Note I don't ask if this is easy. I ask if this is possible, since it is certailny not easy.

According to this Quora answer at least, it would seem it is not possible - but Quora is Quora.

I am aware of this question: Is it possible for an adult to learn a language without carrying a foreign accent? But my question is noticeably broader, as there are more obstacles to reaching this goal than simply accent.

For example, the aforementioned Quora answer lists subtle word / phrase choices that, even if correct as per the rules of the language, stem from a speaker's habits he has acquired from his native tongue:

there is just a way of phrasing things that is unique to different languages. That’s why it’s easier for non-native speakers to understand other non-native speakers with the same mother language (like two Brazilians understand each other’s English). The grammar could be fine, but you can still tell it’s not native. Since I have experience teaching Brazilians, one example of this that jumps to mind is using “already” instead of the present perfect tense:

I already went to China. / I have gone to China. (or even better, “I have been to China.”)

Is “I already went to China” incorrect? No. Would it be a native speaker’s response to “What countries have you been to?” Probably not.

This is apparently noticeable in cases like the Joseph Condrad's:

In the opinion of some biographers, Conrad's third language, English, remained under the influence of his first two languages—Polish and French. This makes his English seem unusual. Najder writes that:

[H]e was a man of three cultures: Polish, French, and English. Brought up in a Polish family and cultural environment... he learned French as a child, and at the age of less than seventeen went to France, to serve... four years in the French merchant marine. At school he must have learned German, but French remained the language he spoke with greatest fluency (and no foreign accent) until the end of his life. He was well versed in French history and literature, and French novelists were his artistic models. But he wrote all his books in English—the tongue he started to learn at the age of twenty. He was thus an English writer who grew up in other linguistic and cultural environments. His work can be seen as located in the borderland of auto-translation.

Inevitably for a trilingual Polish–French–English-speaker, Conrad's writings occasionally show linguistic spillover: "Franglais" or "Poglish"—the inadvertent use of French or Polish vocabulary, grammar, or syntax in his English writings. In one instance, Najder uses "several slips in vocabulary, typical for Conrad (Gallicisms) and grammar (usually Polonisms)" as part of internal evidence against Conrad's sometime literary collaborator Ford Madox Ford's claim to have written a certain instalment of Conrad's novel Nostromo, for publication in T. P.'s Weekly, on behalf of an ill Conrad.

The above citation comes from Wikipedia's biography of Joseph Conrad

Also I believe my question is different from What qualities separate those few who acquire native speaker fluency, from those who are only fluent? , since, IIUC, this question doesn't assume indistinguishability - while I'm asking if it is fundamentally (im)possible for a non-native speaker to pass as a native speaker (I may be wrong though).

Also while my original intention was to ask about adult learners, we can also include younger learners in comparision to adult learners.


5 Answers 5


It appears to be possible. One example is the Turkish-born American political commentator Cenk Uygur. He says something about how he started learning English at the age of eight in a YouTube video that is otherwise not about language learning but about refugees and refugee agencies (emphasis added):

I was not a refugee but my family came over as legal immigrants. We got greencards and citizenship. And when I got here I didn't know any English; I knew three words: 'yes', 'no' and 'girl'. And for whatever reason. I was eight years old and I did not get English as a second language. They basically had one teacher who had me and a Vietnamese kid and a Korean kid, and she'd just put up pictures and say, 'cat'; and it'd have a picture of a cat, and we would go, 'Oh, that's a cat'. And we would learn that way.
So I grew up thinking, that's the right way to do it: just throw them into the deep end and they'll be OK, because that was my perspective. But throughout all these years I've learnt that you should think about people's perspectives, right? And for some people that's the better way—it was for me—and for a lot of people that's not the better way. And they need a little bit more help and assistance. And that was just on language. (...)
I was super-lucky; I lived in the suburbs, I happened to have a a friend, a Turkish-American that lived across the street and would translate for me. Come one! Who's that lucky, right?

The details are a bit sketchy, but three things are clear:

  1. He started learning English by associating pictures with spoken words. (He doesn't say anything about learning to read and write, but if he went to school in Turkey before moving to the USA, he should have been familiar with the Latin alphabet.)
  2. Being thrown in at the deep end sounds like immersion.
  3. However, there was a friend who could translate things for him on occasion. This should have lowered the threshold a bit compared to the immersive experience that he presumably dealt most of the time.

This is just an informal "case study" but it illustrate that it is possible.

(Note: Does he really say "throw them into the deep end" instead of "throw them in at the deep end"? I assume that would be just a slip of the tongue that can also happen to native speakers.)

  • "Thrown into the deep end" is a common variant of the phrase. I often heard it in the U.S. If you think about how a swimming pool works, thrown in "at" the deep end is a bit more logical, but with such expressions, logic is often forgotten or disregarded.
    – Brandin
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 9:25

This is a question that can only be answered anecdotally, unless a study has been published somewhere.

In any case, yes it is possible. I have spent time in Sweden, Austria and Germany and usually get by without anyone asking where I'm from. Whether that means they don't believe I'm a foreigner or simply didn't ask has not been clear in every situation however.

This is usually only the case in brief or superficial conversation. The inevitable rule is the longer the conversation goes on, eventually the listener figures out that I'm not a native speaker.

Interestingly, speakers of a dialect (usually those from small towns or the countryside) can almost never be fooled. Presumably they're more attuned to listening to differences since their own dialect deviates from the standard phonology.

From those who took a while to figure out that I was not a native speaker, the response I've heard more frequently is that they assumed any oddities in my pronunciation were dialectal. So a language without much regional/dialectal variation might be more difficult to "pass" in?

  • 2
    Welcome! This site is called Language Learning, so here we share the methods and techniques of language acquisition. Simply confirming that yes, the locals don't notice your accent, adds little value to the readers. I mean, we are glad to know about your success, but if you let us know how have you accomplished that, this would dramatically improve the quality of this answer. Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 21:27

Basically, yes. The trick is to think in the language that you are learning. This is possible if you have access to language immersion techniques (being around native speakers, interacting with them in real life situations, getting news and other information in the language that you are learning) But the tricky part is learning the correct pronunciation. Some people are better at acquiring natural pronunciation and intonation and other quirks of foreign languages. Incidentally, some people find it easier to get rid of an undesirable regional accent in their native language than others, and the lucky few can easily switch between different accents.

  • 1
    Welcome to Language Learning!
    – fi12
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 15:41

I'm not sure if Joseph Conrad could speak without an accent, but he certainly had superior grammar and syntax than most English speakers. His first language was Polish and he didn't learn English until his twenties. This same Wikipedia article stated that he spoke French without an accent.


It might be worthwhile to break that question down into two separate questions:

  1. Can a bilingual be indistinguishable from a monolingual?

  2. Can a late bilingual be indistinguishable from an early balanced bilingual?

If we don't separate the two, some faulty comparisons can arise (I'd argue that many language learners are mistaken to use native monolinguals as their target, and that what they should be aiming for instead is early balanced bilinguals).

For question 1, at the cognitive level the answer is no. The bilingual brain is handling two different languages and this entails some clear cognitive differences from the monolingual brain. At the perceptual level of the person's speech/prose, the question is mostly moot because it relies heavily on the context and the perceiver. "Passing as native" is one thing when the perceiver is the salesperson helping you set up your new phone subscription in a 15-minute long interaction; and it's quite another when the perceiver is a philologist/linguist carefully analyzing your prose in detail over months or years, as in the case of Conrad you mentioned.

Furthermore, the more casual perceiver will not be immune to biases. We know, for instance, that brands have a significant effect on how consumers evaluate food products. Give a person the exact same product twice, but the first time say it's from X low-quality brand, and the second time say it's from Y high-quality brand, and their feedback will be different. They won't realize that what they have just tasted is the exact same product. The same occurs with language. If the perceiver has non-linguistic cues that indicate you're an outsider (anything from skin color, a foreign-sounding name, knowledge of your own trajectory in life, etc.), then biases will arise. If only attribution biases, namely any mistake or quirk might be attributed to your foreignness when the exact same quirk would have been attributed to something else had they not thought you were a foreigner. This isn't a serious method of inquiry, but for fun you can try it out for yourself in your own mother tongue: the next time you are at a social gathering with strangers, speak your mother tongue but make up a background story that implies you're a foreigner. If you're American, say you're name is Jean-Baptiste, you're French and only started learning English at age 20. And you'll see that at least some people will hallucinate a foreign accent out of thin air, even though you're speaking your own mother tongue. That kind of bias is why David Crystal famously said that the only language learners who need to pass as native are spies (since if you're not lying about your background, biases will get in the way and make the question of indistinguishability from a native speaker moot).

Question 2 seems more likely to have an affirmative answer, though I don't think there's anything definitive at this stage. I'd just point out that "bleed" from one language into the other, as in the case of Conrad, wouldn't help answer that question since that kind of "bleed" also occurs in early balanced bilinguals.

Lastly, to open up the question a bit more I'd add a third question, that is implied but overlooked since the focus of language learners is usually on their target language:

  1. Is it possible for a person learning a foreign language to remain indistinguishable from native speakers of her own mother tongue?

We know that L1 takes a hit when you acquire an L2. And it happens very early on, even after only a few months of learning the L2. That question may help learners frame the question of "indistinguishability" in a different light. Because the differences in L1 may not be apparent to the casual observer, including the speaker herself, but were we to take a closer analytical look, we just might spot some differences that place this speaker far away from the mean.

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