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How to Connect With Native Speakers

I failed.

She gave me a stern look. It was 20 years ago in France, and in French I said politely, nicely, and with a smile to an older boutique clerk: “Bonjour, comment allez-vous?” (“Hello, how are you?”).

I had pretty good pronunciation because I practiced it so much, so I was clear, and I was friendly, and gave her the customary greeting I would give in English.

I couldn’t figure it out: Was she mad? Why did it feel like she didn’t want me there? The experience was awkward, seemingly for both of us. And this was just one of the examples I had in France.


The Point?

I was giving her a greeting that was culturally normal in MY COUNTRY, in my language, in my culture. I learned fast that this JUST is not the way it’s done in France.

Fortunately, by picking up an International Herald Tribune newspaper on train to Spain, I came upon an article that changed my French life: the French do NOT smile as a greeting to strangers, even to the themselves. Period. To them, this seems kind of crazy and makes them uncomfortable. (Of course they smile to friends, or if they see an adorable baby, for example, but as a general GREETING to strangers, they never smile, especially not overtly.)

Is this wrong? Absolutely not! This is RIGHT in that French culture, in that language. Just because I drop into a new language and culture does not give me the right to expect it change for me. The opposite needs to occur if I want success and connection in that language. The point is I was transposing ALL of me (English culture) into the new language I was speaking. What a mistake.

Me being a product of English culture while speaking French didn’t win me the heart of that lady or other native French speakers in France. There was no successful connection. Quite frankly they probably thought I was weird, someone who makes them uncomfortable, or at least just not on the level. But I wanted the opposite, and because you’re reading this, you want this for your learners too!


How Did I Change for Success?

Well, the second time I went back, I read up all I could on French culture. I’m sure I wasn’t perfect, but WOW what a difference. I just dropped my old English style, my English self, and didn’t smile, but nicely said to an older lady who ran a boutique: “Bonjour Madame” (“Hello Madame”) as a greeting and carried on with what I wanted or needed. MAGIC. The lady went right into helping me as if I were one of them, a French person. Wow, was it that easy? Yes it was!

(Note: It’s important learners realize that even though at that time my French accent was quite English, because I acculturated, or culturally connected, I won her heart and approval and I got what I wanted.)

Exception: Learners can be reminded that just like in their culture and language, there are nice and not so nice persons. We’re not talking about every human in a language group, but just the overriding culture of one.


How Do LEARNERS Connect and Get What They Want?

The following 3 steps were put together because over the 15 years of working with nonnative English speakers I’ve seen the vast majority of them being held back much in part because of not connecting with native English culture, even when they’re fluent, and that makes me sad. That is one of the very reasons I created Accent Pro™ nine years ago.

Anyway, get learners to visualize themselves doing each of the following steps while they ask themselves:

  1. What steps am I putting into practice well right now,
  2. What steps am I NOT putting into practice,  or
  3. What steps could be improved?

Learners should know that these steps are basic in English culture. But just like me adapting to the French culture when I was in it, they will need to do so in English. If they follow these 3 easy steps, they are going to see success. If they already are following these steps, they can visualize how well they are doing them, see if there is need for improvement, and then improve! Here we go:


Get Your ESL Learners to Connect with Native English Speakers & Win Their Hearts: 3 Easy Steps


Learners need to make this their normal greeting, everyday: “Hi, how are you?” They can vary it to more casual, “Hi, how’s it going?” and so forth as they get more used to it.

When can they use it? They can use it anytime they greet someone for the first time. It can also be a standard hello greeting to someone they see everyday.

So, if they’re in a grocery store and the clerk is now scanning their items, the first thing they say is, “Hi, how are you?” If they’re at work and they see people for the first time in the day, even their boss, they say: “Hi, how are you?”

If we are native English ourselves or privy to this cultural scenario, we can demonstrate other similar interactions, like:

Joe: “Hi.”

Grant: “Hi.”

Joe: “How’s it goin’?”

Grant: “Fine, thanks. And you?”

Joe: “Really good, thanks!”

Learner Mistake #1: Of course, in time, they’ll get the feel as to when not to use it. For example, they wouldn’t say it to the same person every time they saw him or her at work or school in the same day. Too, if something’s urgent, it’s common sense that greetings be kept to a minimum.

Learner Mistake #2: This doesn’t usually replace the standard more formal introduction of meeting someone for the first time. Normally, in North America, this would be done with a handshake, a smile, and a “Nice to meet you,”  “It’s good to meet you,” or a more formal “Pleased to meet you.” There are more; we can leave it at that or go on, depending on the learner level and need.

Learner Mistake #3: This greeting is NOT an invite for the other person to share how they are actually doing. In English, the greeting we’re talking about is equivalent to “Hi,” but done the right way.

At the same token, they need to know that if someone greets them this way, they also don’t tell them exactly how they’re doing. It’s just a greeting, so they can simply say: “Great, thanks. And you?” To the English speakers’ minds they are easy to get along with (in this instance) and help make for a brighter day. These things lead to success. This wins native English speakers’ hearts.

Learner Mistake #4: When they really need to talk to someone about how they’re doing, then that’s another conversation. They don’t want do this, though, in this everyday greeting scenario.



Yes, learners need to smile EVERY time they greet someone.

If they don’t smile when they say the above greeting, they will sound insincere or possibly even scary. Get them winning native English speaking hearts by smiling while they greet!

Learner  Mistake: Now this is not a fake smile that can have the opposite affect, making people uncomfortable and wish they never smiled! This also might take some time to develop. That brings us to our next step.


How to Connect With Native SpeakersSTEP 3. SMILE WITH THE EYES

Yes, learners need to genuinely smile with kindness from within.

If they need help working on this one, they can think of something that’s really cute and makes them feel warm and cozy, like cute puppies. That will get that glint in their eyes they need to be ‘real,’ to have a genuine smile and win the hearts of native English speakers, even subconsciously. They can do this!

How To? Use a mirror. They can practice greeting themselves in the mirror! They want that nice smile in their eyes. They need to make it sincere, and make it genuine. They can even video record themselves. They don’t need to worry if it’s hard at first. Anything new and contrary to our custom must be hard at first. This is a sign they’re on the right track.

Tip: Are they aware they can ‘hear’ a smile over the phone? Yes, indeed! So if they are genuinely smiling, it will show everywhere.

Check out the audio. Can your learners tell in which greeting I’m smiling?


Learner Mistake #1: They need to know not to smile like Ronald MacDonald (or like a clown). That just makes them seem crazy. Learners need to balance being themselves, yet forcing themselves to become native English in culture. They can be told: “Be you, but a new you … in English.” (By the way, are your learners aware that being English in culture affects even their accent and pronunciation? Yes, it’s true!)

Learner Mistake #2: “I don’t want to change into English culture (or accent) because I’ll lose who I am, my own identity.” You know what? Learners need to now that they NEVER have to lose their mother tongue culture or identity. I personally would prefer they didn’t. They use the culture of a language when they’re in that language or culture.

Just as I mentioned before when I was my English self in France French, it just . didn’t . work. There was a major disconnect. So I had to flip it around and try my best to meet their cultural needs while communicating with them. The minute I arrived home, I was back to my good ol’ English self and greeting people the way I’m used to in English. This is and add-on skill, not a take-away of their cultural identity.

There are so more things they can do culturally to connect with native English speakers, like small talk (yes, this works even though they may not like it), and saying “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” just about everywhere, but for now, this is a GREAT start. Of course, if their level is higher then you can escalate the challenge to meet their acculturation training needs.

Learners need to know: “Does it take work? Does it feel REALLY weird and uncomfortable at first?” YES. Once more I will say: Yes! They want to look for that. This is a sign that they’re working well with English culture and dropping their mother tongue cultural self.


Their Job

Can they apply at least ONE of the three steps today? If they can’t meet a native English speaker in their daily routine, they can at least enact it and start visualizing and practicing how they’re going to communicate in a new, culturally connected way.

I can’t wait to hear from you on how your learners have applied these three steps. As a recap they are Step 1) Greet with “Hi, how are you?”, Step 2) Smile while greeting, and Step 3) Smile with the eyes.

Tell me, please,

How did one or all three of the steps help your learners? 

  • Which ones do they wish to employ right away?
  • In what situations do they visualize themselves using these new steps?
  • In what ways do you envision using this material to enrich your learners’ English lives and success?

Important: Share your thoughts and ideas directly in the comments below.

Thank you for reading all the way down to this page. I SINCERELY hope your learners will find more and more skill in connecting with native English speakers.

Do you know anyone else who could benefit from this article? Someone like yourself, a learner, or a traveller to another country? Pass this along to them. Share the joy, share the love.

Best wishes for success (as I know it’ll be).


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2 Responses

  • Mingi Bodine

    Learning a new language including learning a new culture. The more one is committed to both, the better learning experience one will have. Your example and insight are important reminder for all language teachers and students who desire a total success in their target language. Being a language and inter-culture trainer/coach myself, I find Camilla's 3 questions for language learners to ask themselves very helpful: 1.What steps am I putting into practice well right now, 2.What steps am I NOT putting into practice, or 3.What steps could be improved? Thank you for sharing your insight!


  • Camilla Smith

    Thank you, Mingi, for your comment. Keep up your excellent work with students and feel free to share how any of those 3 points/questions are helping them. Kind regards, Camilla