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I'm not a native speaker. However, I have tried a lot during last 10 years to learn English at a high level of proficiency and to become fluent in conversation.

However, when I talk to some of my friends in US over Skype (found via my profession), they tell me that I talk like a foreigner. But they don't know why is that.

What is/are the reasons that can make a not-native English speaker sound like a foreigner? Is it about pronunciation, or about syntax, or is it maybe just a false assumption coming from a psychological background due to the fact that the other party knows that you are not an English man/woman.

Update: I asked this question specifically about English, since English is the most widespread language on the earth and tens of different dialects and millions of different idiolects seem to alleviate the problem of "sounding-foreign".

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closed as not constructive by simchona, aedia λ, KitFox, Mitch, Daniel Aug 31 '11 at 23:12

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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This is a very interesting question, but I think that it may be too broad for EL&U. I have voted to close. –  simchona Aug 31 '11 at 22:04
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I think this is a terrific question for a thesis, but even though you have edited it, I think it is too broad for this site. I encourage you to drop by chat to discuss it there! –  KitFox Aug 31 '11 at 22:12
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Saeed, I also think that this question is just too broad and discussion-oriented to be a good fit for EL&U. You may want to check out our English Language & Usage Chat. If you're interested in linguistics, your question (identifying non-native speech, how do people recognize non-native speech, etc.) is a fascinating research area - for example, this thesis explores computer methods for recognizing NNS & discusses speech features; this shorter paper also summarizes some of the research. –  aedia λ Aug 31 '11 at 22:14
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@simchona yes it does, but you make it sound like the only source of material for discussion is some kind of religious dogma-- there do exist phonetic studies on This Kind Of Thing, you know... I fail to see why this question is banned as no being suspectible to an answer based on scientific evidence, whereas numerous spurious questions about whether it is "correct" to use such-and-such a word are asked (and not closed) on practically a daily basis... –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 3:30
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So I see. I remain all the more mystified... –  Neil Coffey Sep 1 '11 at 4:49

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Obviously without hearing an example, it's only possible to talk in generalities. In terms of syntax and vocabulary, even if you don't produce any utterances that are ungrammatical per se, you might give yourself away by not using features (e.g. filler words/pharses like "you know", "though", "actually") that are common in native speech, or by using features not common to the spoken register (e.g. overuse of non-contracted forms).

In terms of pronunciation, native speakers are tuned to all sorts of fine phonetic detail. So even if, say, the quality of your vowels is very close to that of a native speaker, you could give yourself away by other subtle clues: e.g. subtle differences in the duration of sounds, having different patters of Voice Onset Time to native speakers, not glottalising vowels before a syllable-final voiceless consonant, not overlapping segments of consonant clusters such as [kt] in the same way as native speakers of English, to mention some common phenomena that tend to differ between English and other languages but not so much within accents of English and which can give an accent away as "foreign". But really there are virtually too many possible subtle differences to mention, and surely some that haven't been systematically studied.

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Neil, it was just too technical. But I managed to understand it and it was informative too. +1 and thanks. –  Saeed Neamati Aug 31 '11 at 22:26

It depends on what you mean by 'foreigner'. I'm English, so all other native English speakers in the world are foreigners, including your US Skype friends :) In this context, I think you mean 'non-native English speaker'.
Apart from an accent, I'd have thought that a good grasp of grammar is the best way to change the way that your ability is perceived. I know non-native speakers who speak better English that I do - they may not sound like they're from the UK or US or wherever, but it doesn't matter because they can communicate effectively which presumably is the whole point.

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Based on your written English you are doing very well indeed. Our ears and brains are very attuned to tiny details in language, because we use it all the time. So, although I know it is not the answer you want, it is a combination of hundreds of little things that make a non native speaker sound non native. It should also be said that this is true of accents in general: what makes an Irishman sound different than an Englishman? What makes a Western Australian sound different than an Eastern Australian? It is hundreds of tiny things combined.

However, there are certainly some things that stand out as important. For example, the pronunciation of vowels. Tiny variations can make a big difference. I work with many people originally from India. One thing I hear a lot from them is the emphasis is different. For example, "The shipping maniFEST is wrong." (Caps indicate the emphasized syllable.) Tiny word choices also make a difference, even if they are correct, they might not be idiomatic. For example, you can usually tell an Eastern European from listening to their use of the crazy English definite article. Even the very best, most fluent have problems with this.

Unfortunately, using video chat amplifies the problem, because the slight visual jitter and clipped phonics itself gives a slightly "off" feeling to the conversation to start with even with native speakers, and so when slight pronunciation problems are added on top, it makes it even more noticeable.

Unfortunately, I think the only way to get really, really fluent, where your accent is indistinguishable, is to spend a lot of time talking with native speakers, ideally by living in the country where that is the native language. If that is not possible, perhaps you can get together regularly with a bunch of native speakers. Many of the accent problems come from slight differences in the structure of your native language, which bleed into your English. So unfortunately speaking with other learners from the same language group as you can mean you feed off each others problems.

However, FWIW, your written English is very clear, and that, after all, is the ultimate purpose of language.

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