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

Thoughts on coaches as “motivators”

coach-motivators

There can be so many different factors that affect intelligibility. It’s a combination of  incorrect pronunciation of words, rhythm, intonation, volume, word stress ….

So how do we “measure out” corrections when we have limited hours with clients and so much we all want to achieve? Give too many, too quickly, too soon, too forcefully, and it’s easy to overwhelm and discourage.

Our clients are often busy people with careers and families. They’re also, often, successful, hard-working and tired. Though we think that age brings patience, often successful people are proud and confident of their achievements. High achievers can also get discouraged in a new endeavour that demands changes to entrenched habits tied into their identity.

We need to be mindful and ready to adapt to their needs. Less can be more.

And we need to model and motivate.

We want them to look forward to these “extracurricular” studies. We want to motivate them to practise wherever they can, with whatever time they have. In some ways, as demanding as learning new communication skills can be, our classes and their individual practice can be a beautiful refuge from the pressures of workplace and family.

We need to make their classes joyful and uplifting. More than just informative or instructive, we need to energize and encourage.

Whether we’re working with groups or coaching individuals, our exuberance should be infectious and our support –– unambiguous.

Everyone can learn … everyone. If we can help them to be patient and forgiving of themselves. If we can inspire them to adopt realistic expectations. A plateau precedes progress. And the most minuscule improvement is a step forward and deserves celebration.

If we can be coaches and motivators, we can work with a recipe that will fuel the success of our clients.

Your thoughts are most welcome.

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

Thoughts on how to let go and speak with passion!

Music and the passionLast week I wrote about the relationship between the music of English and the art of the sale /2018/09/14/thoughts-on-the-music-of-english-and-the-art-of-the-sale/

As you’ve probably figured out, I have a special feeling for the power of music in the English language. The fact is there’s power in the music of every language. But since I coach English-language communication skills, I focus on my native language.

Connecting clients with the rhythm and the melodies of English pulls them into the “spirit” of the language, for sure. But how do we pull them in? How do we help our clients/students to let down their guard and try something that may be entirely new for them?

First, of course, by modelling.

Our own passion is infectious. Our voice doesn’t need to be loud. It does need to be dynamic. We need to speak with conviction – with sincerity, honesty, humour, calm and confidence.

But you can also play with commercial jingles, old and new, to inspire and motivate your clients.

The music of jingles most often (but not always: Coca Cola’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing” [that part’s okay] “in perfect harmony” [that part’s not]) imitates English syllable stress perfectly: (Alka Seltzer antacid) “Plop. Plop. Fizz. Fizz. Oh, what a relief it is,” (Kit Kat chocolate bars) “Break me off a piece of that KitKat bar;” (Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum) “The taste is gonna move ya when you pop it in your mouth;” (Nationwide Insurance) “Nationwide is on your side.”

They’re so catchy that they’re quite capable of taking over the brain and the body. That’s exactly what a good commercial jingle is supposed to do – stick in your head forever – persuade you to buy.

Get your clients/students to take these short jingle sentences and use them with different intention. Get them to overact like crazy. Make it dramatic: angry, pleading, hysterical with laughter, fearful, demanding. Where does the voice move? Up? Down? When does it move? How does it move? Do the words get faster? Slower? Let the rhythm and the melody — the music — take the body along. Gesture. Walk.

Stand up and be intimidating. Then relax, sit down, smile and say it in jest. When do they breathe? When do they pause? Have them say it with the same high drama in their native language. Have them say it again but with no words. Have them say it in gibberish. Play. Explore. Let the imagination run wild. Be children.

Then take it all  back into the words of the presentation, the speech, the sales pitch, whatever. Take each sentence and make it rhythmic. Really exaggerate the syllable stress. Inject every emotion you can think of into the way you/they speak. Go over the top. Pull out all the stops.

And after all that, bring it back. Be clear on the intention of what’s being said. Modulate the dynamics. Make sure the keywords are crystal clear. Find the places to pause.

The exercise works with students in a classroom setting, in business with members of the rank and file and even with executives. It allows them to let go, be a little wild and walk around in someone else’s shoes for awhile.

The music is there inside all of us and it’s powerfully persuasive.

What do you think?

To listen to the jingles I referenced, go to https://youtu.be/gZ1nfdO_3Aw

And don’t forget to check out this week’s One-Minute Words at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfYf8kBkeL0&list=UUtLnMIqmYW9uRCi_Kx48AaQ

 

Thoughts on the “music” of English and the “art” of the sale

Music of English & art of the sale

With so much out there on the internet these days, it can be harder and harder to get your voice heard selling in the world of interaction with real live people.

So, more than ever, it’s about building relationships, listening, connecting.

But while it’s important to be able to listen, it’s also important to draw people in.

And sometimes, when the pronunciation, rhythm and intonation get in the way, it’s harder to connect.

Of course, when certain vowels or consonants are incorrectly pronounced, it can cause confusion. And when the listener stops listening to figure out just what was said, speaker and listener go out of sync.

The fact is we may not have 20 minutes or half an hour for the listener to adjust. The brain has already done a backflip, and it takes a moment for the listener to get back to the present. In that moment, we can lose the sale.

So the fact is we do need to correct some of the sounds that are causing confusion in the important words. But it’s never every sound.

There was a study done some years ago on by the psychologist Albert Mehrabian, who found that listeners judge the emotional content of speech, first by the speaker’s body language (55%), then 38% on “vocal qualities” – not words, but tone of the voice, the pitch and the pace of the delivery. It’s not about the words.

In any case, anglophones just listen for important words, the ones that provide meaning. We fill in the rest from context. So we need the clarity of important words to make sure we understand them the first time.

But the rhythm, the intonation, the dynamics all help us to understand what we need to focus on and what you want us to feel. When we know how and what syllables or words to stress, we’re guiding and motivating our listener.

English is constantly moving up and down staircases. If we want to emphasize an idea, the voice will rise in pitch, in volume. We’ll hold a note –– maybe just a word, maybe just one syllable –– but we’ll make it just a little higher, a little louder and a little longer.  We’ll speak a little faster. Then get a little slower. We’ll pause for a moment to let the thought sink in.  We’re guiding the listening saying, “Listen to this. This is important.”

We can listen to music that has no words at all. Yet it can motivate us to feel. In fact, it can evoke powerful emotions. The “music” of English works exactly the same way.

We anglophones are lazy speakers, so English is a language of reductions. If something’s too hard to say, we change it. So what you see on the page often has little to do with the way we say it. But that “short-form” English can spark the imagination with its rhythm and melody. It works on our emotions, consciously and unconsciously. It’s about psychology.

And the “art” of the sale is about psychology.

It’s about trying to enter into the mind of the prospective customer to make the listener feel as comfortable as possible. But to make that sale, the salesperson too, has be comfortable. If the customer and client are totally in sync, great. Why bother to make any changes?

But, often, I find that people are hesitant to make changes – as if incorporating more of the Canadian accent (standard North American accent) would destroy a sense of identity.

The thing is … our accents (and we all have an accent) are a beautiful part of who we are. And making some changes isn’t the same as erasing our identity.

People respond to music. And the music of the Canadian English language can help communicate, negotiate and motivate.

In the long run, we’re not just selling a product or a service. We’re selling who we are. We’re saying, “I care about you. Trust me. Listen to me. I have something of value for you.”

The “music” of English and the “art” of the sale have a powerful connection.

Your own thoughts are most welcome.

And don’t forget to check out the latest word-of-the week at One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach channel.

Thoughts on how to improve English pronunciation by wrecking your native language

Wrecking your languageOkay, no misunderstandings here, please! I’m not talking about ridiculing languages that aren’t English. I’m talking about using them with a sense of humour to help you understand English pronunciation in a powerful way.

There’s a particular exercise that I love to do with my clients. At first they think I’m crazy. But then they begin to understand the purpose. Once they truly get into it, it’s ridiculously fun and very very enlightening.

I’ll begin by having them translate a simple sentence or two into their native language, be it Spanish, Polish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, whatever. It can be as simple as “My name is [XXX] and I’m studying English pronunciation. Then I’ll ask them to pretend they’re anglophones trying to learn this foreign language, but with no feeling for the language at all, none whatsoever!!! It sounds terrible – truly awful!! The English-speaker just can’t manage to imitate the accent: wrong sounds, wrong syllable stress, wrong word stress … wrong … wrong… wrong. But it’s so bad that it’s cute. It makes you laugh in a loving way. The idea is to be playful and outrageous, by really trying to capture the authentic sound of the English language transferred to your native language.

There’s no anger, no frustration – just lots of love and appreciation for this anglophone trying so hard and failing miserably.

Why do this exercise that seems so pointless and silly?

Simple –– the more you can “massacre” the accent of your native language with an English-speaker’s accent, the better you understand the essence of the Canadian accent (or standard North American accent, whatever you want to call it). Where does the tongue need to go? How wide does your mouth have to open? What’s the shape of your lips? How different is it from what you would automatically do?

It actually takes a lot of thought. It’s not so easy.

And you tend to want to speak quickly because it’s easier to slip back into the accent that comes naturally. But you’ve got to slow down – be deliberate. Pretend you’re that anglophone. Think of yourself in different clothes, maybe with a different hair colour. Anything – just pretend. Step into the shoes of this imaginary anglophone.

What makes it so difficult for them to adapt to your accent? Insert the sounds that don’t exist in your native language: for example, that pointed vowel /a/ as is black (/æ/); that rhotic /r/ back in the throat with the tip of your tongue down, pulling back and up. Think of the vowels and consonants that have been especially difficult for you to correct in English and use them to replace the consonants and vowels in your language. You want to make your own language sound as terrible as you can.

You’re really being two people: the anglophone who’s wrecking the sound of your native language and the native speaker who’s listening with amusement (if not outright laughter) at just how far from authentic it sounds.

You’re putting yourself inside the body and the mind of the English speaker trying to speak your language. So really exaggerate the differences. Don’t be afraid to make it totally absurd. How does their foreign accent sound in your native language? How do their sounds feel inside your mouth?

It’s a surprisingly powerful and revealing exercise.

Have you, the speaker of ESL, or your clients/students (if you’re a coach or a teacher) ever tried it? If you’ve done it or used it, tell me how it worked. What sentences did you use?

And don’t forget to check out the latest word-of-the week at One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel.

Thoughts on staying motivated and managing expectations

Staying motivated-Managing expectations (2)For the last two weeks, I’ve talked about how practising in a different way, in small manageable chunks with complete attention, totally absorbed in the task at hand, can bring about improvement more quickly. It’s much more effective to practise for shorter periods before the muscles start to weaken and the mind starts to wander.

Still, there’s what I call the “frustration” factor. You’re working with full concentration and practising every day, but in your own mind, change seems to be taking forever.

How do you stay motivated? How do you keep going? How do you not give up?

The first thing, of course, is to have a very clear long-term goal in mind. Is it:

  • to get through conversations without being asked to repeat yourself?
  • to get that promotion that has been held back because of your communication skills?
  • to communicate more effectively with colleagues, clients, customers, patients?
  • to make yourself understood on the telephone?
  • to speak more like your kids?

Having your long-term goal clearly in mind is very important. Equally important is having reasonable expectations: understanding that learning takes place in five stages and recognizing and embracing each stage as it arrives.

Stage 1

When you first begin the study of accent management, expect that you’ll leave class and forget everything you’ve learned. Why should you remember anything? You’re letting go of habits you’ve held from the time you started learning this new language – quite possibly years! You’re going to refocus your brain, reprogram your ears, retrain your muscles and strengthen your memory. So just congratulate yourself on having had the courage to actually begin a program of study.

Stage 2

Very soon you begin to develop awareness. You start noticing sounds that you’d never heard before. Certain patterns begin to emerge. You hear syllable stress. This is very exciting. Embrace it, but don’t get too excited. Just keep practising exactly as you have been, in manageable little chunks with full attention, every day. Keep listening passively and absorb what you hear. The filter between your native language and English is beginning to dissipate.

Stage 3

You start noticing your mistakes. You may get frustrated, even angry with yourself. You just can’t seem to make the changes you need to match the sounds and rhythms you’re hearing all around you. That’s okay. Your mind is making the connections. You’re on the verge of change! Keep practising in small manageable chunks, with full attention.

Stage 4

It happens at last! Your awareness shifts. Your muscles get into the correct positions to create the sounds you’ve been hearing. You’re remembering where to put the syllable stress, the word stress. You begin experimenting with the short-form English you’ve been hearing but were afraid to use: gotta, hafta, doncha, wanna. You start, tentatively, linking one syllable to the next.

Stage 5

Now your speech begins to flow as your muscles get stronger and move more quickly. You incorporate more of the English vernacular. You drop consonants, change vowels, add words and expressions in a way you had never thought you would.

These are the stages of learning, and they arrive with continuous concerted focused practice. There are bumps along the way, for sure. At times you may feel stuck.

But like a baby, you’ve been taking small steps, falling down and getting back up, listening to the world around you with innocence and wonder until you start to take note, understand, imitate and make things your own. So keep your long-term goal in mind, but be supportive of your growth.

Be patient. Be determined. And above all, don’t give up.

More thoughts on how to practise better and improve faster

More practise better.In last week’s post Thoughts on how to practise better and improve faster, I talked about the importance of working in small chunks of time on a regular basis and about how we don’t even have to practise out loud. When we can clearly visualize until we feel muscle movements and, in the case of accent modification, also hear the sounds we’d like to create, we can improve.

I talk a lot about practising and listening with full attention. But what does that mean exactly?

Well the first thing, of course, is working without distractions. So for the ten minutes (more or less)  that you commit to practise –– no email, no text messages, no Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram –– just you and your lesson.

Listen carefully to the instructions you’ve been given. Listen to the sound you want to recreate. Try to listen without using your native language as a point of reference. Just listen.

Now, let’s take just one frequently problematic vowel as an example: the English /i/ as it silver. (Please note that I used the English Phonetic Alphabet (EPA), not the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). If you want more information on the EPA, read my 2017 blog An Easier Way to Learn English Vowels with its accompanying YouTube video.)

So, whenever you say “bit,” it sounds like “beat.” You try to say “fit,” but it sounds like “feet.” I could have also used the opposite Ey/ (as in green) vowel as an example, but I want to keep this simple.

First imagine the parts of your tongue that need to move.

Close your eyes and focus on your tongue and your lips. Your mouth is a little open. Visualize and feel the tip of your tongue resting behind your bottom teeth. Visualize and feel the rest of your tongue resting on the bottom of your mouth, just inside your bottom side teeth, not quite touching. Your jaw is still. Your lips are still.

Now imagine there’s a string in the front of your tongue behind the tip. The string lifts your tongue very gentlyjust the tiniest bit. Isolate this movement of the front of your tongue, without the tip of your tip, in your mind. Make it very tiny. You may also imagine that the centre of your tongue is attached to the dent in your upper lip. Imagine lifting the centre of your lip and pulling the centre of your tongue with it. Just a little. Just a little.

Next, practise doing this same movement slowly for real.  The tip of the tongue remains behind the bottom front teeth. The sides of the tongue don’t move. Only the front of the tongue rolls or lifts up the tiniest bit. Try rolling the centre of the tongue by itself. Then try lifting it with the dent in your upper lip.

Now listen to the sound of the vowel and imagine saying it as you lift the front of the tongue every so slightly, still letting the tip and the sides of the tongue be still.

Finally, say the exercise quietly – the vowel alone, then with the associated words. Don’t worry about the other vowels or the consonants that you may not be able to reproduce accurately for now. Just focus on the vowel /i/ as in silver.

And there you have it:

  • Set aside small manageable bits of time
  • Remove distractions.
  • Focus on correcting one thing at a time.
  • Drop preconceptions. Listen to sounds as if you were a baby in your mother’s womb, as if you’re hearing them for the first time.
  • Fill your imagination with the task at hand. Work in your mind first.
  • Work very slowly and isolate movements.
  • Do this for five minutes … or ten minutes … or fifteen minutes if you can find the time. But find the time every day to practise in this way.
  • And don’t give up.

I guarantee you’ll make changes you never thought you could.

And before you know it, those changes will be noticed by friends, family, patients, customers and colleagues.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, your experiences or your questions.

To listen to two Canadian accents presenting a new English word or expression every week, check out One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube Channel.

Thoughts on how to practise better and improve faster

Practise better. Improve faster.

I often find that students have a misconception about practice: that it takes long hours of steady practice to improve. If they don’t have that kind of time, they give up altogether.

But it’s not about long hours of steady practice. It’s about steadfastness with practice over a long time. It’s about not giving up. It’s about finding little chunks of time for as little as five minutes or at most 15 minutes throughout the day, every week, and working with full attention.

It’s about countering every negative thought that says “I’m too busy. I can’t do this. I’ll never get it.” with a thought that says “I seize little fragments of time for me alone. I can do this. I will get it.”

No private place to put on your headphones, listen to the lesson and practise your homework?

  • How about finding 10 minutes in the bathroom?
  • How about 10 minutes in bed before you turn off the light?
  • How about 10 minutes in the morning before you get out of bed?
  • How about getting out of your workplace for a 10-minute walk at lunchtime?
  • How about a quiet 10-minute escape to the stairwell once or twice during the day?
  • How about 10 minutes in their darkened bedroom as soon as the kids fall asleep?

Heck, you don’t even need to practise out loud.

There’s a therapy and exercise method called the Feldenkrais technique (the origins are unimportant) that’s all about gentle movement and directed attention, in which we’re often told to visualize rather than do a particular movement. Extraordinarily, we can achieve the same positive results. In fact brain studies have clearly shown, for a long time now, that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Visualization is being used to enhance performance, reduce stress, increase motivation, self-confidence, efficiency. It can even help the paralytic learn to move limbs and machinery with the help of electrodes and computers.

Can you choose to find time on your own for just a few minutes each day to suspend judgment, listen intently and practise attentively before your mind starts to wander and your muscles start to weaken?

It’s a strangely simple technique with a huge reward: less stress and faster improvement.

What’s holding you back?

What techniques have you found to maintain a steady practice?

Don’t forget to check out the latest word-of-the week at One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqJIW9b8ceo&list=UUtLnMIqmYW9uRCi_Kx48AaQ

Thoughts on Identity and the Music of Language

Identity & the Music of Language 2I was always aware of the question of “identity” in accent modification, but it didn’t really hit me in the face until, as I mentioned in last week’s post Thoughts on “Identity” and Accent Modification, one of my clients brought it up in class. She talked with great insight about the internal shame she had absorbed related to accent modification as well as the loss of identity (feeling like a fake) in choosing to take on the accent of the native speaker.

Not all students are dealing with the psychological trauma of political tensions in their native country. However, the issue of feeling like a “fake” is something I’d heard before.

But what if we were to focus instead on the music of language? What if we could step outside our fixed ideas of identity and adopt a more open and fluid sense of self?

In my hometown Toronto, we can turn on CBC radio or Radio Canada (Canada’s English and French national broadcasting systems) and hear artists singing in languages other than English or French. We can hear music from Africa, Latin America, South America, for example –– and that, without even searching out a specialty radio station. We may not understand the words, but we respond to the rhythm and the melodies. As we listen and respond viscerally, for that brief period we become one with the music.

Can we do the same with spoken language – listen for its music and respond with the innocence of a child? Can we take the time to listen in a new way and go beyond the words? Can we go beyond consonants and vowels, beyond the memory of muscles and mind? Can we embrace new rhythms and melodies by putting aside assumptions about who we think we need to be by listening with attention to the musicality of the speech around us and absorbing it without judgment?

After all, we can learn to sing a song in a language other than our own and dance to the music of a country far away from home. We may not be the best singer or the best dancer but we can sing and dance with abandon. In the same way, it’s not about losing an accent. It’s about flowing with more of the sounds of the everyday speech and dialect, the vernacular, of the adopted language.

Far from being a “fake” for reshaping a native accent with the music of the vernacular,  I think we become richer. We experience a little shift, knowing that we’re no less who we are for embracing a place in the middle with enough room for everyone in the music of English.

And speaking of everyday speech, check out “ vernacular” in this week’s One-Minute Words.

 

Thoughts on “Identity” and Accent Modification

sitting on the fence questionThe other day there was a client in one of my group classes who made the most interesting observation. This person was, as are most of my clients, a very advanced speaker of ESL. She had been in English-speaking countries for the last ten years and was picking up the sounds of vowels and consonants very quickly. But finding the “music” of English was particularly challenging: the idea of linking consonants and vowels from syllable to syllable to find a flowing rhythm, and changing pitch to find melodies that express meaning more readily.  There was also some resistance to what I call “short-form” English, the spoken expressions that we native English speakers use all the time but which have almost nothing to do with written English (e.g., wanna, gonna, gotta, hafta).

There were two issues that came up, both equally important.

The first was political. In my client’s native country, there are two large populations with different languages. When speaking the language of the majority population with the accent of the majority population, her own community judged her harshly. They wanted and expected a more guttural sound in keeping with the native language of her community.

In learning to speak the English language, she had absorbed the “shame” of her community’s judgment – the implication that speaking a language other than your own with the accent of the native speaker was, perhaps the gentle word is, a “sellout.”

The second,  which I’ve sometimes heard from other clients, was that she felt that by imitating our “short-form” spoken English, using expressions like “wanna,” “gotta,” “gonna,” etc., she was just being “fake.”

These are interesting and sensitive challenges. When she recognized that there was “shame” involved in making changes to her accent, she felt a great sense of relief and freedom. And yet the general sense that absorbing the “music” of English to sound more like a native speaker could cause her to lose her identify was a different story.  This part was not about the intensity of shame, but more about the fear of losing a part of yourself, your roots.

So the question is “Do we really lose our identity when we choose, consciously or unconsciously, to incorporate the sounds of the vernacular of our adopted country?” Must identity be tied to accent or is identity something internal – something felt – a deep love of one’s native country,  native culture.

I would really love to hear from speakers of English as a Second Language on this.

Meanwhile, check out the Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel at One-Minute Words for the web series One-Minute Words and other videos on pronunciation.