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 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.

Thoughts on listening and a wonderful podcast

a wonderful podcast

I love sound, be it the sound of laughter, singing, electronics, Foley (the art of creating/adding aural detail to films), instrumental music, the human voice …

So I love to listen to podcasts that explore the world of sound.

There’s one I listen to regularly. I mentioned it in one of my blogs awhile ago (Thoughts on the Music of English). It’s called Twenty Thousand Hertz. You can find it on ITunes.

The reason I love it is because it delves deep into the world of sounds that bombard us every day from gaming, computers, cartoons, slot machines, cars. From the people speaking around us, to us, at us … on podcasts, TV, radio, the internet. The list keeps going.  I love it.

In honour of Halloween likely, the most recent episode talks about the history of the “theramin,” the electronic instrument you play without touching it. It’s the instrument that put the “scary” into scary music, but has led another life beyond horror movies.

Why do I mention this podcast? Because it’s a great tool for listening practice. In the same way that I always tell clients they have to learn to “listen” differently, listening to this wonderful series trains the ear to listen in a different way.

You see, the show is about the sounds we take for granted – that we don’t even think about – in the same way that we often take “speaking” for granted. We hear without really listening.

Sometimes we let sounds wash over us, passing “in one ear and out the other.” Sometimes, they evoke strong emotions.

We live sounds in “broad strokes.” We may ignore them completely or be aware only that they make us “feel” one way or another:  soothing or annoying. But we never really take the time to get to know them.

Twenty Thousand Hertz calls itself “A podcast revealing the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.” And that’s what’s so amazing. How many times have you wondered about what you’re hearing: the bleeps and “cheeps” that your computer makes when you turn it on or notifications arrive; emergency alert sounds; Siri’s voice; the short music that introduces current event shows.

How many times have you thought about their “why,” their “how,” their origins, their evolution, their composition, their distinct qualities? When you become curious and start to listen to them closely, when you start to think about them in a different way, your listening skills can change and your awareness deepen.

Each episode is also beautifully produced. The quality of the audio is outstanding. The host and executive producer is Dallas Taylor, an award-winning sound designer and sound mixer.

I urge coaches and clients/students alike to listen to this wonderful series Twenty Thousand Hertz. You get to hear a clear articulate speaking voice in the host, perfect sound quality, fascinating subject matter, new vocabulary and stories that will make you aware of your sonic surroundings like a baby discovering sounds for the first time.

Oh, by the way, if you’re wondering what “twenty thousand hertz means,” it’s the highest pitch (sound waves) that human babies can hear.

And, of course, don’t forget to check out  One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on building up your public speaking confidence

public speaking confidence

Last week I wrote about stepping out of our comfort zone.

Whether you’re a speaker of English as a Second Language (ESL), English as a Common Language (ECL) or English as a Native Language, many of us struggle with self-confidence when we have to get up to speak in front of people.

For speakers of ESL and even speakers of ECL, part of that lack of confidence can be helped by correcting the sounds that cause confusion.

But for all of us, there’s still an emotional component that has nothing at all to do with vocal mechanics. The idea of simply getting up to face a group of people we may or may not know and talk to them is absolutely terrifying.

Now public speaking skills can be taught. I coach those skills. But getting the practice to use those skills, that’s something else. Practising in front of a mirror will help. It’s good, but it’s not enough. You need to face people. And Toastmasters provides the perfect place.

At Toastmasters, I watch speakers of ESL, speakers of ECL and native English speakers alike get up and challenge themselves to talk on a regular basis. Their courage is admirable and contagious.

Sometimes they’ll give a speech from memory. Sometimes they’ll get up to speak on a random “table topic,” with no preparation at all.

Sometimes, they’ll take on one of the weekly roles:

  • One person will announce how long each speech was.
  • Another will ask questions about the content to see it people were listening.
  • Still another will provide a word of the week for vocabulary building.

The point is that there are always opportunities to get up and speak in front of members and guests.

And that’s what’s important. Stepping out of your comfort zone and speaking publicly.

There’s a wonderful saying that I absolutely love:

 The comfort zone is a beautiful place to live, but nothing grows there.

Toastmasters is a beautiful place – a comfort zone of unwavering support in the joy and exuberance of its members. But every time you give a speech or wade into the deep and sometimes troubled waters of “table topics,” every time you take on a role, you step out of your comfort zone and grow.

Every week there are lessons to take away: in the shared camaraderie of watching and giving speeches and the universal hesitation of taking on table topics; in the gentle guidance of the speech “evaluators” and the smiles and applause that greet every single person who gets up to speak.

Toastmasters is a wonderful community that welcomes strangers with open arms, no matter what their age, and encourages but never pressures them to participate.

I can’t think of a better way and a more caring environment for speakers of ESL, ECL and native English speakers alike to build up your confidence. Find a branch near you and check it out.

And don’t forget to watch this week’s One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel