Let me be honest with you: over the past few year, I’ve realized how important it is for non-native English speakers to stop focusing on perfection.
As a recovering perfectionist myself, I’ve had to learn to ignore and let go of the impossible goal of sounding just like a native speaker in Spanish in order to achieve my real objective: communicating clearly and truly connecting in conversation.
Rather than stressing out about avoiding mistakes entirely and wasting energy on doing things exactly right, I want you to understand that natural English is not actually perfect English.
In fact, native English speakers often make mistakes, hesitate, retract ideas, or rephrase what they just said.
For that reason, it’s important for you to understand, learn, and use conversation strategies in order to communicate using real, natural English.
By speaking confidently, comfortably and fluently, you’ll end up expressing yourself even better in English.
As a result, your listeners will be focused more on your meaning than anything else.
Wait a second, Kim, you may be saying. If this is the case, we can just forget about accuracy when speaking, right?
Not so fast.
Why You Should Fine-Tune Your English
While communicating your meaning clearly should always be your top priority, once you move past the intermediate level of English, you want to be sure to clean up the mistakes that you’re making.
But why is this?
When you speak English at an advanced or even fluent level, you’ll start noticing that people start trusting that you understand everything they say.
This is often quite a relief, because listening skills actually come before speaking skills and you no longer have to reassure people that you understand them. 🙂
But you also need to keep in mind that achieving this level of authority in English means that people will assume you mean everything you say and are communicating exactly what it is you want to say.
While they might recognize that English isn’t your first language and that you speak with an accent, communicating at a high level means that your words count as much as those of a native English speaker.
When you choose the wrong word or make a mistake as a result of interference from your native language, that can lead to a misunderstanding.
While usually these errors aren’t super serious, you want to avoid them.
After all, you’ve worked so hard to speak with authority, so now you want to maintain that confidence!
In addition, when your overall English is nearly flawless and you confidently use advanced language, those little tiny mistakes end up being that much more noticeable.
When I hear a fluent English learner use know instead of meet on a regular basis, I start paying attention.
If we always hear someone pronounce “hotel” or “university” with the wrong word stress, we notice, each and every time.
And that’s when it can actually distract from your meaning.
Of course, you deserve credit for your mastery of a second (or third!) language, but that doesn’t mean you’re done learning English and can stop fixing bad habits you learned as a beginning speaker.
Instead, I’d like you to see this article as an invitation to up-level your English.
By fine-tuning these common mistakes that you picked up when you first started speaking English, you are actually affirming how much progress you’ve made.
Taking the time to correct these bad habits will ensure you feel more confident when speaking and allow you to focus your energy on more advanced conversation skills.
Start By Fixing These Common Mistakes
Remember, don’t feel bad if you’re making these mistakes. I’ve met completely fluent English learners who make these mistakes; in fact, they inspired the lessons!
- Get your number stress right. We use numbers all the time!
- Learn how to pronounce common words like chocolate, interesting, comfortable, vegetable, and important.
- Make sure you understand how word stress works, especially for words you use all the time in professional settings.
- Learn how to use participial adjectives correctly and choose correctly between the -ed and -ing endings.
- While you’re at it, make sure you’re pronouncing the -ed ending correctly.
- Since we often talk about activities that we do on a regular basis (and it’s a great way to start a conversation), figure out how to use the present perfect continuous to talk about your hobbies, work, and other activities.
- Master collocations that are commonly used in conversation like go +ing, do + noun, and play + noun. For example, native English speakers don’t ever say “go to shop,” and “practice soccer” may be grammatically correct, but it actually doesn’t sound that natural.
- If you’re speaking American English, be sure to use singular verbs after collective nouns like family, group, and team.
- Refresh your memory on how to use articles correctly. I know they’re frustrating, but you can fine-tune the most common mistakes. For example, stop using “a” and “an” with commonly confused noncount nouns, and use “the” when describing familiar places in a town.
- Finally understand when you should use gerunds and infinitives. Because they are so common, using them well can make a serious difference in how you sound when speaking.
- Similarly, be sure you’re expressing your desires correctly by distinguishing the difference between “hope” and “wish.”
- Learn the connotations, or word associations, for similar words so that you can choose the best fit for the situation or your meaning. For example, when discussing change, find the verb most suited to what you’re trying to express.
- Last but not least, pay attention to the words that you hear all the time in conversation and start to use them instead. This helps show your mastery of conversational English and makes your meaning more relatable.
How to Make the Changes Last
Now that we’ve identified quite a few ways that you can fine-tune your English, it’s time to change the way you speak.
As the saying goes, step one is admitting that you have a problem, but step two is actually doing something about it.
How do you stop making these common mistakes?
It’s as simple as changing your mindset, but as you probably know if you’ve ever started an exercise program, began a meditation practice, or tried a new diet, changing habits takes work.
As I’ve mentioned, these bad habits can often be traced back to when you first started learning English.
You very first language teachers back home may have made these mistakes and inadvertently taught them to you.
After all, most of the mistakes I mention are a result of interference from your native language.
For this reason, you have to convince yourself that the way you’re used to speaking isn’t actually correct. This takes work.
This means you need to pay extra attention to your target error every single time that you speak and notice what you’re doing.
You have to stop yourself each and every time you say it incorrectly and correct yourself.
This can be the hardest part.
To achieve your goal, repeat the correct pronunciation or use to yourself again and again, as if it were an affirmation.
You have to unlearn the bad habit and replace it with the correct use. It’s a process of retraining your brain! (This is what I teach in my accent reduction programs.)
After repeating and repeating again and again, you’ll start to remember how the expression, collocation, or pronunciation actually sounds in natural English.
Remember, many people choose to accept or even ignore their mistakes. That’s okay too.
That said, I’ve found that most learners feel more confident when they are able to get closer to their ideal of near-native English.
If you set your mind to fixing these mistakes and commit to consistent practice, you will absolutely sound more natural, more professional, and more fluent.
Now it’s your turn! Which of these common mistakes are you committed to working on first?
Are there any errors that you’re making that you’d like some help fixing? Just leave a comment below and I’ll see what I can do!