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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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 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

Thoughts on stepping out of the comfort zone

the Comfort Zone

It’s important to accept ourselves as we are. It is. Yes, we’re good enough as we are.

But sometimes we can use the idea of “good enough” as an excuse for not pushing ourselves to try something different.

I’m not talking about something extreme like white-water rafting or tandem parachute jumping or bungee jumping. It’s not just about facing physical danger.

I’m talking about little things.

For me, who had often given speeches and presentations using notes, it was giving a speech without notes for very first time. The relief and joy I felt was palpable to everyone around me.

For some, it might be walking an hour and half to a destination you’d normally get to by car or public transit. When we travel, we never think twice about walking for an hour or two. Might the neighbourhoods you’ve ignored so often as you passed by suddenly come alive with colour and sound?

For some, it might be finding a restaurant where the “locals” eat, where you don’t recognize a single thing on the menu. You look over at the next table and say to your waiter, “I’ll have whatever they’re having.” Might you suddenly find adventure in the city you’ve lived in your whole life?

For everyone, it can be about making a list of all the routine things we do and asking ourselves, “Why do I always do things the same way? What would happen if I were to do somethings differently?” How might I feel?

That’s what my advanced speakers of English as a Second Language or English as a Common Language face when they come to me for coaching. They’ve usually done fine with their English as it is. And yet, they’ve decided to challenge themselves to do more.

Sometimes it’s to make their pronunciation just a little clearer. Sometimes it’s to take their language abilities to a new level of sophistication. Sometimes it’s to add energy and emotion to their communication skills. They know change won’t come overnight, but they make the commitment to work at it. The excitement they feel as they change and grow feeds them, as does the thrill when other people notice.

Change isn’t easy. Sometimes it comes in a flash. More often, it comes slowly. I admire and applaud their spirit and determination.

There are things that all of us have done throughout our lives that we’ve never questioned because the answers could make us uncomfortable.

It’s unnerving to do things differently when we’ve been comfortable doing them the same way for so long. It’s so much easier to stay in one place with a minimum of stress and no risk – where the outcome is certain.

It’s hard to change. It takes courage. It takes stepping out of the comfort zone.

But oh … the rewards …

Your thoughts are always most welcome.

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

 

 

Thoughts on communication: “Whose job is it anyway?”

Whose job

Sometimes I hear a critique of accent modification – a bit of a backlash. There are those who argue that making any changes to someone’s accent is a slight, even an insult – that this is just cultural bias and it’s up to the listener to pay attention. Well that can be true, if the accent is distinctive but the content is fully intelligible.

But let’s inject some balance into the conversation.

The simple fact is that it can be tiring enough just trying to focus on listening to the content without the added burden of trying to decipher the sounds. In the time it takes to figure out what someone has just said, we get behind on what they’re saying. Yes, listeners should make an effort to understand. Absolutely. And, you know what? I think, for the most part, they do. However, communicating effectively is a shared responsibility.

The speaker has an advantage. They already know what information they want to communicate. The listener is left to interpret the meaning of the speaker’s words.

This isn’t just true of speakers of ESL or English as a Lingua Franca. We all have accents. Every single one of us. So no one is talking about erasing accents. All we would be doing is replacing one accent with another. Accents in themselves are a beautiful expression of who we are.

But even if a native English speaker has an accent that’s challenging in a context outside of their own surroundings, it can be problematic.

I remember being on the phone with a tech support rep from Georgia, Alabama (in the U.S.), where it took about 15 minutes for me to understand what he was asking. There was no body language to make it easier. There were no visual cues. I thought his accent was wonderful. I loved it. But I had a technical problem that needed to be fixed and I was getting frustrated. He wasn’t getting the information he needed to do the work because I was having so much difficulty understand him. It wasn’t about cultural bias. It was about time and efficiency.

In fact, I happened to have a conversation with a Canadian the other day who laughingly told me he had acted as the interpreter on a business telephone meeting between two native English-speaking Americans who couldn’t understand each other’s accent: one was from Georgia, the other from Brooklyn, New York. It was a good thing this person had been available to help out. He understood the challenge completely because he had lived in Georgia for a time and had had a girlfriend from Brooklyn.

So let’s not jump to the conclusion that it’s always about cultural bias. It’s not.

As much as we’d like to think it’s just a matter of listener effort, I would argue that speakers have a responsibility to try to communicate as clearly as possible, to draw in and guide the listener to facilitate comprehension. That doesn’t negate the responsibility of the listener.

Both parties have a role to play in successful communication, to be sure. But we only have control over one of them –– ourselves. That’s all.

Your thoughts are always welcome.

Don’t forget to check out this week’s One-Minute Words