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Do I need a perfect English accent?

In my last post I wrote about people who have reached C2 in speaking and who want to push beyond this. One of the language areas that these learners could still improve is pronunciation as for some reason, this very important skill is often taught far less than the other core skills. In my opinion, the extent to which a person should work on their pronunciation is personal and depends on the individual situation. What is a ‘perfect’ English accent?

Before you read any further, I invite you to get a pen and a bit of paper and take 30 seconds to write down all the different English accents there are in the world. Seriously, do it.

How many accents are on your list? Two or three? Five, perhaps? Would you be surprised to learn that there are 160 distinct English accents in the world? That’s a lot, right? So….. how do you decide which one is perfect? Are all of them perfect or is one more perfect than the others? Who decides which accent is the most perfect? Clearly, this is impossible. A ‘perfect’ accent doesn’t really exist. My own accent is not perfect. In fact, my dad often criticises how I speak (he doesn’t like my glottal stops, if you really want to know!). If I am a native speaker with imperfect pronunciation, where does that leave you as a non-native speaker? I am labouring this point because I have met many English students who tell me that they want a ‘perfect’ accent. This is like me saying I want to have a perfect business or a perfect relationship with my boyfriend. It simply isn’t possible, and when we try and force ourselves to be ‘perfect’, we create a whole lot of frustration, tension and unhappiness.

Why pronunciation is important

It should be clear that I do not believe that you need to have perfect pronunciation. For me, the main goal for most English language students should be to speak clearly and to be understandable. However, pronunciation is important. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, pronunciation is often neglected, meaning that it is possible to be a C2 level English user but still have considerable problems with things like joining the words up or using stress correctly.

Beyond C2, you may want to challenge yourself to go a little deeper. In the same way as being able to use highly advanced grammar structures allows you to express finer shades of meaning, the more developed your pronunciation skills are, the more subtleties you will be able to convey in your speaking. And for some high-level English users, native-speaker like pronunciation might be a goal worth working towards.

Do YOU need to achieve native-speaker like pronunciation?

If I am honest, I always worry when a student tells me they want to sound like a native speaker because I know how challenging this goal is to reach. I always wonder about the beliefs this student has about themselves and their accent. I have met students who told me that they hate their accent and they feel ashamed of it. For me, this is a big sign that this student has some limiting beliefs about themselves that might need to be explored.

English users who live in an English speaking country often feel the need to blend in. You may be asked about your origins, which might feel charming at first but can become fairly tedious if you have been living in your host country for several years! In this situation, I would want to work on helping the student manage the difficult feelings that this kind of conversation can trigger, as reaching native-speaker like pronunciation takes a long time. If you want to achieve native-speaker like proficiency overall, you will need to develop your English accent and reduce your first language accent. This will mean becoming completely familiar with the different sounds in English (remember that different English accents will use different sounds so you’d need to choose the most appropriate accent for you) and practising until you can produce these accurately in natural conversation. You will likely also need to work on stress and intonation as well as connected speech.

Of course, you could be living in an English speaking country and feel proud of your accent and the cultural roots it shows to other people. And this is absolutely fine! I love hearing different accents in English as I feel it brings colour and variety to the language. Ultimately, the only person who can decide how far to develop your pronunciation skills is you. You need to check in with what feels right for you and go from there.

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