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Success tip: The importance of speaking proper English

18 June 2011

A few months ago after giving a presentation I was approached by a young man of Asian ethnicity seeking career advice. This is quite a common experience and I am always happy to answer questions if I can. After a few minutes of conversation I asked the young man if he had been born in Britain which he confirmed. I then shocked him by asking "If you were born in Britain, and have lived here all your life, why do you speak English with an Asian accent?"

Nobody had ever asked him that question before. However I care more about helping someone who asks me for advice than I care about whether I might upset them.

The point I made to him is that, other things being equal, you will succeed far more in life if you speak English which is perfectly correct grammatically and which shows no trace of a foreign accent, and preferably no strong regional accent. Proper spoken English instantly marks you out as a highly educated person whose views and opinions are to be taken seriously. If you look at the top people in our society, senior corporate executives, senior professionals, government ministers etc. they almost all speak what one would regard as proper English. That applies regardless of their ethnicity.

Speaking proper English will change the way that everyone interacts with you, ranging from your employer to shop assistants.

There are a few occupations where the quality of your English would appear not to matter. For example footballers and athletes succeed based on what they do, not what they say. However even for those careers your ability to garner highly paying sponsorships is significantly improved if you interview well and thereby enhance your media profile.

Accordingly, speaking proper English makes you more likely to succeed in life.

How can you improve your spoken English?

As with the young man of Asian ethnicity mentioned earlier, your spoken English may have suffered from spending too much time with people who themselves do not speak proper English. All of us naturally tend to adopt the speech that we hear all the time around us.

Accordingly you need to increase the proportion of time during which you are listening to proper English. Fortunately there is a very easy way of achieving this.

Many years ago I received my first clock radio as a wedding present. Ever since then it has been my habit to:

  1. Wake up to BBC Radio 4 as my radio alarm.
  2. Continue listening to BBC Radio 4 in the dining room during breakfast and while shaving. This needs a separate radio (unless the room has a satellite TV since Sky TV gives you Radio 4).

Repeated day after day and year after year, an hour or so of listening to the high-quality spoken English of Radio 4 will transform your spoken English. As a by-product it will also enhance your knowledge of current affairs.

Other countries

Exactly the same logic applies if you live in countries like France, Germany, Denmark etc. The only standard of speaking you should accept is when you speak the language exactly the same as a highly educated native speaker of that language, with no trace of a foreign accent. I am not sufficiently familiar to recommend specific radio programmes in other countries!

Improving your written English

While not directly relevant to the main heading, I thought it might be helpful to share my suggestions for how to improve one's written English.

The single most important aid is to read large amounts of high quality English text. The written English in "The Economist" is very good, and reading it also has other benefits. It also helps to read high quality fiction such as the 19'th century English language classics by authors such as Charles Dickens, or indeed Penguin Classics' translations of great foreign writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.


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