How to Talk Like a Native Speaker | Marc Green | TEDxHeidelberg

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Marc talked about the process of learning a foreign language and the different levels of fluency. He will show that there is a higher realm of language proficiency and explain what it takes to reach this “native” point where the benefits far surpass mere communication skills. Marc’s passion is the study of languages, their manifestation in local dialects, as well as their expression in poetry and folkloric song. He has acquired a near-native proficiency in six languages and their sub-forms and has given various musical performances. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at

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Video Transcript:

My story starts in Moscow I was 15 years old my best friend and I we were part of a group of Westerners visiting the Soviet Union this was in 1987 a few years before the fall of the communist regime we were given an official tour guide who was assigned to us and the tour would start in the morning and we were checked into our hotel rooms for the night my friend said to me let's go outside and Look at the city I thought it was a great idea dumb idea so have we grabbed our coats and we snuck out past security and into the street we found the entrance to the metro the Moscow underground transportation system is the the deepest one in the world the ride down the escalator took a full minute once we were down there my friend had it right to an open train and I pulled him back I said wait let's write down the name of the station so we can find our Way back so I had a notepad and I took a notepad and I wrote down the letters of the station and we hopped on the train and went some train hopping and that was fun because well actually it was weird there were a lot of people they probably all coming home from work and they were all dressed in brown and gray clothes and it looked very very different from what we were used to at home but the station's were lovely there were stations with statues with paintings on The wall and and and glass displays and there was really like museums we would never have expected that and everything was perfectly clean well what was weird though is that the people nobody seemed to speak and everyone seemed to be looking at us and it kind of weirded us out so after about 20-30 minutes we have we've had it we had enough and we wanted to go home I showed them I know to to someone and they directed me over there and then over there I showed my note to Another person and they directed us to the other way and then a third person directed a sideways that was a little confusing Wow then I saw it over the stairs this turned out I had written down the Russian word for exit so we headed upstairs and we we found a taxi that were that was great and told the driver you know in tourist hotel and then he was willing to take us and I remember sitting next to the driver handing him Fifty rubles and he looked at me and he said yep dolar fifty dollars that was like I don't know 20 times that amount or something that was not an option for us so we had to get out of the taxi and he drove away leaving us standing there was cold night and you know everything was strange for us and we were teenagers and we're pretty nervous didn't know what to do well we started walking we walked to the end of the block we turned the corner and 200 yards in front of us The interest hotel well this experience affected me in two ways the first is that any time after this trip that I hear word would hear anyone speak Russian I would just cringe and the second one is that it taught me the importance of understanding the local language when you're traveling and it actually led to me learning another four languages fluently over the following years now before I go on I'd like to know in the audience can we have A little bit of light maybe in the audience just like to know who's by show of hands who is not a native English speaker that must be 99% anyone who doesn't speak English stand up alright so I can assume all of you have you know gone through the process of learning and language anybody who speaks three or more languages wow that is maybe 70% four or more languages anyone that's still quite a bit anyone speak five or more languages Wow come see me in during the break all right well to me learning a language is for me it's like it's like a deck of playing cards lying face down on the table as you start learning and understanding the cards start opening up for you now there's no standard way of classifying this but as you learn you reach certain milestones and the first one would be when about 25% of the cards are turned Up you reach like a basic level at this level you have a base vocabulary some grammar and you're able to have maybe very simple conversations and communicate a little bit and your study goes on until you reach this magical point of fluency what we call being fluent in a language now what does this mean being fluent in a language it means that you've turned up more than 50% of the cards in the deck and that is the point where you have where the language Becomes part of your subconscious so that even if you don't use it anymore for 10 years or longer you will not forget it you can go get back into it within a very very short time so this is this is a level where you're comfortable thinking in the language and comfortable communicating in the language now some people go on and you know reach like a mastery level by that time you know classic literature in the other language and have maybe an in-depth knowledge of Specialized fields that's often the point taken in academia for me when I learned my first foreign language I had a had a head start because well I was born to a german-speaking mother and an American father now when I was a baby I didn't really understand that what my parents were speaking to me were two separate languages but by the time I was two years old I had figured it all out women speak only German Men only speak English imagine the fun my parents had when they introduced me to couples well being a bilingual was actually pretty helpful in learning my first language definitely helped if you're but it also gave me something else it gave me two identities and the ability to switch between them when you're a native speaker of more than one language then you're your personality your humor Your your value system they change as you switch languages this can have huge advantages I mean it's some studies have shown like an increased problem-solving ability or even a higher resistance to Alzheimer's disease but what I'm most interested in is that it's actually given me a lot of social benefits when you're a native speaker or and then you you feel at home among native speakers among in a culture and also native speakers accept you as One of theirs now is this only relevant to native speakers and that's the big question but wouldn't it be cool if a person learning a foreign language could actually develop and another identity and actually enjoy the social benefits of a native speaker that go beyond communication skills well that's what happened to me I was able to do that and I want to show you from my experience how I think this can be achieved so if we say this green area here is the level Of the native speaker the first thing to note is that on your way to reaching fluency there is not really any shortcut there are some methods that you can use such as the Peter Principle where you identify the 20% of the most effective material to study there are some apps like stuff or time spaced learning that increased vocabulary retention they save a little time but in the end there's no way around working with the material practicing it until you reach the Fluency level but the second thing to note is that going from fluency to mastery is a much slower process and it requires proportionally more effort and that's why most people they just stopped at fluency they know how to speak English good enough and they don't even attempt to venture on and I can understand it but the good news is to get the benefits of a native speaker at a native speaker level you don't have to reach go through mastery in the academic Sense in fact you can skip this step altogether so if you think about it there are many native speakers who do not have an in-depth knowledge of specialized fields or a sophisticated vocabulary so that's not really what is required so how do you do it what is required well I want to give you three areas to focus on when you're learning and interacting with native speakers the first is work on eliminating your accent I'm aware I said eliminating it Should be at least minimizing it this is in my opinion the most overlooked aspect of language learning today but it's also the most important one to reach what I call a native speaker level or a speaker like level if you communicate without an accent or almost without an accent this changes how natives behave towards you unconsciously and it also gives you an ability to to adapt a new self-image the best way that I found the best exercise I have found to improve your Pronunciation is what I call the perfect sentence technique what you do is you find a native speaker to help you and you take a book in the foreign language you open it at a random page and you read the first sentence then you ask the native speaker to rate you on obvious accent slight accent no accent then the native speaker will read this this sentence back to you you have to listen carefully and then you repeat and you repeat this process over and over Until the native speaker tells you that you can no longer hear an accent when you read the sentence now I realize it can take a very long time even just to get one sentence right but I promise you if you are persistent and if you patiently work on this you will be amazed what happens to your accent the second area to focus on is using verbs and expressions that locals use now we all know the situation that in vocabulary can be region specific like In the USU you stand in line and the UK UQ that's that's all good but sometimes the the spoken word is so different the speech is so different from from what you get in textbooks that the books are almost useless if you want to converse with natives I want to give you an example in the French language there are words like Luke Hawaii which is my work a French person talking to his friend would probably say Mon bulu which is a completely different word the same for The clothes I live at the mall but you will hear Li Frank more money is lavish all but people say little freak Lee su or or many other expressions for this so obviously I'm only scratching the surface here but here you actually have to learn all of these words and expressions one by one and of course you have to interact with natives to do that but after you reach a critical mass that you are comfortable with it'll actually be easier when you encounter something New you'll just pick it up in one go like like native speakers would who hear words that there are expressions they didn't know before the third area to work on is adopting cultural traits what do I mean by that so let me ask you what does this mean this gesture mean to you any Italians here okay now depending on what culture you're from this could mean something rude or it could just mean it's something incredulous like why did you Do that or or how could you or it could just be signaling food give me food interesting in the Middle East this is just a standard way of signaling please wait so these kind of traits you have to internalize and you have to and sometimes they're hard to spot and it takes a lot of active listening I want to give you a few more examples so imagine I'm with three of my friends an American a German and a Frenchman and Like we're walking and maybe the American bumps his head and his initial reaction might be ouch that's how you say it in English but the German that you know gets I don't know elbowed in the crowd he would say oh ah and the French person might step on a nail and say so this of course in your target language this is something you have to observe and also internalize and it has to become part of you if again with I'm with these three friends and I Sit with them and let's say I serve them tea and I asked the American would you like a you know a biscuit with your with your tea and if he answers in the affirmative you might say uh-huh and I can ask the German do you know what tea this is and I'll say mm-hmm and then yeah and I asked of the Frenchman and you like this and you'll say hmm so you notice these so these differences they really require active listening so all of these all of these three things that I told you which is pronunciation and and and colloquial speech and adopting these cultural traits they all require that you interact with natives as much as possible ideally you should fully immerse yourself in the culture now if you have the chance to live abroad for a while that will be great or maybe live among natives in your hometown perhaps just have a romantic relationship or even just spend times with you know with coworkers romantic Relationships I could do a whole talk about that that's really that works really well for these things but yeah so this will be different for everybody of course but even when you're not around natives you're learning must not stop because what you can do you can watch TV shows and films you can mimic the characters you can write down anything that you haven't heard of before and practice that I also want to Encourage you to to learn the lyrics of songs songs are really great because they tell stories and they don't not only help your pronunciation when you sing them but they also if they're emotional they can anchor these expressions into your active vocabulary and it's like speaking all day and really using these expressions unconsciously it's a it's a great way so music definitely and the other thing you need to move towards native speaker Status is the right mindset and and a belief that if you sound like a native express yourself like a native talk like a native and act like a native you will actually achieve a native like level so if I could only leave you with one thing today it would be work on your pronunciation because pronunciation helps any stage of the learning process even in the very beginning it will speed up everything and it also is the key to reaching a native speaker level or Almost native speaker status so before I go I'd like to tell you how I was able to overcome my fear of the Russian language it was a very very elegant solution I married a Russian girl and I now have little kids in my home that speak Russian to me every day so I want to thank you and before I go I just want to wish you mucho éxito con su studios they do mas sit down please l-dopa Santiago vu at The Volusia be an email hell FM bobberts Lahaie Malema deem a dank was a result she helped good luck to you all and spasiba [Applause]

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