In an ESL classroom, the teacher may spend a lot of time focusing on pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. As a result, most diligent students have near-native pronunciation and grammar and are capable of conversing on a variety of topics. However, they won’t come close to passing as native speakers. What’s missing?
Think about speaking in your native tongue. Are you focused on making sure you pronounce each word right, have perfect grammar, and use the precise choice of words? Are you even thinking about your words at all?
Chances are, you’re not. Chances are, you’re probably focused on the thoughts, feelings, and desires behind your words, which come across to your listener as nuance.
Everything you say has a direct, surface meaning, as well multiple intended, indirect meanings. Take this sentence for example: “Where were you last night?”
On the surface, this may mean “Where were you physically 12-24 hours ago?” However, this is rarely the intended meaning. Imagine the different ways in which someone Language of desire might ask this question:
• An angry spouse confronting a partner who didn’t come home last night
• A concerned parent worrying about a teenager who wasn’t home by curfew
• An excited friend hoping his best friend had a good encounter
• A resigned supervisor giving up on her expectations that her employee would be punctual and responsible
Depending on each of the above situations, the words “Where were you last night?” would be said completely differently. Not only would the speaker’s attitude factor into how the words were said, but so would the listener’s! He/she would interpret the speaker’s words based on his/her own thoughts, feelings, and desires!
So, how do you begin adding nuance to your English?
1. From your favorite American movie, select one scene about three to five minutes long.
2. Watch the scene until you feel you’ve absorbed the characters’ actions and motivations.
3. Write down what they are saying, word for word.
4. Begin to imitate their speech. Try to think only about the thoughts, feelings, and desires that motivated the words, not the words themselves.
5. When you feel confident, record yourself saying the character’s lines.
6. Play the recording for a friend and ask for their honest opinion of whether you sound like you’re thinking and feeling like the character