Perfect Pronunciation

Many Finns have been taught English at school in a rather curious way: the teacher insisted that they speak perfectly or not at all. I don’t know where this method comes from, but it’s not the right way to teach a language. Such a demand just makes people scared to talk. And this, of course, sabotages any attempt to communicate.

“Correct” English pronunciation is often considered to be what we call “received pronunciation”, or RP. This could be loosely defined as the way the British Royal Family or BBC newsreaders speak and is a standard form of English that everybody can understand. It is often taught to non-native learners, both children (at school) and adults alike. Yet barely three per cent of the native-English speaking population around the world talk this way. It’s only one of 160 different English accents.

English is not unique in this. Most languages that are spoken over a wide geographical area develop their own regional idiosyncrasies and have a standard form that is taught to learners. In my own experience, my Swedish is good enough that I can tell the difference between the Swedish spoken in Finland and the standard Swedish spoken in Sweden. My passive knowledge of Finnish is pretty good, but only when it’s spoken clearly, like they do in news bulletins on Yle (the Finnish version of the BBC). I often have problems with regional Finnish accents, as even in this small population of five and half million, they can vary a lot around the country.

Accents are, in large part, a variation in pronunciation. Everybody knows the standard pronunciation, but the listener must concentrate harder to follow an accent, because they’re not used to hearing it. Accents usually become easier to understand over time, but a strong accent at a conference, on a phone call, or in a business meeting might not be enough time for the average listener to get used to it. So, interactions become more difficult and misunderstandings are more likely.

One type of misunderstanding is unintended humour. I’ve often heard Finns say “It’s nice to pee here” (It’s nice to be here) in a business presentation. A former girlfriend used to say “I always eat my wet stubbles” (I always eat my vegetables). There’s nothing wrong with this – humour is perfectly fine with trivial topics, and sometimes helps to break the ice. It can be embarrassing if it’s unexpected, but generally speaking, this is not a problem.

But what happens when you’re negotiating a business deal, or you’re a doctor instructing an English-speaking patient, or you’re a police officer talking with an English-speaking suspect? If you don’t understand each other, the consequences could be very serious.

However, unless you learned English as a child, it’s hard to speak without an accent. If this is you, DON’T PANIC.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking in an accent. As we established earlier, most native English speakers don’t speak RP and have their own regional accents. So don’t worry if you have your own accent based around the pronunciation habits of your native language. Your accent is not the issue. You don’t have to be paranoid about perfect pronunciation – just talk. Get the words out.

What you do have to worry about is understanding. Can people understand what you’re saying? I don’t recommend asking, “Do you understand how I talk?” They probably wouldn’t answer that question anyway because it’s personal – it reflects on both your speaking skill and their listening ability. Instead, you can check with them by asking questions about your content. As long as they understand your key terms and your basic ideas, it doesn’t matter if your pronunciation is not perfect. Nobody’s is.

If you’re truly worried about how you speak, ask a trusted friend for their opinion. Go to an English class and practice. Look at RP as a template, but don’t feel you have to copy it exactly. It’s just a guide – it points you in the right direction, and there are many ways (accents) to get there.

I say again: you don’t have to be perfect. You can talk with an accent. Check understanding and feel confident that you are getting your message across.