I know that there are many things which reveal that, for example, I am not a native English speaker. But I'd like to know the signs that native people use to determine if an speaker is not native.

We are told in the class that accent is very important but I know that there are many accents in both USA and England. So, why is it still so easy for a native speaker to know that someone is not native? I mean, how can we be like native speakers? is it just about accent?

  • 1
    "if an speaker" would be one of them. "in the class" would be another.
    – TimR
    Jul 21, 2016 at 2:55
  • @TRomano Thanks dude :) Why are those wrong? Jul 21, 2016 at 2:56
  • If a speaker; in class.
    – TimR
    Jul 21, 2016 at 2:56
  • If my opinion is worth anything, I'd like to suggest this: stop worrying about your accent, but aim at fluency (which of course, includes correct and native-like pronunciation). I'm not a native speaker, BTW. Jul 21, 2016 at 3:01
  • @ArmanMalekzade Always use "a" before a word which begins with a consonant, as in "a speaker." Always use "an" before a word which begins with a vowel, as in "an other." Jul 21, 2016 at 3:20

3 Answers 3


I think nowadays it is easy to listen to others speak who are native speakers. For example, due to television, I have some practice listening to what (some) British people sound like. Similarly, due to television, I have some practice listening to what (some American) Southerners sound like. You can imagine that before the days that it was possible to record audio, we might have had no idea what other native speakers sounded like. In fact, it seems plausible that in those times, people could have mistaken native speakers from other place for nonnative speakers because they didn't sound the same ("they don't sound like me").

Again, because of media, I have practice listening to nonnative accents too, like Chinese and Russian. So, when I hear them spoken in real life I recognize them instantly. I know that those people do not come from places where English is spoken "natively". So even if a person with a nonnative accent had impeccable grammar skills, because I have practice identifying accents that are not native, I would identify the person as a nonnative speaker.

I guess I forgot the address the first part of your question. I doubt there is a "most important thing". The two big clues that I can think of are accent (in the sense that it doesn't match one of the well-known ones, per se), and grammar. Now, having poor grammar doesn't imply that you are not a native speaker, as there are plenty of native speakers with poor grammar (myself included). But I think there are few distinct patterns that might serves as hints, like the lack of articles.


Yours is a fascinating question. First of all, it is important to recognize that all English is spoken with an accent. There is no immutable and inviolable standard of pronunciation, and English is spoken natively by scores of peoples, in accents so varied that they are often mutually unintelligible.

After considering this for a while, I believe that while there is no single trait which always identifies a non-native speaker of any language to a native speaker, there is one which comes close: the ability to "get" a joke. Much of humor is dependent upon a grasp of nuance and the fine differences among shades of meaning, and this grasp is not just linguistic and intellectual, but cultural and emotional; learned "at Mother's knee," we might say.

There may even be a joke which is specifically formulated to separate native from non-native speakers; further research is required!

  • I once saw a comedy movie in which a major character, whose first language is Spanish, confuses words like sheep, ship, cheap, chip, setting up a superb pun near the end. Sadly, I've forgotten both the title (thought it was The Ritz, with Rita Moreno, but it isn't) and the pun. Jul 21, 2016 at 5:20

English uses several uncommon distinctions between vowels; choosing the wrong vowel is a very common error.

Another red flag is using a more even rhythm. In native speech, most vowels in unstressed syllables are reduced toward schwa, and foreigners often pronounce such vowels ‘too’ clearly.

Some errors are rather random. I once worked with a Vietnamese who almost always said “upon” in place of “on” – and pronounced it /'ju:pɔn/ rather than /ʌ'pɔn/. I've never heard anyone else do that!

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