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Poll: Can someone achieve total fluency in a foreign language and be mistaken for a native speaker?
Thread poster: ProZ.com Staff

Allison Wright (X)  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 02:15
The reverse (partially off-topic) Sep 12, 2011

Much to my amusement, I have been mistaken for being a non-native speaker of my mother tongue, English.
This happened often during the 18 months I worked in a Portuguese laundry. English customers would come into the laundry and hear me speaking (apparently fluent, but actually bad) Portuguese to my colleagues prior to attending to and greeting them in English. My sallow complexion and southern African accent confused them, I think. This points to what Noni said about predisposition.
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Much to my amusement, I have been mistaken for being a non-native speaker of my mother tongue, English.
This happened often during the 18 months I worked in a Portuguese laundry. English customers would come into the laundry and hear me speaking (apparently fluent, but actually bad) Portuguese to my colleagues prior to attending to and greeting them in English. My sallow complexion and southern African accent confused them, I think. This points to what Noni said about predisposition.
I had a range of responses, mostly polite - although I kept one customer guessing and only revealed the truth on his third visit, just for fun.
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Milena Nikolić  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:15
English to Montenegrin
+ ...
rarely but yes Sep 12, 2011

I had an English teacher who sounded like she was born in UK though she was there only once or twice for a short visit. Also in away, her manners and nature were more British than Montenegrian. And I guess the language is a part of who you are and the way you think so it is very, very rare to be mistaken for a native speaker!

 

Sophie Dzhygir  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 03:15
Member (2007)
German to French
+ ...
By the way Sep 12, 2011

Allison Wright wrote:

Much to my amusement, I have been mistaken for being a non-native speaker of my mother tongue, English.
This happens to me too. I just told about Russians being so convinced that if you speak their language, then you're native, but the perception is also the same the other way round, i.e. among French people in my case: when I accompany Russians groups among French people, there's always at least one French to tell me: "wow, you do speak good French! Where did you learn it? How long have you been living here?"

So it really doesn't depend on how good you actually speak, but on how good the listeners are convinced you CAN speak.


 

Jose Palomares  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 03:15
English to Spanish
+ ...
Happens all the time Sep 12, 2011

How many foreigners you know that speak your mother tongue almost better than yourself, but surely much better than many average speakers of it?

I know a few


 

Catharine Cellier-Smart  Identity Verified
Reunion
Local time: 05:15
Member (2010)
French to English
+ ...
I agree with Mijo Sep 12, 2011

I agree with Mijo that it depends on the culture/education of the person you are faced with. I have been told many times that I sound like a native speaker (including comments like "why doesn't your brother speak French" ie because you're French he must be too !), then the next day someone will turn round and say "so what part of the UK are you from then?". But this latter case is normally people who've travelled themselves.

I also agree with Alison W. - I've been mistaken for a
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I agree with Mijo that it depends on the culture/education of the person you are faced with. I have been told many times that I sound like a native speaker (including comments like "why doesn't your brother speak French" ie because you're French he must be too !), then the next day someone will turn round and say "so what part of the UK are you from then?". But this latter case is normally people who've travelled themselves.

I also agree with Alison W. - I've been mistaken for a non-native speaker of English several times ("you speak good English"), or asked by fellow Brits which English-speaking country I'm from !
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Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:15
Member (2004)
Spanish to English
+ ...
My maternal grandfather Sep 12, 2011

One of my grandfathers came to the U.S. from what was then Russia (now probably part of Ukraine) when he was in his mid teens. The kids at his school in the U.S. made fun of his English so mercilessly that he devoted considerable time and effort to losing his accent and learning to talk like a native Philadelphian.

By the time I came along, his English was indistinguishable from that of his neighbors (and his ability to speak his native languages, Yiddish and Russian, had deteriorat
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One of my grandfathers came to the U.S. from what was then Russia (now probably part of Ukraine) when he was in his mid teens. The kids at his school in the U.S. made fun of his English so mercilessly that he devoted considerable time and effort to losing his accent and learning to talk like a native Philadelphian.

By the time I came along, his English was indistinguishable from that of his neighbors (and his ability to speak his native languages, Yiddish and Russian, had deteriorated considerably).

[Edited at 2011-09-12 14:39 GMT]
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Amy Duncan (X)  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 22:15
Portuguese to English
+ ...
So many factors, as others have said... Sep 12, 2011

First of all, I agree that it depends on the level of education and perhaps how much a person has traveled whether I'll be spotted as Brazilian or not. The second thing is, as Muriel said, it's easier to pass oneself off as a native through speaking than writing. And it depends on what you're talking about and how much you talk. Even if I'm talking about a subject I know very well, if I keep talking long enough with an educated person, sooner or later something will slip and they'll catch it. Bu... See more
First of all, I agree that it depends on the level of education and perhaps how much a person has traveled whether I'll be spotted as Brazilian or not. The second thing is, as Muriel said, it's easier to pass oneself off as a native through speaking than writing. And it depends on what you're talking about and how much you talk. Even if I'm talking about a subject I know very well, if I keep talking long enough with an educated person, sooner or later something will slip and they'll catch it. But I don't try to pretend I'm Brazilian these days. When I was younger I used to think that was fun, but now I really don't care any more if they know I'm a gringo or not. Collapse


 

Arthur Godinho  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:15
Member (2009)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Definitely Sep 12, 2011

Definitely yes. I did.

 

Paul Dixon  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 22:15
Portuguese to English
+ ...
No - not when speaking Sep 12, 2011

I guess it could be possible for someone to achieve total fluency in a foreign language and be mistaken for a native when WRITING English, but in terms of speaking it is impossible. According to Jean Piaget, someone can only obtain absolute fluency in a language if it is learnt before the age of 7. There are some sounds peculiar to each language such as the "th" in English and the "ão" in Portuguese that are impossible to master after this age.

 

Andrej  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:15
Member (2005)
German to Russian
+ ...
Very rare Sep 12, 2011

I heard only one German who I could mistake for a Russian. He was a professor in the field of Slavic studies from Bremen. Funny enough, Germans often said me that I am Frenchman or Dutchman when they heard my German.

There is an old philological story about the levels of the proficiency in language:

The 1st level is, if you studied a foreign language, came in the relevant country and every native speaker can understand that you are a foreigner and determine what countr
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I heard only one German who I could mistake for a Russian. He was a professor in the field of Slavic studies from Bremen. Funny enough, Germans often said me that I am Frenchman or Dutchman when they heard my German.

There is an old philological story about the levels of the proficiency in language:

The 1st level is, if you studied a foreign language, came in the relevant country and every native speaker can understand that you are a foreigner and determine what country you are from.

The 2nd level is, if you studied a foreign language, came in the relevant country and every native speaker can understand that you are a foreigner but he cannot determine what country you are from.

The 3rd level is, if you studied a foreign language, came in the relevant country and a native speaker cannot understand that you are a foreigner but he also cannot determine from what part of his country you are from.

PS Sorry for my poor English.

[Edited at 2011-09-12 19:35 GMT]

[Edited at 2011-09-12 19:35 GMT]
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Gennady Lapardin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 04:15
Italian to Russian
+ ...
Other Sep 12, 2011

One good reason: You may want to tell your teacher that you are not planning to be the superspy (aint gonna be a spy)

[Edited at 2011-09-12 20:47 GMT]


 

Jochen Schäfer  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 03:15
French to German
+ ...
Rare, but happens.... Sep 12, 2011

This has happened to me a couple of times so far... It is actually funny, I have met so many French, and quite a few of them really thought I was French and could hardly believe when I told them I actually was German, born to German parents, having been living in Germany for my whole entire life (apart from 6 months abroad I spent in Spain thanks to Erasmus.

It is a rare, but as in my case, actually does occur. I guess I may never really have the level of a native speaker, but may c
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This has happened to me a couple of times so far... It is actually funny, I have met so many French, and quite a few of them really thought I was French and could hardly believe when I told them I actually was German, born to German parents, having been living in Germany for my whole entire life (apart from 6 months abroad I spent in Spain thanks to Erasmus.

It is a rare, but as in my case, actually does occur. I guess I may never really have the level of a native speaker, but may come as close as to make others believe I am...
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TranslatorJames  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:15
Italian to English
+ ...
Rare - why we should translate only into our native language Sep 13, 2011

In a few (very few) cases yes people can achieve both.

There is a massive difference however, between having a proper conversation with someone and with making light conversation when you meet someone for the first time. Many times I have thought someone has been a native speaker when first introduced or the first time I have heard them speak, but further into the conversation it becomes more apparent they are not. On many occasions I have told people that I thought they were Englis
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In a few (very few) cases yes people can achieve both.

There is a massive difference however, between having a proper conversation with someone and with making light conversation when you meet someone for the first time. Many times I have thought someone has been a native speaker when first introduced or the first time I have heard them speak, but further into the conversation it becomes more apparent they are not. On many occasions I have told people that I thought they were English, only for a couple of sentences later for them to say something which marks them out as obviously foreign.

Although many will disagree with me I think that it is worrying that the majority of people who responded to this pole have voted yes. Yes, it is possible, but only very very rarely!

It seems that there are many translators offering to translate into what is not their native language. I think this is a dangerous practice which does not utilise their full potential. I have translated from from English to my chosen languages in the past but I know that the work that I had done was not up to scratch without it being checked and proofread by a native speaker.

Over and over again I have seen texts, articles, documents etc that I can instantly see have been translated and not by a native English speaker. Many times with terrible mistakes, but also many times where the grammar and meaning were correct but it just wasn't the way you would expect an English speaker to put it. There are ways of doing things that are there for a reason. It is just simply not possible to play with language in the same way that a native speaker does.

There are of course exceptions!
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Chun Un  Identity Verified
Macau
Member (2007)
English to Chinese
+ ...
Better than native Sep 13, 2011

Jose Palomares wrote:

How many foreigners you know that speak your mother tongue almost better than yourself, but surely much better than many average speakers of it?

I know a few


Dashan (his Chinese name anyway) is a television personality in China. While he is Canadian, his fluency in spoken Mandarin (with a Beijing accent) is much better than that of many (if not most) average native Chinese speakers including myself!

[Edited at 2011-09-13 08:02 GMT]


 

Khas
Portugal
Local time: 02:15
English to Portuguese
+ ...
yes Sep 13, 2011

Happens all the time with my daughter, when u are on holidays in Portugal people in there think she is Portuguese, over here in the UK, they think she is English, but the truth she Mozambican, and can happen as well with the looks, with me ever since I moved to UK, everyone says that I'm Asian, sometimes they even speak with me in Indian, I don't get a word, and nobody believes when I say that I am from Portugal, they look at me with that face, so I started saying that I am Mozambican as well, l... See more
Happens all the time with my daughter, when u are on holidays in Portugal people in there think she is Portuguese, over here in the UK, they think she is English, but the truth she Mozambican, and can happen as well with the looks, with me ever since I moved to UK, everyone says that I'm Asian, sometimes they even speak with me in Indian, I don't get a word, and nobody believes when I say that I am from Portugal, they look at me with that face, so I started saying that I am Mozambican as well, lollolololololCollapse


 
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