As someone who speaks English as a second language, I’ve recently started asking myself what it means to speak good English. Using big words may impress people, but does that really make one well-spoken?
I recall watching an interview with former first lady Laura Bush a while ago. A particular phrase she used during the interview stayed with me. Explaining that she reads e-books by making the font bigger, she added, “now that I am at a certain age,” alluding to her age-related presbyopia . In that small statement, she brought up the issue of her eyesight deteriorating without being direct or using convoluted words– what an elegant way to express oneself!
Think about how often you have to turn to large words when you speak in your mother tongue. In your daily life, or even when you speak in front of an audience at work or in school, you don't jam-pack the conversation with advanced vocabulary. In fact, if your speech is convoluted, someone might call you out and ask you to “speak plainly, so that I can wrap my head around what you’re getting at!” Rather than relying too much on fancy vocabulary, it is sometimes better to choose simple words to clearly get your point across.
Now, consider how much time and effort it takes for a person to reach native proficiency in their first language. I have used Korean my entire life by way of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, all the while learning from my mistakes. In fact, we become native speakers by making and correcting countless mistakes. With all those years of effort, it is still difficult to be a well-spoken individual. Then, can you imagine what it would take to be well-spoken in a second language? It’s often difficult to find the exact word you’re looking for when speaking in your mother tongue. Imagine how much harder it is in a second language.
So, this is to all my English learners: just because it’s difficult, it doesn’t mean you should give up. It can feel like a long, arduous journey. And while we were expected to make mistakes as children learning our first language, making mistakes as a grown-up can hurt. Instead of beating yourself up for not speaking perfectly, whatever that means, why not just enjoy the learning process? Accurate grammar and having a large vocabulary are not the be-all-end-all . Instead, focus on how you can leverage grammar and vocabulary to express yourself more efficiently.