Tag Archives: English language

What is your English language dance?

Designing and delivering effective Accent Softening to people from all around the world is a major part of my professional life.  My clients often speak several languages, including have a good grasp of the English language. They are able to understand complex ideas in English, and work in a British company, using English every day.

Despite this, many of them come to me expressing that they struggle to be understood, that they do not feel confident expressing their own ideas in English, and that they find the language difficult to speak.  How can this be when they can speak the language?

marbels-in-mouth

Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, attempting unsuccessfully to speak English with marbles in her mouth

It often feels to me like my clients are trying to speak with marbles in their mouth.  That their mother tongue is blocking their English tongue.

Learning to speak any new language is not just about getting the vocabulary and grammar right.  You also need to be able to pronounce the sounds, express the rhythm and find the melody. There are many accents of English, and they are all valid. The goal is clarity and ease.

dancing2Speaking is a physical act.  Much like dancing, It requires that you move muscles in a particular way with accuracy and speed.

If you imagine that each language, or even each accent, is its own dance then can you see how you will need new steps and even to use slightly different muscles to achieve the new moves.

Moving from one speaking ‘style’ to another is known as code-switching.  It happens when we move between languages, and it also needs to happen when we move between accents.

Successful code-switching is the art of moving from speaking English with your mother-tongue accent to speaking English with your English accent.

It is important to note that you do not need to speak English with an English accent to be a successful communicator. You just need to able to code-switch enough and with ease so that your mother tongue dance is not blocking your English tongue dance.

This would be like Fred Astaire learning to dance Hip Hop!! He could, but he’d have to learn how, and practice lots.

So how can you learn to code-switch?

There are three main things needed for this process to succeed.

  1. The environment
    Surround yourself with an English speaking environment whenever possible.  This can be at work, at home or through technology such as TV, radio or audio books.  Emersion is the key. Even when speaking to people from your own country, try and both converse in English.
  2. Curiosity
    Become curious about English. Notice how different people (especially native speakers) pronounce things.  Watch films and look at the shape of the mouth.  Listen to conversations or radio and mimic the melody and shapes as best as you can. Notice what is different about the way you speak now and English spoken around you. How does it feel different in your mouth?  How does it sound different to your ear? Play with it and mimmic it as often as you can, noticing the details.
  3. Repetition and focus
    The way you speak now is your current speaking habit.  In order to create any new habit all you need to do is repeat a new action regularly enough until you don’t have to think about it any more. Do focused and and detailed practice.  Practicing particular consonants or vowels you find difficult on their own, then putting them into words and phrases. Helping your mouth learn the new steps so you can speak them at speaking speed with accuracy.  Read something out loud, record it and listen back. Notice which sounds you find difficult and practice them.

    You only need to do a little bit each day, but do it in a focused way.

Useful resources

What is your English dance?

Vocal creak. Why is it ‘bad’?

So.  There is a vocal phenomenon going on that is garnering a lot of negative press. It is known as ‘vocal creak’, ‘vocal fry’ or ‘creaky phonation’.  It is most often heard at the end of people’s phrases when they are speaking, and predominantly in young women. A major example of this style of speaking is Kim Kardashian and her sisters.

kim

Example of vocal creak:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02rcmb6

It has a few major disadvantages, mainly on how you are perceived by others. When we speak, the listener subconsciously forms a range of judgements about us. This is instantaneous and has a big impact on how they receive our words, therefore our ideas.

If you have a habit of trailing off when you speak into ‘vocal creak’, the danger is that it can be perceived as any of the following;

You don’t really care about what you are saying
You have little or no authority
You have little or no integrity
Your ideas are not important
You don’t value the listener and their time
You are not mature (as it is associated with young women, especially teenagers)

So, you can see how that may have a negative impact on your professional life, especially as a woman.

The good news is that you already know how to speak without vocal creak, as most of your speech will be without creak.  All you have to do is keep the vocal energy going till the end of your phrase.

EXERCISE:  Try recording yourself free-speaking on a subject such as what you did last weekend, and listen back. Notice if you vocal creak at the end.  Now try a few of the same phrases again but this time aiming for the last word. By that I mean, make the last word stand out a little bit.  It is partly a psychological commitment of being present with your speech while speaking. Experiment with it. and you will be able to reduce or even remove vocal creak from your speech.

Quote


“Whatever other speech you grow into….your dialect stays alive in a sort of inner freedom, a separate little self.”
Ted Hughes, Poet, cited in Corcoran 1993:114

Accent Tip #2


Connect your words together when speaking, as though like train carriages.  This helps the listener to hear your ideas rather than your words.

Imagine that each sentence is almost like one long word, a ‘train of thought’.

If you speak in separate words then your meaning becomes broken up, and harder to follow. This dilutes the power of your ideas.

Accent Tip #1

 Rhythm

Listen to the rhythm of the way people speak. Whatever the language or the accent, tune your ear into their overall rhythm.  Imagine it like a drum beat. Where are the strong beats and where are the weak beats?  Then mimic what you hear using a pattern of made up sounds, tapping the finger on the table to emphasise the strong beats 

Strong beat – “Dum”
Weak beat –   “di” 

Standard British Example:  John Keats  –  To Autumn
To swell the gourd, and plump the  hazel  shells
di Dum  di   Dum     di    Dum   di  Dum di  Dum

More info here:

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You can follow me on Twitter for voice tips and inspiration.


I will tweet links here to any new videos, or articles I create.  This will cover many areas of vocal coaching from singing exercises, accent softening tips, or exercises for the spoken voice.

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Accent Softening Workshop – Spanish Chamber of Commerce

Teaching an Accent Softening workshop at the Spanish Chamber of Commerce.  The workshop targeted the rhythm and intonation of spoken English.  It also showed you how to use your voice to become an engaging, interesting speaker and avoid misunderstanding due to accent.

Here is a link to the feedback in a blog post they did about the session:

Spanish Chamber of Commerce blog

Accent Softening tip – difference between ‘W’ and ‘V’ position

I’ve made this video to target the difference between the ‘W’ and the ‘V’ sound. Indian people will find this particularly useful.It gives you tips to help you find the right position and sound, as well as some words and phrases to practice on. Enjoy!

 

Accent Softening tips for Russians

I’ve made this video targeting the difference between the Russian and English ‘L’ sound. It gives you tips to help you find the right position and sound, as well as some words and phrases to practice on. Enjoy!