing returns: eventually, if you aim to sound like an educated native speaker, your progress will depend on your ability to place yourself in the most challenging situations, possibly academic circles, speech contests, presentations, debates, teaching, etc.

I disagree with the importance of polyliteracy for a few reasons. First of all, the average native speaker doesn’t necessarily have a very educated knowledge of the language. Second, a lot of people have perfect English grammar, but still fail to convince anyone when they speak. The bottleneck is pronunciation, not grammar (although to be clear, both are necessary), and certainly not vocabulary (at least not for an advanced speaker who already has all he needs). It’s also quite possible to read incredibly varied texts and never actually transfer that information to your active production – and it’s perfection in production that is harder to achieve, not in understanding. Lastly, I reached near-native level in English without ever being much of a reader: although I did write a lot, I never read to the extent you advocate. I did read critically when I did, though. Still, I always preferred intellectual debates or scientific talks, and I believe all you need is accessible right there. I’d agree that supplementing that with various types of written materials is a good idea, though.

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 Message 6 of 17
06 September 2011 at 6:35pm | IP Logged 
I hope I didn't kill the thread... :S
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Super Polyglot
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 Message 7 of 17
11 September 2011 at 6:56am | IP Logged 
Arekkusu wrote:
I hope I didn't kill the thread... :S

You didn't kill it, but you did show how thankfully seriously respondents are taking my call to stick to the task at hand. Your answer - that of a Québécois with English in Canada - together with Kuikentje's - that of a Walloon with Dutch in Belgium - truly highlight the fact that full and total immersion is key in attaining this goal. What I had in mind, though, was not this, but rather what those of us who are not in such favorable circumstances can do to continue progressing even after we have perhaps passed tests telling us we are at the highest measurable levels. It may be pure folly to attempt this under those circumstances, particularly in multiple languages, but there it is - written by a confirmed fool. So, I'd be more curious to know what someone with your obvious linguistic background and talent is doing for his Spanish, German, or Japanese than for his English.

As to your point about being able to get by developing an extensive English vocabulary without doing much reading, I think that holds true for someone with your Francophone background as there are so many cognates and loan words, but (as the Professor's recent video highlighted) this is not at all the case for someone with a Chinese or other such alien origin.
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 Message 8 of 17
11 September 2011 at 8:11am | IP Logged 
Arekkusu wrote:
If a person wishes to reach near-native level, I think it’s fair to assume that they have a strong,
unrestricted desire to speak like a native and pass off as one. If you don’t, you will fail.

Are you including kids here? I suppose they have a strong desire, but may be less premeditated than adults. I've met
a lot of French Canadians, but only one who could pass as a native English speaker. He learned English before the
age of 10.

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