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“Life is a foreign language: all men mispronounce it.”
— Christopher Morley (1890-1957), American author and journalist
What qualifies as “perfect” English pronunciation? Is perfect pronunciation essential for having compelling conversations in English? How can English language learners struggling with pronunciation communicate effectively at their skill level?
Some English students make learning English even more difficult by expecting themselves to speak “perfectly”, with no accent just like “a real native English speaker.” In my opinion, achieving this noble goal is both very difficult – especially for adult learners – and often unwise.
Which standards are we using, anyway?
For starters, which pronunciation standards are we using, anyway? People across the United States – Boston, New York, Minnesota, Atlanta, and California – all have slightly different pronunciation patterns. When I walk down the Santa Monica Promenade or visit Venice Beach, I can hear an astonishing range of accents – and languages. (For a more global perspective, check out the outstanding website Sound Comparisons for English accents around the world.) Further, British, Australian, Indian and Nigerian pronunciations frequently vary from their American counterparts too. Listening to the news for an hour on the BBC confirms this. Does any American English teacher want to claim that the BBC mispronounces “schedule” or “vitamin?”
Bottomline? Accents are not a reliable indicator of language proficiency. Consider the many famous immigrants with strong native accents that have built lives and careers in the English-speaking world. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, speaks with an Austrian accent – and he’s been extraordinarily successful as a film star and a popular political leader. (Schwarzenegger served two terms as California’s Governor.)
Remember: being understood matters most. Therefore, instead of perfect English pronunciation, I suggest focusing more on clear, natural speech. Whether at school or work, people want to hear you and will usually make reasonable efforts to understand your words and thoughts.
Practice makes progress
Yet sometimes weak English pronunciation may reduce a listener’s ability to understand. In this case, practice makes progress, not perfect. Here are a few practical suggestions to improve your English pronunciation:
- Open the mouth a little wider to make vowel sounds.
- Speak more slowly.
- Practice saying the last sounds in words, such as lunch, gives, and locked.
- Contrast similar and different sounds with minimal pairs like pick/pack and tip/trip
I also highly recommend the Voices of America (VOA) article Keep Your Identity While Changing Your Accent for further accent advice. This informative piece highlights some practical accent modification methods while emphasizing that students can improve their English pronunciation without sacrificing their cultural identities.
Of course, you also want to understand other English speakers too. However, sometimes outside noises make it difficult to hear; sometimes people speak faster than we would like, and sometimes we just get a bit confused. Whatever the reason, it’s important to let a speaker know when you have lost track of their words.
So, what can you do if you don’t understand someone else’s speech? Many native English speakers ask their conversation partners to clarify and repeat words or sentences. Don’t be shy; you too can ask someone to repeat a phrase whenever you do not understand something. Try using these helpful phrases:
- Would you say that again, please?
- Could you repeat that?
- Please speak more slowly.
- Pardon me?
- Sorry, I didn’t hear you.
- I didn’t catch your meaning.
- Could you repeat that?
- I’m lost. What do you mean?
- I’m confused. What did you say?
- Could you clarify that?
Almost everyone will politely respond, speak slower, and try to use simpler words so you can follow the conversation more easily.
Don’t let perfectionism silence you!
Ultimately, fluency is a better friend to conversation than accuracy. To quote a famous postmodern design principle, “form follows function” and language is, above all else, a form of expression. So, give yourself permission to speak more English – and don’t let perfectionism silence you! When your goal is clear, comprehensible speech, you open yourself up to a wider audience and pave the way for more compelling conversations.
What are your personal standards for own English pronunciation? What are your standards for others’ pronunciation? Which do you consider more important: being understood or being technically proficient? Share your thoughts in the comments!