Don’t Let Perfectionism Silence You!

Some English students make learning English even more difficult by expecting themselves to speak “perfect”, with “no accent” just like ” a real native English speaker.” May I suggest that this noble goal is both very difficult to achieve – especially for adults – and often even unwise.

First, what is perfect American pronunciation? People across the country – Boston, New York, Minnosota, Atlanta, and California – all have slightly different pronunciation patterns. So which standards are we using? (For a more global perspective, check out the outstanding website Sound Comparisons for English accents around the world.)

Let me emphasize this point for ESL students who remain pronunciation perfectionists. How many Americans living in California today actually fit that stereotype? When I walk down the Santa Monica Promenade or visit Venice Beach, I can hear an astonishing range of accents (and languages). So what’s wrong with having an accent, anyway? Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks with an accent – and he’s been extraordinarily successful as a film star and a popular political leader. (Schwarzenegger served two terms as California’s Governor.)

A better goal is to speak English in a clear, natural way, so that listeners will understand your words and ideas. Remember: speakers of English have many different accents, especially in the United States. Therefore, focus more on clear, natural speech, rather than on achieving some perfect pronunciation. Being understood by your listeners is what matters most. Whether at school or work, people want to hear you and will make a reasonable effort to understand your words and thoughts. You also want your listeners to understand you when you speak English.

So 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.

You want to be clear and comprehensible, not perfect in your pronunciation.

Of course, you also want to understand other English speakers too. What can you do if you don’t understand someone’s speech?  You can also always ask someone to repeat any word or phrase that you do not understand. 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.

Many native English speakers ask conversation partners to clarify and repeat words or sentence. Don’t be shy. You can ask someone to repeat a phrase whenever they 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 more easily follow the conversation. So give yourself permission to speak more English and don’t let perfectionism silence you.


  1. I’ve seen many students held back by perfectionism. Students need to realize that English speakers, in general, are not that demanding on foreign speakers. Most people are willing to tolerate mistakes in order to help others learn.

  2. Mark – Thank you for emphasizing that “Most speakers are willing to tolerate mistakes in order to help others learn.” This crucial point, for whatever reason, often gets overlooked. Adopting a “learn by doing” approach often improves both the quality of your English and your experience living in the United States.

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