I will specify that people born into bilingual families do not count. It must be someone who started learning the language after childhood (where one's susceptibility to language is virtually cheating).

Can someone who learns Japanese, say, with English as their native language be completely (not nearly) natural in both mannerisms, speech, etc., to be perfectly indistinguishable from a native speaker's POV? Meaning, if a Japanese person were to converse with this person on the phone using all colloquialisms and idioms, one would never get the faintest feeling that something was "off" about them?

I'm curious if any major studies have been conducted which examine something like this. It is frequently found that people who have dedicated their life to intensive study and immersion still find themselves occasionally lost in a conversation in that language.

Thank you.

  • I expect such a question has been asked before: have you looked? – Mathieu Bouville Apr 17 at 6:54
  • I see tons of people on a daily basis that have better understanding of English comparing to average native speaker. They might have an "American" accent, but American accent is not a requirement for being an English speaker (or English scholar for that matter). – CoderInNetwork Apr 17 at 21:49
  • @CoderinNetwork That isn't the question though. One can have a better understanding of English, but if a native can spot you as an outsider just from your choice of words, vocal habits, etc., this is not truly native. – Sermo Apr 17 at 21:51
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    Well to be honest I am not clear about your definition and objective. You may be an Aussie and an American will find you an outsider regardless. Does it me you are not a native speaker? – CoderInNetwork Apr 17 at 21:53
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    The wording is clear, but (as Michaelyus notes) the concepts are not, and I'll add that the frame is not either. What would you learn from a study finding (despite vague concepts) that it's possible, or what would you learn from the lack of such a study? When actually setting out to learn a language, these questions become immaterial. The concept of idiolect alone makes the implicit goal questionable. Native speakers don't really speak that similarly across all components of a language nor do they share judgements about them all. The main one they seem to agree on is accent... and even then... – Luke Sawczak Apr 23 at 12:38

This question is of course a very well-studied one, but with a very important caveat that is revealed in the wording of your question: "Native Level" is a poorly defined concept.

But you do refer to what is called the critical period hypothesis, which breaks down into several maturational constraints, which limit how well language learning proceeds, some of which are linked to age. However, that 2002 study specifically mentions:

...learners who have been identified as indistinguishable from native speakers characteristically exhibit non‐native features that are unperceivable except in detailed and systematic linguistic analyses.

Here we find a (tacit?) admission that it is very much a judgement call, made by social convention of an already defined group of speakers, as to what variation is deemed "acceptable". It has been argued that this may be an idealisation of a standard language, and hence there is no "fundamental difference" between the potential of child learners and adult learners.

This of course is something that chimes in with the experience of those who do have contact with highly multilingual environments: competent "native-like proficiency" is attainable and sometimes even unremarkable, even for those who have passed the various critical periods.

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