Thoughts on managing expectations

Managing expectations

I remember working with a client some time ago who had become quite frustrated and unhappy. Our sessions were coming to an end, but the client hadn’t achieved what he’d expected to.

He had expected to transform his native accent into a Standard North American accent in eight weeks. I thought I’d been very clear, that it takes at least eight weeks for changes to even begin to take root.

Accent modification … accent management … call it whatever you like is a process. It’s important to be clear about what can be reasonably achieved in a given amount of time.

But prospective clients sometimes have ambitious ideas about outcomes. Massive change —­ instant results.

It was the first time that I had worked with a client in a general way, i.e., not working on a specific project. I had simply provided my rates. The client had paid for a number of hours. And off we went, with  no clear objective.

My client was not happy and it was a hard lesson for me. I admit I had wanted to be a “people pleaser.”

So how do we manage expectations and avoid misunderstandings?

Transparency

It’s important to have an honest conversation from the outset.

But how?

People are often ready and willing to talk about their goals. But it can be far more challenging to suss out needs. Frequently, the issue isn’t really a radical change to someone’s accent. In fact, it may not be about their accent at all. It may be about a communication style, their presentation or listening skills, vocabulary, vocal variety, body language, or simple (and not so simple) relationship-building skills.

So how do we go about getting to the heart of the matter?

Talk

Before you even begin working together:

  • Keep asking questions until you’ve exhausted the discussion.
  • Listen carefully and observe. Ask follow-up questions.
  • Clarify what the client hopes to accomplish.
  • Make it clear that the client must be prepared to do the work, and to work diligently and consistently.
  • Be honest about what you can and cannot provide
  • Make it clear that long-standing habits take a long time to correct. There are no quick fixes.
  • Be transparent about challenges and obstacles.
  • Set realistic deadlines with realistic deliverables.
  • Be prepared to walk away if you feel your client’s goals are unreasonable or you know you can’t help them.

It seems so obvious now. I wish I’d realized it back then, for my client’s sake and my own.

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And still more thoughts about essential English pronunciation

essential pronunciation4In my last blog, Still thinking about essential English pronunciation in 2019, I suggested that the one pronunciation challenge that united all students was sentence stress.

But without understanding how to create syllable stress, the speaker can’t create sentence stress.

We teachers have been trained to say “stress” is all about volume, length and pitch. But we need to watch out.

If someone were to ask me, “Are you going?” I could reply,  “I can’t,” with the “can’t” rising i can't1or falling    i can't2

Both might express the same regret or the simple statement that I’m not able to attend.

But in either version, the longer vowel and the louder volume indicate, unmistakably, that the focus is on the negative response.

Intonation (the movement of pitch up or down) does play a part. Pitch changes can be very effective. But they can be small, subtle and harder to hear.

So it’s important to concentrate on the length of the vowel and the volume of the entire syllable. These are consistent markers of stress, way easier to identify. They make the important sounds stand out.

And students need to remember which sounds are important.

That’s why I still love to use Judy Thompson’s Vowel Color Chart. I created a YouTube video about it sometime ago.

I called the episode, “An Easier Way to Learn English Vowels.” But now I think I should have called it, “An Easier Way to Learn English Word Stress.” And I always bring students/clients back to the Vowel Color Chart for reference. I’ll give you the link to my video at the end.

In a nutshell, vowel sounds are given specific colours. The system doesn’t bother to explain the way to shape the vowel sounds. It simply assumes that all speakers of English as an Additional Language are able to say the vowel sounds quite satisfactorily when they are contained within certain words. These words are the names of colours. The vowels become associated with these colours. And, by extension, the colour of the vowel of the stressed syllable in any given word determines the colour of the word.

Just by associating a colour with the most important word(s) in a sentence, the learner can remember which word(s) to stress. Colours “pop” out – just as volume and length “pop” out – differentiating … identifying … clarifying.

With the added dimension of colour, learners absorb the sensual aspect of the music of English, i.e., the appeal to all our senses: seeing the colour of the important syllable through the vowel sound it contains, hearing the accented syllable stand out, feeling the sound inside the mouth and connecting with the rhythm of the accented syllable and word in the body.

Teaching sounds with colours is potent. It can develop both speaking and listening skills. And, in some small measure, can be related to the power of the associations of synesthesia.

There’ve been many studies and articles written on the various forms of synesthesia, the feature that certain people have of instantly linking colours, words, tastes, sounds, numbers, etc. In a 2011 LiveScience blog (https://www.livescience.com/4633-people-common-letters-brighter-colors.html , the author Andrea Thompson pointed out just how dynamic those associations can be.

Though synesthesia sometimes makes life a bit uncomfortable, “most synesthetes think of their abilities as a gift and wouldn’t want to lose them.” Check out this more recent article from 2018. https://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/stories/what-is-synesthesia-and-whats-it-like-to-have-it.

The first step in understanding sentence stress is being able to hear and feel that something different is happening. There’s an energy and excitement in that connection. The link makes the syllable memorable. Even when the syllable stress isn’t what’s expected, hearing the stress in the most important word in a sentence will catch the ear of the listener and guide them to the intention.

As your students become familiar with the vowel colour system, move on to having them listen to sentences to identify the words that seem to be most important. Write out the actual sentences. Have them identify the word(s) that stand out. Colour code important word(s). Make the colours vivid.

Then let them continue with the rhythm.

Have fun. Put each sentence into a rhythm that reflects the words that are stressed. And let those stressed words explode with colour.  Then let them move with tthe colours and sounds. Maybe they’ll start with movements as small as a fingersnap, a head turn, the flick of a wrist. Maybe they’ll drum, clap, stomp their feet, pound their chairs, their desks, sway their arms. Have them imagine colours as dazzling as the costumes in the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro or Toronto’s Caribana Parade. Make the associations memorable!

The power of communication is first and foremost contained within the music of English – the rhythm – the dynamics. That’s important for every student, no matter where they come from, no matter how they pronounce any particular consonant or vowel.

Hearing, understanding and using sentence stress effectively can give them the confidence to speak up and speak out – to speak publicly. Understanding rhythm and dynamics can help them find passion in public speaking even as they continue to study the details of pronunciation.

And please don’t misunderstand.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work on vocal mechanics or minimal pairs to develop speaking/listening skills.

What I’m saying is “Don’t leave sentence stress to the end.”

Start it from the very beginning and make time for it in every class, whether your students come from one country or many countries. And use the Thompson Vowel Color Chart to help you.

You can read about Judy Thompson’s vowel system, watch my video, and find a link to the Vowel Color Chart in my 2017 blog An Easier Way to Learn English Vowels.

And if you have any comments or questions or experiences to share, I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

Still thinking about essential English pronunciation in 2019

essential pronunciation 3

I hope you had a most wonderful holiday season.

Here we are in 2019, and I’m still thinking about what’s essential for effective English pronunciation? After all, it’s tiring and overwhelming for both teachers and students to have to work on every element of English pronunciation. It’s hard to keep students motivated when they never have enough time to really make progress on any one element. They can end up focusing on what’s “wrong” about their pronunciation rather than being encouraged by what’s right.

In my last blog, Thinking about essential English pronunciation, I questioned the need to teach every single consonant and vowel. So what might be a common denominator, especially in a class of  mixed nationalities?

What’s the most important factor for intelligibility?

Personally, I think it’s the music of English. Why? Because music is a universal language. It’s both aural and physical. You don’t need to understand the words to feel its power. It’s visceral.

Chinese speakers may be dropping their final consonants, Japanese speakers over-pronouncing final consonants, Arabic speakers trilling [r], Spanish or Farsi speakers adding the vowel [e] before an initial [s], Russians adding a little [y] before certain vowels. Are these critical issues?

Whether they’re confusing vowel sounds or consonant sounds, one thing that’s very important for everyone is vowel length, combined with volume and pitch, to create syllable stress and sentence stress.

Choosing the main stresses in an English sentence and making other syllables weak can be challenging for speakers of most any language. It takes a little extra physical energy, a little extra breath to create stress. But it’s crucial in order to identify new or contrastive information in words, phrases or clauses. It forces us to listen, take note and interpret.

We can talk about “content” words and “function” words all we want, but more important than the “theory” is the practice. When we’re conversing, there’s no time to analyze which words are “content” and which are “function.” And in any case, those function words can be just as important as content words. They can shift meaning radically. Practice begins with listening and imitating.

Adults spend 40-50% of their communication time listening. That’s more time than they spend speaking, reading or writing. So becoming aware of stress – hearing and feeling how certain words pop out – provides a stronger foundation for imitation, comprehension and intelligibility than working on individual sounds. By starting with the music, we can make students aware of how almost any word can become the focus of a message.

Now I’m a little cautious about using popular songs because sometimes they shift syllable stress just to fit a word into an existing rhythm. Instead, I suggest rhythm games, training the ear using short sentences with single and two-syllable words, then gradually adding longer multi-syllable words, phrases and clauses.

By focusing on rhythm, using a metronome and gradually increasing speed, students are forced to listen carefully to how sounds morph to fit words inside a fixed beat. The challenge is for them figure out for themselves what they need to adjust from the sounds of their own language. We’re not looking for perfection. We just want them to realize that something needs to change.

Then put the metronome aside and explore the same sentences in more natural conversational rhythm, maintaining the stress. Explore how emphasizing different words changes meaning by drawing the ear to a different idea. As sentences get longer, explore the importance of thought groups and pauses.

Starting every class with a rhythm exercise is fun and a great way to create a relaxed environment. As the course progresses, you can challenge students to create their own – bringing a single sentence to teach to the class to teach the others.

Instead of wasting valuable time on trying to perfect consonants and vowels, let’s begin with the music of spoken English.

As students begin to develop awareness, their confidence will build in preparation for the next step – working with vocal mechanics to adjust sounds and with minimal pairs to keep training the ear.

But before that, we need to reinforce stress in other ways. And I’ll write about that in my next blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking about essential English pronunciation

essential EN pronunciation

We native English speakers can think pretty highly of ourselves.

As I wrote in my last post Thoughts on the arrogance of the unilingual anglophone, we can talk too much, use local slang. We pepper our language with what-we-assume-to-be-universally-understood “common” idioms. And when we (at least “we” living in North America) teach pronunciation, we use the North American Standard accent as if it’s the “gold” standard.

Oh dear.

It’s we, the native speakers of English, who seem to have the greatest difficulty with comprehension. I hosted international students for several years before I began teaching ESL and had always marvelled at how South Koreans, Mexicans, Japanese and Brazilians all  managed to make themselves understood to each other.

These days there are more fluent non-native English speakers around the world than there are native English speakers. We’re a declining population. It’s incumbent upon us to learn to listen with greater attention and to adjust our expectations.

It’s time to think about the essentials of International English pronunciation.

It’s not easy for those of us teaching in a classroom setting with different nationalities who appear to have very different pronunciation challenges. It’s even more challenging when teachers themselves have so little confidence in their ability to teach pronunciation. There’s a lot of reference material out there, true. But much of it is still mired in an old-world mentality of IPA symbols and impractical subtleties. With little time allotted to teaching pronunciation in a general course or even an occupation specific course, how can we expedite and prioritize? How can we find some “common ground?”

Do we need to focus on every consonant … every vowel sound?

Do non-native speakers need to learn the two sounds for [th]? I’ve never yet heard anyone misunderstand the native French speaker who replaces the English [th] combination with a /d/or /z/ sound.

Do we always miss the meaning if someone replaces the long [e] sound with the short [e] sound – if they seem to be saying “bitch” rather than “beach?” It might make us smile, but we get it.

Do they need to learn how to produce the “schwa” perfectly even if it is the most common vowel sound in the English language?

They need to be able to understand what we’re saying and how the “schwa” changes the quality of the words, creating reductions, changing rhythms. Getting used to listening to reduced sounds leads to intelligibility. But whose intelligibility? Our own. If non-native speakers of English articulate syllables more fully, we still understand.

And speaking of reductions, do non-native English speakers need to be able to reproduce our “short-form” language, expressions like “Dontcha,” “Whaddya,” “gotta,” “hafta?”

They need to be able to understand what they’re hearing. But they can use the long forms and be understood perfectly well: “Don’t you,” “What do you,” “got to,” “have to.” Even the concept of “linking,” though important for listening comprehension, is less important for intelligibility.

So we need to make a clear distinction between teaching essentials for listening comprehension and essentials for speaking with intelligibility.

Do they always need to stress the correct syllable in every word? I’ve written about this before in Thoughts on Syllable Stress.

While it’s important to teach syllable stress, mistakes don’t often affect intelligibility. It may drive us anglophones a little crazy, but I hear incorrect syllable stress frequently – even from native speakers. And anyway, syllable stress can change depending on the country. There are lots of differences between British and North American English pronunciation: the British controversy, garage, strawberry, for example. One is no more “right” than the other.

Now, in many ways, this question of essential pronunciation for International English is radical for a pronunciation coach. I, as much as any of you, was trained in the “classical” tradition with the weight of the International Phonetic Alphabet, focus on reductions and syllable stress, on every consonant and vowel sound, not to mention the fundamental belief that “our” accent was the “right” accent lying heavy on my shoulders. But times have changed … and so must me.

So what is essential? What truly makes the difference between intelligibility and misunderstandings?

Thoughts are swirling. Time to stop. But I’ll continue on this subject in the next blog …

Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts on the subject, I’d be really interested in hearing what you have to say!

 

Thoughts on the arrogance of the unilingual anglophone

unilingual anglophone

Picture this.

You work for a company with global interests. You’re meeting with your counterparts from Asia, Spain and France. But you speak only English. Why learn any other other language? After all, everyone has to speak English. That’s the international language of business.

You enter a boardroom filled with business people from Asia, Spain and France. Though English isn’t their first language, everyone has been communicating very successfully.  There’s an atmosphere of  professional kinship and cooperative interaction.

You sit down and listen to a discussion about a business deal that, though risky, could be very profitable. “Well okay,” you say to the group. “But look, if we’re gonna go there, we gotta cover our bases.” And then you continue talking, talking, talking, talking.

“Huh?” they’re thinking. “Where are we gonna go? And ‘cover’? What ‘cover’? Cover what?” As they stare at you, nodding out of courtesy, saying nothing, you continue your monologue, blissfully unaware that you’ve just destroyed that camaraderie and mutual trust. The meeting does not end well. Why?

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in “their stares,” but in yourself.

You might have tried to say a few words in their languages. But more importantly, you might simply have avoided colloquial expressions altogether, with more concrete language like “Well, if we decide to proceed with this plan, we’d better make sure to prepare thoroughly in order to succeed.” And then stopped to listen.

Why are you using expressions about travel — “going there” — and baseball — “cover our bases” – in a business meeting? Why are you assuming speakers of EAL, who don’t live in your country, should understand? The fact is, they were doing just fine until you arrived.

In 2016, Spencer Hazel, now Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Newcastle University, wrote in the online journal The Conversation, “there is mounting evidence in international business, native English speakers are failing to integrate … International colleagues resent the lack of effort made on the part of the monoglot English speaker.”

Among anglophones, there is a sense that they are the centre of reference.

In the same year as The Conversation article appeared, another article appeared in the online journal, BBC Capital. Michael Blattner, of the Zurich Insurance Company,  whose native language is Swiss German, commented, “At meetings … typically, native English speakers dominate about 90% of the time. But the other people have been invited for a reason.”

And Chia Suan Chong, a UK-based communications skills and intercultural trainer, wrote “… non-native speakers, it turns out, speak more purposefully and carefully, typical of someone speaking a second or third language. Anglophones, on the other hand, often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture.”

Professor Jennifer Jenkins, Chair of Global Englishes at the University of Southampton in the UK, also wrote “Non-native speakers generally use more limited vocabulary and simpler expressions, without flowery language or slang. Because of that, they understand one another at face value.”

The unilingual anglophone has no idea what international communication is all about.

Think about it.

To know a language fully, we must be fully immersed in it. We must live it. Even in the same county, one language spoken in a different region can have a different accent, different words and different expressions. It might seem faster or slower. As you move into the deep South of the United States, there’s a distinct Southern “drawl” that can seem very slow indeed.

I remember sitting in Heathrow airport near London. As I sat, quietly reading a book waiting for my boarding announcement, I overheard three people conversing at breakneck speed in some foreign language. Or so I assumed, until I realized they were all just speaking English with a Scottish accent.

There are common words and expressions in Britain that we don’t use in North America, from something as simple as “boot,” for the “trunk” of a car to something as elaborate as “throw a spanner in the works” meaning “to disrupt plans.” In North America, we have an equally confusing expression “throw a monkey wrench into the works.” Why would a speaker of EAL know either one? How many expressions and slang words can anyone possibly remember anyway? In June of this year 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary reported that it had added 600 new words, phrases, and meanings alone. Hello? …

And English is hardly special. Every major language has its own idiosyncrasies and regional accents.

The French spoken in New Brunswick can be quite different from the French spoken in Quebec City, both in Canada, which can be quite different from the French spoken in Paris, France, which can be different from the French spoken in Brussels, Belgium.

In working with speakers of English as an Additional Language, I (and others, of course) try to take language skills up a notch in terms of pronunciation, use of grammar or vocabulary. Absorbing the local slang and expressions makes living in that environment richer. Besides which, in a local context where English is the official language, sometimes even minor enhancements can lend not just intelligibility but some credibility and authority in the workplace.

But with the “hyper dominance” of English throughout the world, anglophones –especially those who speak no other language but English — can be arrogant and insular.

In an international context, we’re interacting with people from all around the world who have learned English from a variety of teachers, both native and non-native English speakers from different parts of the world. We must be mindful and sensitive! We must make no assumptions.

To create partnerships and trust, communication skills are important. International English must be simple, direct and concrete. We must slow down our speech, choose language that’s universal and accessible. We must also stop and take the time to listen with attention.

That’s not “dumbing down.” It’s stripping off our egos and stepping into the shoes of colleagues, customers and clients around the globe.

If you’re an Anglophone who has travelled around the world for business, I would love to hear from you. If you’re a business person who’s a speaker of EAL who has experienced the challenges I’ve been writing about, I’d also love to hear from you. And I do apologize for any in-jokes or vernacular I’ve used in this blog.

Don’t forget to check out this week’s One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel.

Thoughts on speaking to total strangers

speaking to total strangers

Another shout out to @Anesh Daya, who directed me to a podcast in which he was interviewed. What a great interview!

Anesh calls himself the “Founder, Director of Studies & Chief Happiness Officer” of his innovative company “On the Spot Language.” He created a practical language immersion model, in which young ESL students learn to speak English with greater speed, fluency and confidence than in the old-fashioned traditional stodgy classroom environment. With the guidance of specially trained coaches, students learn to approach total strangers for information and to teach themselves to become “independent learners.”

It’s an immersion program, based in Toronto, whose foundational activity is human interaction, i.e., striking up conversations with total strangers. The classroom is the real world: restaurants, cafes, shopping malls and the streets.

Anesh is clear. Not every person will want to engage in conversation, however minimal. His students learn how to approach people in a non-threatening way, asking questions about the history of Toronto or Canada that could be answered with a simple response, but which could also spark conversation if the stranger is so inclined. Students might approach 100 people, of which only four end up engaging in lengthy or more meaningful interaction. But isn’t that also a reflection of life?

He’s interviewed along with one other person, Robbie Stokes Jr., the American creator of the “I Talk to Strangers Foundation,” (http://ittsfoundations.org/) a social movement encouraging “young adults to develop positive networks and lasting relationships by meeting new people.” His is a challenge to reach out and experience the world in new and profound ways.

Robbie has brought his movement to Canada, specifically Toronto, where interested people can get together through Meetups (https://www.meetup.com/I-Talk-To-Strangers-in-Toronto/) to connect, talk and share activities. He’s also taking his movement around the world.

These are two people with a powerful message to share about stepping out of our comfort zone and making lives richer. We learn profound and lasting lessons when we reach out to people we don’t know and connect on a human level.

If you’re interested, you can listen to the interview with Anesh and Robbie at  https://www.megaphonic.fm/unlonely/5

And of course, you can also watch this week’s One-Minute Words on the Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel

 

Thoughts on taking language to the streets

taking language to the streets

In my blog two weeks ago, Thoughts on building up your public speaking confidence, I talked about one way of overcoming the fear of speaking in front of people, joining #Toastmasters. I loved the response from @Anesh Daya on #LinkedIn, who commented that people can practise by “taking language to the streets.” In other words, every moment is an opportunity to practise.

As hatred spews around us and acts of violence increase, we can use our voices to spread messages of compassion, unity and non-violence.

We can clarify our thoughts, listen with attention, breathe deeply and use every moment, to practise the words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs that embrace others and make us whole. We can take language to the streets, talking with everyone we can to build self-confidence and simultaneously create trust and respect.

The sounds will never be perfect, so don’t wait for perfection. There’s no such thing. What we strive for is clarity of intention, intelligibility, connection, and the power of empathy, compassion and love.

The spoken word is potent. With practice, we can use it to motivate others. And in motivating others, we continually recreate, in ourselves, the motivation to keep going.

For a smile in dark times, check out this week’s one-minute word at The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube.