Three Common Speaking Mistakes Made By ESL Executives

  As an accent reduction coach in New Jersey and in New York City, I hear a variety of speaking problems.  Here is a list of the top three problems I encounter, and their solutions:

1) Misplaced or Missing Articles – This is a common mistake, often made by Slavic speakers of English.  Virtually every noun in American English (except for some proper nouns) has an article before it.  The articles we use in English are “a”, “an”, and “the”. Many accent reduction students don’t realize that there are rules about which article is most appropriate in a sentence.

“A” and “an” are used with singular, non-specific nouns.  For ex. a dog, a cat, an elephant, an apple.

“The” is used with specific singular or plural nouns.  For ex. the neighbor’s dog, the largest elephant, the delicious apple.

2.) Dropping the “th” sound –  The “th” sound is unique to English.  There are two types of “th” sounds; voiced “th” sounds, and voiceless “th” sounds.

Voiced “th” – than, those, these

Voiceless “th” – think, thought, with

To make the “th” sound, place the tip of your tongue on your front teeth and blow air through your teeth.  You should see your tongue on your teeth as you make the sound.

3.) Wrong melody – the most important word in a phrase is called the focus word, and it gets a rise in inflection on the stressed syllable in American English.  In a sentence, every new idea is generally the focus word.

I lost my HAT.

Which KIND of hat?

The RED hat.


How to Reduce Um’s and Ah’s While Presenting

Check out minutes 2:00-4:00 in the video above.  The interviewee, Jo Becker, has a lot of interesting things to say in regard to Obama’s foreign policy, but unfortunately her message gets lost in a haze of um’s, ah’s and sort of’s.

How do you fix this?  Get a rubber ball.  No joke.  Go through your presentation and squeeze the ball every time you say “um”, “ah”, “like”, “sort of”, or “kind of”.  Go easy to start, just notice how often it occurs, then run through the presentation again, and really commit to a long moment of silence when you squeeze the ball, and resist the urge to fill the space with stammering.

We use these vocal fillers when we a) don’t have our thoughts organized or b) feel the need to qualify or weaken our stance on the topic we are speaking about.  We fix the vocal tic issue when we a) pause in silence and take time to clarify our thoughts during our presentation or b) stop qualifying our ideas so darn much! 😉

In any case, give me a buzz if you’d like to work on this issue.  I’m happy to help you get your presentation to the next level!


Political Correctness and Accent Reduction

A common refrain I hear among my accent reduction clients is “Wait, that’s how you pronounce that word!?  I’ve been mispronouncing it for twenty years, why didn’t my husband tell me!” Or “my wife”. Or “my friends”.  Or my “co-workers”.

There’s a simple reason.  As Americans, most of us are taught to respect the immigrant experience, but unfortunately this benevolent notion seems to have had unintended consequences.  We now live in a culture that is quick to upbraid those who are deemed culturally insensitive, even if their intentions are good, and their offenses slight.   Newt Gingrich, Robert DeNiro, Bill Maher, and Juan Williams are just a few celebrities across the political spectrum that have gotten caught up in one controversy or another.  Bottom line: It’s very, very easy to be misunderstood and judged these days.

This plays out in the world of linguistics.  Fluent speakers of English are reluctant to correct mispronunciations on the part of the ESL speaker due to a fear of being labeled insensitive.  I have never met an ESL client who said to me “Americans are just so rude, they are constantly correcting my speech.”  It’s always the opposite; “Why is nobody helping me with my language skills or offering constructive feedback?”

As a practical matter, most of us want to feel assimilated, feel a part of the culture that we live in.  As it stands in 2012, part and parcel of feeling assimilated in America is being able to speak English fluently.  This does not invalidate the many amazing accents and dialects that exist in American culture.  This does not necessitate the relinquishing of one’s ability to speak other languages well, nor does it necessitate that one abandon one’s use of their accent-of-origin.  It simply means that it is painful to be misunderstood on a daily basis, and that taking steps to avoid this suffering (and yes it is suffering) is to be commended.

So let’s honor the commitment of those who try to improve their fluency by being a little less sensitive around the issue.  For those who speak English well, native- born or not, you can make a difference in the lives of those around you.  If a friend of yours is constantly mispronouncing an important word, consider helping them out.  A simple, polite question to start might be, “Can I give you a little tip with that word?”  You may be surprised how well people respond.

Click here to learn more about our accent reduction and presentation coaching services, and here for our corporate seminar page!

Listening Comprehension and Accent Reduction

New York City is a results driven city.  “Return on Investment” is a business hallmark, and, it often seems that “getting a return” drives nearly every decision that is made here.  Of course getting a positive result is what we all want, but it’s important to be shrewd about how we get there.  When it comes to accent reduction, the result is in the process.

Many of my clients focus on their articulators in order to change a problem sound.  They contort their tongue, lips and lower jaw into different positions in order to create the correct neutral American sound, often to no avail.  The key to changing a particular sound is learning to hear the sound first and then using your articulators to change the sound.  This seems simple, but in practice it is quite hard.  It requires slowing down the speaking process, and paying very close attention to each sound.

Take some time during your day to really listen to the individual sounds of fluent English speakers.  Can you hear the difference between the words “war” and “worm”?  Do you notice the difference between “debt” and “debit”?  Listen carefully for pitch, volume, and emphasis when picking out vowel and consonant sounds.  Take a moment to notice the overall musicality of a sentence.  How does the pitch rise and fall?  What words are emphasized within a sentence?

It takes work to stick to process, but the result will make it well worth the journey. 😉

Click here to watch a short video and to register for Speak Clear’s Small Group Accent Reduction Course!