When you start out learning English, there are lots of instructors, teachers, & coaches out there guiding you through the journey. You have a whole system that helps you achieve predesigned goals such as certain marks for IETLS, TOEFL, SAT, ACT, etc. When you reach a higher level, however, there’s not much guidance & mentorship available. People think you’re ‘perfect’ or ‘too good’ already, since you can speak English, your pronunciation well enough, and you can express your ideas well. As a result, you’re left alone wondering what to do next. Because you know deep down inside, there’s still room for growth and improvement. In this post I talk about the top 3 mistakes non-native speakers at your level make and how to avoid them.
Trap 1: Assuming you’ve reached your limits, a.k.a the ‘English Communication Glass Ceiling’
So you can speak and express your ideas at meetings and discussions. You can manage a casual conversation in English well. Your pronunciation, though you mispronounce a few words here and there, is clear and understandable. Seems like there’s nothing left to be learnt or accomplished!? The fact that there’s not much resources & mentorship for your level of English seems to confirm that.
Enters what I call the ‘English Communication Glass Ceiling’…
Similar to what some (women) experience in the workplace, the glass ceiling in English Communication is compiled with myths & cultural perceptions that are invisible yet prevent lots of non-native speakers reaching higher levels in their English communication. They are conditioned to think they’ve reaches their limits in their ability of using the English language to communicate.
Now just because you haven’t found anyone talking about this doesn’t mean that you’ve reached your limits. Just because you’ve reached a score in IELTS or TOEFL that everyone admires doesn’t mean you can’t advance yourself even more. Or sometimes you feel like you’ve reached your glass ceiling and although you know your English is not the best, you believe you don’t have the talent in learning languages to improve your English Communication any more.
I’m here to assure you, there’s always room for improvement & growth. For example, can you advance your word choices to communicate your message even more effectively and persuasively? Or maybe exercise to strengthen your voice so you can talk in meetings or host a workshop for hours without getting tired and damaging your voice? Or would you like to dive deeper into the pronunciation aspect so you can use your speaking to express your emotions?
How to avoid this: Simply by reading this post, you’re now aware that there’s potential growth in you. And it means there’s also work to be done – yay! Also, sometimes you think you’re happy with your English Communication level until you find out there are issues under the surface. An upper-intermediate client of mine thought her pronunciation is satisfactory until I had her do a few exercises that she realized her voice was not strong enough and why her pronunciation was not as good whenever she was tired or not focused. Remember, always remind yourself there’s room for growth and look for where you can improve it. I’m not suggesting you look for unnecessary holes but some mindfulness of your English Communication and honesty with yourself to admit where you’re still lacking will serve you in the long run.
Trap 2: You want everything to be perfect
This pitfall is the exact opposite of the one above. If the first one maintains that you think there’s nothing else to improve then this one says that you want to keep improving until you’re perfect.
Now there is nothing wrong with a growth mindset, but ‘perfect’ is such a dangerous word, because it seems so pretty, so ideal, and yet so daunting. You can think about reaching perfection all day and work hard for it and eventually getting disappointed by yourself. In English, some people have a tendency to want to speak perfectly, using the right word, pronouncing the right way, using the right idiom, and so forth on all occasions. They want to be speaking perfectly in every single way, every single situation.
If this is you, and you can, or have achieved this, then I congratulate you.
In most cases I’ve seen though, this is daunting for a couple of reasons. First, we can only approach but can never acquire perfection. The word itself connotes a meaning that you can’t accomplish it, just like an asymptote approaching but never touching the curve.
Yes I know it sounds daunting but let’s be realistic here. Have you ever achieved perfection?
It really depends on what perfection means to you. If it is doing the best you can, speaking the best you can in a given situation, then yes perfection is achievable. But if what you’re seeking after is an infinite perfection to the point that you are never satisfied with your performance, that you’re driven to always find every tiny fault to fret over, it’s more of a delusional ideal than a helpful reality.
How to avoid this trap: instead of thinking you need to improve or perfect everything, which will eventually overwhelm you, you can use the Pareto rule 80/20 to determine what is the 20% of all the things you need to do that brings about 80% of the transformation for your English Communication. This insight alone has helped me feel less overwhelmed and find the right approach to tackle the most urgent & significant problem areas in my English Communication.
Trap 3: Conflating speaking fluently with speaking fast
I’ve noticed in some people that sometimes they speak really fast. It can be because that’s their speaking manner (they speak fast in their native tongue too), because they have too many words to deliver in a short time, or want to show that they’re fluent.
Now if you speak fast & fluently, that’s awesome. Be cautious though, when other people don’t understand you. There are two possible reasons for this:
1) You speak too fast for even native speakers to understand you. This is hardly the case because if you see some shows like South Park or Rick & Morty they speak very fast, yet no one complains that they don’t understand what the characters are saying. Which increases the possibility for the second reason…
2) You ignore the rules of the sound of English
English has certain rules about how to speak and sound when you use the language. It’s a set of rules that most native speakers agree on and follow. Of course, each accent still has their own rules but we’re talking about the fundamentals that almost everyone shares. When you try to speak fast without knowing or following these rules, the sound of your English speech doesn’t strike as something similar with native speakers or other non-native folks.
To give you an example, some non-native speakers (who are even teachers) have been criticized before for teaching their students to say ‘bigame’ to link the two words ‘big’ and ‘game’ to sound faster and more fluent. Now if only they had known that in that case the Laws of Connect Speech don’t allow them to link the ending consonant of ‘big’ and beginning consonant of ‘game’ in that way because, they’d spoken more accurately!
How to avoid this: Try to speak a bit more slowly if your speaking manner is too fast. When you’re in doubt whether your fast speech is compromising your understandability, breathe, and slow down a bit so you can pronounce the words clearly. Also, don’t assume fluency with speaking fast. People tend to be appreciative of you when they can understand you. Fluency and a natural accent comes from knowing the rules of the Sound of English and where to take advantage of these rules to create your own rhythm and intonation without sounding too weird or confusing to people.
Now I’d like to hear about you.
Have you experienced the English Communication Glass Ceiling?
What is your #1 challenge right now in your English Communication?
Is there any other trap you know that people should be aware of?
Put your thoughts in the comment section below. I look forward to hearing from you!