This made me think. Would it be possible to claim that someone spoke perfect, grammatically flawed, English? I don’t think so. Could you describe someone as speaking perfect English with inaccuracies in vocabulary? Again, I don’t think so.
How, then, is it that someone can speak perfect English, but with mistakes in pronunciation?
Why is it that ‘perfection’ tolerates L1 interference in phonetics, but not in grammar or vocabulary?
Supporters of the communicative approach to language teaching, and followers of Jennifer Jenkins and her ideas on the phonology of English as a Lingua Franca, would probably say that an insistence on native-speaker-like phonetics is irrelevant. All that matters is that you should be understood.
(But you may have seen the reports of the trial that had to be abandoned, wasting £25,000, because the interpreter's pronunciation of the word beaten was mistaken for bitten by the jury.)
No doubt the reason we tolerate some L1 interference in pronunciation is that our articulatory habits tend to be fossilized once the critical period for language acquisition has passed. We’re not good at acquiring the motor control needed to articulate a new language in a native-like way. Lexis, on the other hand, merely needs to be learnt, and we all — native speakers included — continue to extend our vocabulary throughout our lives. Grammatical ability has some similarity to doing mathematics: you just have to learn the rules and then apply them. On the whole, good adult language learners can manage this.
But this general picture isn’t valid for everyone. Thinking about my own case, I realize that I can speak German pretty fluently and with (I think) virtually native-like pronunciation. But my vocabulary range is severely limited compared with that of a NS, and I am conscious of many grammatical shortcomings, e.g. relating to the gender of nouns. (Petr Rösel, aka Kraut, can attest to whether or not this is an accurate assessment of my abilities in his language.)
I wouldn’t describe myself as speaking ‘perfect’ German. In terms of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages I don’t think I could honestly claim to be beyond B1 level.
Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.But at least I can pronounce it well.
Language ability isn’t just a matter of getting the pronunciation, the grammar and the vocabulary right. You also need to know what to say and in what circumstances: communicative ability and cultural knowledge.
I wonder if Mr Lebedev’s English really is at level C2.
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.— except for the pesky matter of pronouncing it in a native-like way.