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Pronunciation: The Bigger Picture

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Is it always about accent?

Do you have an accent? Do you think your accent prevents people from understanding you? Would you like to “sound like a native speaker”? Many programs promise people accent-free futures. This sounds wonderful- but is it missing the point?

If you have ever felt anxious about your ability to communicate clearly, it’s important to know that it isn’t always about having an accent.  Can effective communication happen with an accent? Absolutely.

Sounding like a native speaker is a very difficult goal (impossible for some) and comes at a high cost—hours of rigorous practice. Most people aren’t willing to put in the time and effort because the payoff isn’t worth it. In the global environment we are working in, everyone has an accent. Aiming to improve the clarity of your spoken English is a worthwhile goal. Once you clarify your goals, you can choose strategies that will use your time most efficiently.

What makes effective communication?  The big picture

Let’s start by looking at the big picture: what constitutes effective communication? Take a look at the circle below depicting the elements of effective communication.

The elements in the outer rim of the circle (speed, thought groups, clarity, volume, interpersonal skills & eye contact) are most important for overall communication. The elements in the second circle constitute the second level of importance for effective communication. And finally, at the centre, in third place, are sounds. Most people think they need to focus only on the sounds. Although making sounds properly is important, if you address some of the big picture issues, you can improve your ability to communicate.

In this issue of the newsletter, we will focus on the communication elements on the outer rim. We’ll explain why they are important and give you techniques for improving them. The summer issue will focus on the second circle elements and finally, the fall issue will deal with sounds.

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Four effective strategies for conquering the big picture

Speed and thought groups:

Do you speak too slow or too fast?  Do you group some of your words together?  Do you leave spaces at the end of your thoughts?

Many Internationally Educated Professionals have a challenge with speaking too quickly.  Ying* (Names have been changed) had quite a few pronunciation issues and was hard to understand.  One of the reasons it was so difficult for people to understand him was that when he was talking about his ideas, he got excited and started talking faster and faster.  Being nervous is another reason why people talk too quickly.  One of the best things you can do to help people understand you better is to s-l-o-w down.

There are a few strategies for slowing down.  One involves speaking more slowly in general.  Work on stretching out the vowels in the words you are saying.  The extra bonus for slowing down is that it gives people the impression that what you’re saying is very important.  People will tend to listen more carefully to you.

Another strategy for slowing down involves leaving more space between your sentences and thought groups.  Thought groups are how we organize our language.  You can better organize your thoughts by paying attention to punctuation or grammar.  We leave short pauses between grammatical units (noun phrases, verb phrases, etc.).  The more formal our speech, the more pauses we leave. Here’s an example of a sentence divided into thought groups (one slash is a short pause, two slashes is a longer pause).

I have an idea / that I’d like to propose.//  I think this idea / will help us create / more cash flow / for our business.//

Strategies:

  1. Watch the two youtube videos listed in the resources.  One of them is on slowing down, the other is on thought groups.
  2. Listen to some of Obama’s speeches.  He uses pauses very effectively.
  3. Record yourself saying a few sentences.  The first time, speak as if you’re excited.  The second time, consciously slow down- focus on lengthening the vowels in the words.  Listen to yourself to see if you can hear a difference.
  4. Ask a trusted colleague to tell you when you’re speaking too quickly.
  5. Be aware that when you’re nervous or excited, you’re likely to speak quickly.  Take a deep breath and remind yourself to slow down.
  6. Write out what you’re going to say and mark the pauses in.  Practice a few minutes several times a week

Volume and clarity

Do you speak  too softly? Do you speak clearly or do your words all jumble together?

Speaking loudly and clearly helps people understand you better and makes you seem more confident (you get two birds with one stone!).  Susan* had great ideas, but tended to be very soft-spoken and sometimes mumbled. When in a large conference room, it was difficult to hear what she was saying.  When you added in her pronunciation and grammatical challenges, it was hard to understand her.  We worked together to increase her volume and clarity using the following tips.  As she spoke louder and more clearly, people started to understand her ideas- and get excited by them.

Strategies

  1. Practice saying a few sentences three ways: a) in your normal voice, b) much louder than appropriate- as loud as you can go without yelling and c) in between the first two.  You want to develop a good range of volume.  Remember that it’s going to sound much louder to you than to others.
  2. Record yourself doing the above exercise.  Place the recording device at the other side of the room.  See what you sound like.
  3. Remember that you have to change your volume depending on the room you’re in and the number of people in the room.
  4. Consider joining Toastmasters (toastmasters.com), a club dedicated to helping its members develop their public speaking skills.  Toastmasters will help you with far more than just volume.
  5. As a trusted colleague to give you feedback about your volume.

Interpersonal skills/Body Language Interpersonal Skills

While you talk do you use body language that makes other people feel comfortable with you? Do you stand at an appropriate distance? Do you know how to listen?

The topic of Interpersonal skills and body language is huge and can only be touched upon in this article. Olga* had some small problems with her English, but her main challenge was that people felt she was arrogant because of her interpersonal skills.  She worked on increasing small talk, on listening actively to people, on using body language to show she was open and listening and people became more comfortable around her.  Then they were more willing to listen and understand what she had to day.  Effective interpersonal skills include: active listening, effective questioning, being full present and focused during communication, being self aware and using appropriate body language.

Your voice isn’t the only communication tool available to you. Non-verbal communication can be very powerful and effective. When a listener has a hard time understanding you, they will pay more attention to non-verbal communication.  Hand gestures and facial expression convey meaning and support what you are saying.  Your body posture can show that you feel confident and open.  This will invite others to engage with you.

Strategies:

  1. Be an anthropologist.  Observe the people in your workplace.  How do they communicate?  What skills are they using?  What’s different than your culture?
  2. Read about successful interpersonal skills.  See the resource section for some great websites.
  3. Ask a trusted colleague for feedback on your gestures/facial expressions, etc.
  4. Practice using gestures in front of the mirror.  Depending on where you’re from, you might need to increase or decrease the number of gestures.

Eye Contact

Do you make regular eye contact while you speak to people?

It seems strange to include eye contact in an article about pronunciation.  However, eye contact can be very helpful for you to see if the person you’re talking to understands.   If you notice a slightly puzzled face, you can stop and do a confirmation check- are you with me?  Is that clear?  Do you have any questions?  Then you’ll have a chance to clear up any misunderstandings.

Making the appropriate eye contact also makes people feel connected.  When people feel connected, they’re more likely to understand you.  Generally speaking, we make more eye contact when we’re listening than when we’re speaking.

Strategies

  1. Read the articles on eye contact listed in the resource section.
  2. Be an anthropologist.  Observe others and how they hold eye contact.

Mastering the big picture!

You don’t have to work on these elements all at once. Maybe you want to concentrate on one element for one week and then switch to another in the following week. If you have had challenges with people understanding you in the past, you’re sure to notice a difference! Improving upon these “big picture” elements will have a direct impact on your comprehensibility—something that will help you feel calm and confident no matter what situation you are in, and no matter what accent you have.

*Names and situations have been changed

Andrea Griggs is the founder of Catalyst Communication.

Useful Resources

Speed and thought groups

  • An excellent video on thought groups and how they work.  (Part 1 of two)
  • A video on how to speak slower.
  • Some useful tips on slowing down

Volume and clarity

  • A short video on the importance of speaking loudly and clearly

Interpersonal skills and body language

  • 101 tips for effective interpersonal communication
  • A nice introduction to interpersonal communication skills
  • Two-Column Case Model which can help you analyze how a conversation went
  • A very useful quiz to see how your interpersonal skills measure up
  • “Multicultural Manners: Essential Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century” by Norine Dresser

Eye Contact

  • An article about the power of eye contact (written for people doing presentations, but it has useful ideas for everyone)
  • Advice on making eye contact