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The Art of Speaking Well in a Non-Native Or Foreign Language

By Hanifa K. Cook

If you are shy or unsure of how to speak the foreign language you are currently learning, here are some tips on the art and technique I have used very successfully:


Always be prepared to be heard. Which means be prepared to be stared at (because you may be fair skinned but are speaking Tamil, a language of India). I get lots of stares at public places when I speak Mandarin to my 6 year old daughter and we both do not look Chinese. For her sake, I have to continue practicing and invite her to practice with me all the time.

Recognize that you are only learning so you do not have to be perfect all the time. Forgive yourself for mistakes at pronouncing a new word you have picked up just 10 minutes ago. Keep practicing and be heard so others can tell you if your spoken language is any better.

Work in two languages at one time, holding on to the one you are most comfortable with as fall back if you have to save yourself from difficult situations.


Practice your spoken language in a safe and small environment: at home you're your spouse, at school with bosom friends, at work with trusted colleagues. Do keep the content of your spoken languages topical in particular around the situation or place you are position now. For instance, if you in the kitchen preparing your breakfast, say it in the language you are learning even if your spouse doesn't understand it. 99% of the time, your spouse is so willing to participate as it will not take too much to understand what you want in your breakfast as you routine is already familiar to your spouse anyway. Action speaks louder than words. When you are in public place with your colleague and have to use the toilet, tell your friend exactly the way a foreigner would say without hesitation.


A key ingredient of my success to speak 3 languages by the time I was 2 years old is that I have the environment to listen and watch how people say their words even though I have no idea what the meaning of the word means. My mum tells me I could sing a Mandarin pop song at 3 years old; she neither speaks nor reads Chinese? Environment plays a major but most the time, it is how well tuned you are at the time the opportunity presents itself to you.

Listen and start picking up the accents; and the smaller you are with age, the more likely people will minced their words and start speaking slower. And people do not try too hard to impress children; so kids naturally have less stressful time learning a new language than adults.

And so if you or your child want to start picking up a new foreign language, listen intently for simple words pronounced and repeat to yourself like a child would. The mental effort will teach you just how difficult yet fundamental this technique is.

Many have thrown themselves in a pool of translation dictionaries while learning a new foreign language but end up not speaking any word at the end of first week. That is because dictionaries are for those who need to understand the meaning to those words when they have already understood how to pronounce it.

If you want to speak well, start using your god-given hearing aid, that is your ear, not your dictionary.

We also have the inner critic to shut off what you don't want to hear. Remember how you always tell yourself or your children to stop listening to the rock music because it contains abusive languages?

Besides when you want to know the same word used in a foreign language, you would say:
"How do you say it in Mandarin?"
"How do you say it in English?"
"How do you say it in Tagalog?"

Note that you will NEVER ask, what does it mean in Mandarin, English or Tagalog. Meaning is only useful to you as a foreign language learner once you already know how to pronounce the word.

Watch programs like news channels that have native newsreaders like BBC World (for British English), CNN World News (for American Accent), CCTV (native Mandarin) etc. Listen to pay attention to the production of the words; the content of the news is immaterial to your goal to become a good speaker of a non-native language.


Many foreign expatriates who have spent enough time in Asia understand this. If you stay in a foreign land long enough, you would have immersed and adapted yourself in the culture and language. You are bound to speak the language sooner or later.

Do not confuse adaptation with immersion. Adaptation is what you do as a person to welcome a culture or practice into your existing lifestyle so that it makes you feel comfortable to function as an individual. It has nothing to do with learning a language. Immersion on the other hand, is what you do as an individual to envelope yourself with the culture and practice of a new environment in order that you may learn to adapt yourself into that new environment. Although immersion helps language development but it has very little impact on your performance as when you are out of the environment. You will eventually go back to your natural and native environment.

So the technique of speaking a language is not how you adapt or immerse yourself, it is how well practiced are at speaking it. It may take you a year to realize you have actually phrased words wrongly in a sentence. However, remember that people forgive you if your spoken language is grammatically incorrect but will laugh if spoken correctly yet grammatically wrong. A classic example:

An Englishman wants to know if his Indonesian maid has prepared dinner for him. Instead of asking, "Ada makan malam?" he asks, "Sudah makan malam?"His maid laughs at him for saying it grammatically wrong as the latter actually means "Have you eaten?" Whereas the former means "Is food ready?"

Do visit my blog, You will be inspired to continue your journey to speak a non-native language. The secret is not what you have learned, is how much you have used what you've learned and I have been using the technique for over 40 years now.

Hanifa K. Cook is the owner of Please note that I appreciate your comments directly to my email

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