Oh, I thought you were a native speaker

train station

The place where it all happened

A few days ago, I drove to a nearby village to visit my parents who live there. My little son joined me and as he’s really into trainspotting, we walked to the train station to enjoy the stunning speed at which the freight and express trains pass by.

After a while, I spotted a couple of backpackers getting off the train that had just arrived from Olomouc. I wasn’t paying much attention until the guy approached me and addressed me in English. I wasn’t really surprised because a millisecond before he started speaking, my brain infallibly detected his foreign features.

While his (girl)friend was sitting on the ground a short way off, he asked me about the train schedule. He explained that they had originally been headed to Olomouc but accidentally disembarked one station earlier. My intuition didn’t fail me – his accent revealed his British origins. I spontaneously replied that I had no idea because I wasn’t local, but then I turned to my mom ask asked her. She promptly remembered the exact time of the departure of the train they needed, which was in about fifteen minutes. I translated everything into English and the couple looked grateful and truly relieved. We exchanged a few of more utterances when the man asked: “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Šternberk” (I really don’t know why I thought he would know where it was).

He said: “Oh, you’re Czech. I thought you were a native speaker”.

I said: “No, I’m an English teacher, you know, so….”.

He said: “I see”.

Then my mom and I said goodbye and left the backpackers to their own devices.

train (4)

However, the sentence I thought you were a native speaker lingered with me for a while. At first, I felt really flattered. My pron must be really good, I thought. Then first doubts started to come in. It occurred to me that perhaps the man only felt relieved and he just wanted to say something nice because he appreciated the fact that he’d bumped into someone who could speak English. We hadn’t conversed long enough for him to judge my level of proficiency anyway. It crossed my mind that maybe he was well aware of the situation in the ELT world and knew that almost every L2 learner strives to sound like a native-like speaker. Or maybe he’d traveled around the world for too long to maintain his ability to recognize NESTs from NNESTs.

Then another train of thought arrived; I asked myself why I felt so flattered by his remark in the first place? Why do I think it’s such a big achievement to sound native-like? And no matter what I say out loud to the world, my emotions, the way I instantly feel, will reveal my true beliefs. And the truth is I was proud of my alleged native-like pronunciation. Full stop.

I remembered this story after I had watched this YouTube series with David Crystal on Global English.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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8 Responses to Oh, I thought you were a native speaker

  1. Marc says:

    It’s weird how as language learners we crave external validation but as teachers we want learners to love language in and of itself and its own usefulness.

    You are fortunate to be at a level where you can pass as a native speaker. I fear my errors in Japanese are too far gone for me to pass as anything other than a user of Japanese as a very foreign language.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Marc,

      Your first sentence shows that you perfectly understood what I meant to express. Yes, we (I) crave external validation and maybe it’s just natural. I believe this type of thinking is deeply entrenched in our psyches because it’s one of the first patterns we encountered as kids. The problem is that this mindset can get us into real trouble once we let ourselves be discouraged by what others tell us. Also, everybody likes to hear words of appreciation, but it’s really hard to accept negative feedback. By the way, Japanese must be really difficult to learn to a level where you would pass as a native speaker and I admire all those who give it a try. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. careymicaela says:

    Hi Hana! I’ve had this same thing happen to me a couple times while speaking in Spanish. It’s a good feeling but then, as you pointed out, doubts inevitably creep in and also that ridiculous fear of making grammatical or pronunciation mistakes after someone has just complemented you on your L2. It’s such a vicious cycle!

    Like

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Micaela?

      Yes, I agree that it’s a great feeling, but it can be somewhat deceptive. As you say, and I experienced this too, the fear that your knowledge will fail you at some point and that they realize that they were too generous when judging your language proficiency is always there. I’d say that I’m a grammar-conscious person plus I like to play it safe. Most of the time, I only choose to say things I’m really confident about (language-wise) even though I feel there are many better ways of saying the same thing. This hobbles me, to a certain extent, but I can’t help it (maybe my the teacher self is the hindrance). By the way, that’s why I prefer writing since I can check and look things up.
      Thanks a lot for your great comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • careymicaela says:

        I agree 100% with what you said about ‘the fear that your knowledge will fail you at some point and that they realize that they were too generous when judging your language proficiency’. And along those same lines, the perfectionist in me loves to play it safe. Even after 15 years here in Spain I sometimes find myself keeping my utterances short and to the point because it’s easier to hide my foreignness that way. When I’m around people who already know me, I’m much more relaxed and not so hesitant about speaking and making mistakes. It’s silly but it’s like a bubble that needs to burst to release the tension. I’m not even sure why I try to make it seem like I’m a native. In some ways it’s probably related to the satisfaction from being able to communicate well but in other ways I also just want to fit in. Thanks for posting about such an interesting topic!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Hana and Micaela, I admire you both for learning to speak a foreign language in a way that leads people to think you’re native speakers. It wasn’t my choice – I came to live in France to be perceived as a foreigner and forty years later that’s still how I come across in French. Racism and xenophobia aside, people tend to be much more tolerant of foreigners being weird than they are are of their fellow citizens. I find that liberating.

    Of course, being able to speak like a native speaker has nothing to do with how effective one is as a teacher. I have occasionally taught French as a foreign language, and as far as I could judge the quality of my teaching was just as good or as bad as when teaching English. Pedagogy gets results in the classroom not one’s accent.

    Cheers,
    Glenys

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Absolutely, Glenys. I didn’t mean to imply that the fact that somebody said I sounded like a native speaker makes me a better teacher. I just meant to describe how terribly complacent I felt for a short moment. Maybe I wanted to boast a little too 🙂
      Anyway, as I said before, the guy only heard me speak for a very short time, which allowed me to ‘deceive’ him (unintentionally, though). Although I think my pron is quite okay, I wouldn’t call it native-like. Actually, I’m quite proud of my European (Moravian) accent and guess what, some people even think it’s sexy 🙂 Also, when I speak to a close friend of mine, who’s Australian, my true color shows immediately – I start making little errors and look for words to express my ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t think, Hana, that you meant “to imply that the fact that somebody said I sounded like a native speaker makes me a better teacher”. It’s just that, as you know, there’s a current discussion about whether or not the preference for NS teachers is justified.

        But as a language learner you have every right to be proud of your native-like accent because it’s something few achieve. 😎 👏

        Cheers,
        Glenys

        Liked by 1 person

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