Native fluency

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The hundred or so scholars at the conference on narrative factuality I'm attending here in Freiburg, Germany come from all over Europe and North America, plus a few other countries.  All proceedings are in English, and every single person here, both young and old, speaks English like a native (except for one person who came to Europe from China as an adult, another individual who has lived in Israel her whole life, and a professor from Francophone Switzerland — the latter three all in their sixties and seventies, and all three speaking English quite well, though not like a native).  No matter what types of literature or philosophy we're discussing, it's all done in English, except for names, titles, and technical terms.

The thing that amazes me most, however, is that the speakers mainly — and very clearly — sound distinctly like Americans or British.  (There are also a couple of Australians, but they both have mixed accents — with traces of American and British English from having lived in those places for considerable periods of time.)

I asked a young German scholar how it was possible that she speaks flawless British English with native fluency without ever having lived or studied abroad.  And how was it that other German scholars were speaking flawless American English, most of them without having lived for extended periods of time in North America.  She told me that at Freiburg, where she studied, students choose either the American English track or the British English track.  From the time the students choose one or the other track — British or American English — their teachers, their exams, their essays, etc. all adhere to the chosen model.  That goes for both written and spoken language.

It's not unusual to find an occasional American or Briton or Canadian who speaks excellent Chinese or Japanese (though they seldom — almost never — write them well), but it would be extremely rare ever to find a whole group of them who have native fluency.

I just found it to be uncanny to hear all of these nonnative speakers gathered together in one large room delivering talks and engaging in high level discussions on abstruse subjects in beautiful American or British English.

Someone may object and say that I'm sitting with a bunch of literature and philosophy professionals from top universities, so naturally their language skills should be advanced.  But I would reply that similar gatherings in America, China, Japan, and many other countries I've been to would not display such sensational skill in a second language.

In recent years, I've also been noticing a related phenomenon in Europe, and to a certain extent elsewhere, of young people who work in restaurants, coffee / tea shops, hotels, and so forth who speak superb English with a British or American accent.  Most of them are in their late teens or early twenties, have not been abroad, and have no higher education.  When I ask them how their English can be so good and how they can sound like an American or Briton, they just shrug it off and say, "Oh, I love American / British music and watch English language films all the time.  It's natural for me to speak this way."

Once I even met a lad in a very remote part of Kazakhstan, the son of the local sheriff, who was like that.  Uncanny!


  1. David Moser said,

    July 7, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

    I might just add: I've encountered hundreds of Chinese in the last 20 years who speak truly excellent English, without having left the country. While most have a noticeable Chinese accent (with an overlay of either British or American English), such speakers are able to converse easily across a wide range of topics, including current politics, history, and culture. Most are also able to produce quite idiomatic written texts, needing only light polishing and correcting by a native speaker of English.

    By contrast, I've honestly never met a foreigner who can even approach this level of fluency without having spent many years in a Chinese-speaking environment. And even for those who have spent a decade or more in China, most can only speak casual or "kitchen" Chinese with fairly good accents. Almost none of them could hold their own in a Chinese conversation about current events, politics or their own professional activities. And virtually none can actually write passable articles or texts without massive revision and correction by a native Chinese. The average fluency gap between the two groups of speakers is enormous.

  2. maidhc said,

    July 7, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

    In fairness, it's easier for someone who already speaks one IE language to learn another one than it would be to learn a totally unrelated language like Chinese or Japanese.

    Of course to a Kazakh or Chinese, English is an unrelated language, but there's a lot more English media around. Learning Japanese outside Japan, say, is a challenge because you just don't encounter it much. The Internet helps, but still.

    I've met many Chinese people who speak excellent English, but I've also met many whose English is serviceable but hardly idiomatic.

  3. andrew martin said,

    July 7, 2017 @ 7:58 pm

    I've heard from people for most of my life that the time of English of any flavor being the language of x (the world, business, whatever) is approaching its end. That the next major world language is guaranteed to be Chinese simply because the economic power of a population that size cannot be contained forever. And the logic goes that when China "advances" politically to the point where it's latent capitalism can be fully expressed, they will rule the world in a similar, if not even more dominant, way that the U.S. influences the world.

    I've never heard that from my parents (both German professors), nor from any linguist or teacher of language.

    This post made me wonder where, in fact, I have heard that from. While the logic doesn't sound obviously insane, I can only remember hearing this kind of idea from far right wing people I grew up with in Texas and from other equally far right wing people in rural Minnesota and certain parts of North Dakota that I've lived with.

    I now wonder if this isn't just some fear-mongering couched in faux-economic/linguistic terms.

    There could be some historical precedent, I suppose. The combination of the Roman Empire and the spread of the Catholic Church made Latin the language of Serious Intellectual Pursuits for quite a long time.

    But I would, perhaps, argue that it's not the language of the largest population or even the largest economic power that drives second language choice. Rather it's the language of the dominant technology that's driving economic growth that spreads a language as a choice.

    The Romans were not only spreading by means of war and economics, as they spread, they were spreading technology and knowledge of infrastructure at the same time. If you wanted to learn how to build a city like Rome, you had to learn from the Romans, and that meant learning Latin.

    You could perhaps suggest that something similar is in place now. It's technology that's driving growth around the world, and the programming languages that create software are Anglo-centric. I work with other software engineers from all over the world. Aside from this really great April fool's joke (, I've never encountered anyone even being interested in working with a programming language that wasn't based on English. Sure, function and class names and comments can be in a different language, but key language constructs seem to always be in English, even when the writers of the language have a different first language.

    Anyway, I'm off on tangents. Does anyone with historical knowledge understand where this idea that one day we'll all need to speak Chinese to be able to function economically comes from? Is there real precedent for this historically? Or is it just a boogeyman people tell children to establish an early fear of foreign people, languages, and cultures? Or is it somewhere in the middle?


  4. Dave Cragin said,

    July 7, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

    My experience mirrors David Moser, i.e., often the younger the Chinese person is, the better their English is. Some young Chinese (in their 20s), who’ve only lived in China, speak remarkably good English.

    In contrast, despite having met many “foreigners” in China, I’ve met only 1 one that was fluent in Chinese (obviously more than this exist). This was actually my biggest surprise about visiting China, i.e., the # of foreigners who speak little to no Chinese. A few illustrative examples:

    An American Professor who lived with 6 other foreigners from various countries in China for 27 months; she said “We had a contest to see who could learn the least Chinese.” (she thought it was funny that she had learned nothing – I wanted to say “You’re a professor?????).

    When I asked a Canadian who lived in Harbin for 3 years “how is your Chinese?,” she responded “About the same as when I got there.”

    An American who lived in Shanghai for ten years: “I speak NO Chinese.” (said with pride).

    Also in Shanghai, the first time I met in-person a Chinese friend who is an on-line Chinese teacher, she said to me “Your Chinese is SO much better than my boyfriend! With my parents, I have to translate EVERYTHING.” Her American boyfriend had lived in Shanghai for 5 years and despite that it would have greatly aided interactions with her and her parents, he had learned little. At that time, my Chinese was very weak, so his skills must have been quite minimal. (I only visit China; I've never lived there).

    China treats foreigners very well and there are English signs and announcements everywhere, so it is possible to survive there without knowing Chinese. However, in doing so, these individuals miss much of the country’s depth and the great relationships that develop via the shared challenge of speaking each other’s language.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 1:03 am

    @Andrew Martin: In answer to the questions in your last paragraph, I think this is mostly "a boogeyman people tell children to establish an early fear of foreign people, languages, and cultures", or something of the sort. I am currently in Italy, where the amount of English used in politics, business, technology, advertising, culture, sports, and life in general is enormous, and generates remarkably little backlash. And everyone's concern is "how can we improve Italians' command of English?", not "what are we going to do about learning Chinese?". In my experience, the places where people seem most concerned about the alleged future status of Chinese are places where the main native language is English.

  6. andrew martin said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 1:16 am

    @Bob Ladd, that makes some sense.

    I could have made my entire comment a lot shorter by asking a better question:

    What are the factors that drive adoption of a second language? Over a large, geographically and culturally diverse space?

    There are a ton of assumptions in my long post, but that is really what I'm asking.

    Someone or many people must be studying these things and have better historical knowledge than I do.

    Is it really just brute force? You conquer a place, and force people to learn your language? Is it economics? Is it technology? Some combination of all of them plus some other things I haven't thought of?

    I really don't know. But thank you for your response.

  7. Jon said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 1:32 am

    Tom Lehrer, in the 1960s:
    "In German oder English I know how to count down
    Und I'm learning Chinese," says Wernher von Braun

  8. Pflaumbaun said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 10:13 am

    I've met several Poles and Czechs with English English accents ("British" is not a meaningful category when applied to accents!) that are very old-fashioned RP – they speak flawlessly but sound like cricket commentators from the forties. I'm wondering if it's just a coincidence or something about the way they're taught there.

  9. Miles Archer said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 10:23 am

    My experience with engineers and managers in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands and Austria is that they all speak beautiful English. The regular working people in Germany, not so much. They all learned English in school and have forgotten most of it. In Denmark and the Netherlands, it seems that everyone speaks American. It's easier for an American to have a casual conversation there than in the north of England or Scotland.

    About Chinese, there's a generation of kids who are learning Mandarin as their second language here in California. It's a pity because there still is a population of native Cantonese speakers who are dying out.

  10. mg said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

    @maidhc – I've known a lot of kids (now young adults) whose interest in Japanese started with watching anime and have proceeded to use Japanese film, manga, and music to advance their fluency. It's a whole subculture.

    As to accents – a lot has to do with the accent of one's teacher. In junior high, I had American French teachers and had the American accent one would expect. In high school, I had native French teachers from France and North Africa, and when I spent a summer in France people were always commenting on how good my accent was. It also greatly increased my comprehension.

  11. Tom davidson said,

    July 8, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

    For those of us who gather chinglish examples, here is another place to go to:

  12. K said,

    July 9, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

    I have substantial experience with German and French academics (in a STEM field) and I would say their English is essentially universally excellent (the Germans more than the French by and large), but *not* native level, with mild but distinct accents and some common errors in writing and characteristic peculiarities of word choice. At least around Berlin even working class Germans have quite good English if they are under 30, but the older ones not so much.

  13. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 9, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

    @andrew martin
    You may be interested in Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word, which explores the rise and decline of the major lingua francas in history. The author also tries to discover what causes a language to become a "world language". Spoiler: He fails. There are no simple explanations.

  14. Arthur Baker said,

    July 9, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

    On the question of Italians speaking English: in 2016 I re-visited Italy for the first time since 1972. Back in the late 1960s and 1970s I had learned some Italian, not anywhere close to native fluency but enough to communicate adequately as a tourist and read just about anything. It seemed to be necessary back then, I'm not sure how a monolingual English speaker would have fared in Italy.

    44 years later in 2016, I found that the whole scene had changed, and most Italians I encountered spoke excellent English. Nevertheless, I resurrected my dusty old Italian and made an effort. Most Italians seemed very surprised by this, having become accustomed to dealing with monolingual Anglophones who knew no Italian at all beyond hello and thank you. When I spoke some Italian to the proprietor of an Airbnb farmhouse in Tuscany, she smiled, shook her head in disbelief and said "Nobody learns Italian! Why would you bother?". I replied "Perhaps to be polite to one's hosts?".

    How times have changed.

  15. Arthur Baker said,

    July 9, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

    I taught English to French-speakers in a language school in Toulouse, France, in 1969. Even back then, students had to choose the American course or the British course. Being of English birth, I quickly had to learn to become rhotic when required and switch back and forth between British English and some approximation of American English (I needed the money, so had plenty of motivation).

  16. DDOwen said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 5:20 am

    Interesting that the dual British/American English streams parallel a tendency in Welsh L2 teaching for adults to teach either North Welsh or South Welsh dialects.

  17. Kwami Jefferson said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    "All proceedings are in English, and every single person here, both young and old, speaks English like a native.."

    You're probably exaggerating. Or you have bad ears.

  18. william holmes said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 9:57 am

    Several posts have touched on "age-at-start-up" as a factor in acquisition of native-level fluency in English (or other languages). I solicit input on whether — and by how many years — countries such as France, Germany and China have brought forward the start for English education in the primary-secondary years (and whether the start tends to be earlier in elite schools). The early start, coupled with media and other exposure, beats later immersion hands down, I think. I also solicit reactions on whether there may be a generational divide between those French, German and Chinese whose English schooling began before, and after, the purported shift.
    Of course, quality of instruction is another, more difficult, issue. And there's the old puzzle of Japan.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 10:12 am

    I mentioned the exceptions.

  20. BZ said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

    The short-lived, but cult hit Sci-Fi/Space Western TV Show "Firefly" depicts a future (whose exact dating remains unspecified) where everybody is equally fluent in American English and Mandarin (with some futuristic made-up slang co-existing with retro-western speak).

    Anyway, my father was (and still is) of the opinion that if one is to study any branch of science, one must know German and French in addition to English, though I rebelled against taking them at college. I'm not a scientist, but a software developer, but I suspect his assertion to be false for any discipline (except some sort of German or French history or culture) in this day and age.

  21. K said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 3:16 pm


    Your father was almost certainly right in his day (depending a bit on his field and age), but no longer. This is why PhD program language requirements have mostly disappeared.

    In my personal experience as a researcher, I see a little bit of research mathematics published in French still but this is rare now and I see none currently published in other non-English languages. Even working in some sub-areas with many French groups, the last time I met something I wanted to read that happened to be in French was about 10 years ago (and fortunately my French was well up to it) and that was a book which appeared in English translation only a few years later.

    40 years ago, however, it was a completely different story. That's before my time, but you just need to look through a few issues of important journals of the time to see the larger variety of languages in active use. The legacy of this is that as an active researcher today there are some foundational references that are not in English, but you can get away with reading more modern English expositions of the results and so not reading anything other than English.

  22. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

    @william holmes
    Here in Germany, education is in the domain of the states, so there are potentially 16 variants of this. Traditionally, foreign language teaching started in 5th grade, but by the mid-2000s all German states offered a first foreign language, principally English, from 3rd grade and some even from 1st grade, billed as playful exposure to the language rather than formal teaching. There has been various bitching and moaning (lack of qualified teachers, too little time spent, no integration with the formal curriculum starting in the 5th grade) and occasional pushback claiming that this doesn't provide any measurable benefits.

    My generation, those who finished school circa 1990, started English classes in 5th grade. There was very little access to English-language media, and exposure to the language was largely limited to those school classes. There was a large gap between the language competency that had been acquired by school graduates and that required to actually use the language in any useful way. At university, whenever a professor pointed to an English-language textbook, there were audible moans in the class (engineering and computer science majors). Only a small minority would be willing to watch a movie in English. I remember a friend of mine admitting that he could not follow a televised speech by the US President.

    I would like to think that the situation has improved, but I don't know. The Internet has made access to English-language media trivial. However, I'm afraid the gap between the skill level imparted in school and that required to understand (much less express oneself
    in) real-world English still stands. This would suggest that people who spend extra effort to study the language outside their school classes may reach useful competence, and those that don't won't.

  23. Eidolon said,

    July 10, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

    "You may be interested in Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word, which explores the rise and decline of the major lingua francas in history. The author also tries to discover what causes a language to become a "world language". Spoiler: He fails. There are no simple explanations."

    In general, there might not be a simple explanation. But in the case of English, I think we have a fairly solid argument. Countries and peoples choose to learn English because they see it as the language conferring the highest advantage in business, science, technology, tourism, entertainment, etc. In a phrase, it's because it affords better opportunities. Should that have been another language, they would learn that language, instead.

    As to how English reached this position, we have to look first at the role the British Empire played in modernizing/Westernizing much of the world; and then the role the US continues to play, today, in international trade, research, entertainment, etc. The British made English the prestige language of its colonies, which spanned nearly half the world, and is the reason countries like India and the US speak English as a primary language, today. But it was not until after World War II that the US made English the prestige language of international law, commerce, science, tourism, entertainment, etc. As late as the end of World War I, the lingua franca of Europe was still French, not English. The US, to this end, was probably decisive in why countries in East Asia decided on English, instead of another language, for their international language of choice.

  24. diego said,

    July 11, 2017 @ 5:13 am

    These days, English has become such a status symbol around the world that in many countries where English is not an official language folks will sometimes pretend not to understand their native languages in order to practice English. Native English speakers increasingly face awkward situations, having to choose whether to speak the local language as a matter of basic courtesy, or to switch to English so as not make locals "loose face". And these days, it is not unusual folks to act insulted when native English speakers compliment them on their English ability, after patiently helping them practice. The rise of English appears to be irreversible.

  25. Arthur Baker said,

    July 11, 2017 @ 11:27 pm

    @diego, talking about pretences, my French-speaking Belgian friend who speaks no Flemish always pretends to be English when in the Flemish-speaking area of his own country (his English is very fluent, so he can get away with this). He claims that asking Flemish-speakers if they speak French always, without exception, produces a negative response, whereas asking if they speak English elicits smiles and helpfulness.

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