Close Enough Isn’t Good Enough

My Dad was an immigrant. He was a 23-year old Freedom Fighter during the Hungarian Revolution of ’56 when an opportunity to escape the country presented itself. Not long after, he found himself in the U.S. as a refugee, starting over in a new land. He didn’t speak a word of English, had nothing but the clothes on his body, the ability to work hard with his hands, and a triple dose of Magyar pride.

Not formally educated, he spent his life here working longs hours, repairing cars, to provide for his family. My three siblings and I often speak fondly of the work ethic deeply ingrained in our DNA because of Dad.

While you couldn’t find a prouder naturalized U.S. citizen, he simply wasn’t overly concerned with refining his command of the English language. Dad had his own special way of speaking, creating words and phrases that suited his painfully “pun”-ish sense of humor. It was common to see him with an impish grin, as we rolled our eyes and groaned at something he coined for a chuckle.

For example, he called his knees, “nephews”. Why? Because the word “knees” sounded to him like the word “niece”. So nephews they were!

That was on purpose, of course. But then there were words he mangled because the pronunciation was challenging for him. Like, “Royce Roy” was his version of “Rolls-Royce”. Early on we’d try to help out and correct him, but he’d usually just say… “Ah, close enough!” We’d smile, shake our heads and, eventually, incorporate it into our unique family vocabulary.

For him, close enough was good enough. And you know, it WAS good enough for a hard-working, blue collar immigrant, living in a small town. It was part of his playful character.

But what about you? If English is your second language and you’re working in corporate USA, maybe close enough isn’t quite good enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m completely in awe and super respectful of folks who learn to speak a second language (or more!). Even with all the trips to visit relatives abroad, I understand only a little Hungarian, and I speak even less. It’s NOT easy, regardless of whether or not it’s by choice.

With that said, ask yourself… Is “close enough” potentially getting in the way of my career here in the U.S.? Could it be preventing you from being selected to lead that high-visibility project, being awarded that overdue promotion, getting that new job you interviewed for, or perhaps some other professional opportunity?

If you suspect that any of those might be even partially true, consider these suggestions:

  1. Pay attention to reactions you get from others when you speak. Are there certain words or sounds that folks have trouble understanding? Do people ask you to repeat yourself a lot? Do they sometimes give up, smile and nod, instead of responding appropriately? Which words or sounds tend to trip them up? Keep a log and notice any patterns that emerge.
  2. Ask for feedback on your communication; your accent, your pronunciation, your vocabulary. Try asking general, open-ended questions at first. Then specific ones as you learn more about what needs work. Which words or sounds could you improve upon?
  3. Take the information you’ve gathered and practice. Record yourself speaking out loud and listen back. Try recording a few phrases from a radio or television program, then record yourself saying the same things.Where could you improve your accent, your pacing?
  4. Add one new English word to your vocabulary each day. There are Word-of-the-Day desk calendars, or try the Word of the Day: Learn English app for your phone. You may want to focus on words specific to your role or industry. Incorporate the new words into your conversations and presentations right away and keep using them to commit them to memory. In just one year, you’ll have mastered 365 new words!
  5. Join a local Toastmasters club. Those who know me well, know I’m a huge advocate of Toastmasters, for everyone. And if English is your second language, there’s no better place to receive specific, relevant, developmental feedback on your speaking and presentation skills, in a fun, supportive environment. Find and visit local chapters near you for free:

Indeed, it takes time and commitment to make a noticeable difference. Start today, and before you know it, you’ll make that shift from “close enough” to “hitting the mark”.