A good percentage of my client’s presentations deal with technology and science. There are numerous hurdles to overcome when presenting technology; how to make data interesting, how to use metaphor to make complex concepts digestible, how to use wit and humor to engage the audience, etc. But the most difficult aspect of talking science for many presenters is the manner in which they speak.
I think Pranav Mistry gives a good speech here despite having imperfect English. There are moments when his excitement gets the best of him, and he talks too quickly, but the bulk of his presentation is done at a measured pace. When he takes the time to breathe in between thoughts, and slow down, he is much more clear. These “micro-pauses” allow his brain to process what his articulators (lips, tongue, lower jaw, and soft palate) are doing and gives him a moment to think about language. Most of Mr. Mistry’s pronunciation mistakes (some w-v confusion, syllable stress mistakes, problems with phrasing) occur when he is speaking quickly. His brain doesn’t have time to think about pacing, articulation and the like.
You can imagine the left frontal lobe to be a little like a busy highway. The more congested the neural pathways are that connect the brain together, the less likely they are to transmit information. If you speak fast, you clog your frontal lobe with information, and it cannot do what it does best, produce language. So take your time!
There are 44 different sounds in American English. All are important, but some sounds are more important than others. Which sounds should you tackle first?
Vowel sounds play a very important part in language. We lengthen and intone vowel sounds when we emphasize certain words in a sentence. We also lengthen vowel sounds to indicate syllable stress. Vowel sounds play an important part in making words, and sentences, knowable.
Practice these sounds:
1.) The “Cat” Vowel Sound – This is a very common vowel sound. To make this sound, bring your lips into a smile. Keep the tongue flat. The sound is short.
2) The “Fun” Vowel Sound – This sound often gets mispronounced. Many executives, especially Russian speakers of English, make it more complicated than it is. This sound is made by keeping the jaw and tongue very relaxed. The sound is short. It sounds like a small grunt.
3) The “High” Vowel Sound – This sound is long and your lips, tongue and lower jaw move while you make it. To start, round your lips as if you are holding a small ball in your mouth. As you make the sound, move your lips into a slight smile, and arch the middle of the tongue high toward the hard palette. Count to two as you make the sound.
Suki Kim gives an inspired, unconventional TED talk here. Ms. Kim spent a few years teaching in North Korea and her stories from that time are heartbreaking and harrowing. They deserve to be heard, and thankfully, despite having some difficulty articulating certain words and phrases in English, each idea is clearly conveyed. Let’s take a look at a few things Ms. Kim does to ensure she is being understood.
1) She reads from a script – For many speeches, it’s best to read from a loose outline. But if your English is not perfect, it may be better to write the entire speech out. Make sure to look up the pronunciations for the words you have trouble with, and circle them in your speech so you know to slow down and take your time with the articulation when you pronounce them.
2) She speaks slowly – I repeat this quite a bit in this blog because it’s so important. You can fix 50% of your articulation problems simply by pausing at the end of each thought, and taking your time with the language.
3) She uses simple words- There is no need to use complicated language. Some of the best speeches in history used very simple language.
It should be noted that Ms. Kim’s use of live music while speaking is odd, and not to be reproduced. It is your ideas and your words that are most important when speaking. It’s best not to do anything that will pull attention from these important factors.
As an accent reduction specialist in New York City and Central New Jersey, I see a fair amount of business people preparing themselves for interviews. For the ESL executive, this can be a daunting task. If you find yourself stumbling over your words in job interviews due to your lack of English fluency, try these few tips:
1) Don’t rush – it seems obvious, but most ESL executives speak too quickly. Take a breath at the end of each phrase, and really consider what you need to do with your articulators (tongue, lips, lower jaw, soft palate) to make each sound.
2) Study beforehand – pick up an accent reduction book, or begin to work with an accent reduction coach before your interview. Pick out five core problematic vowel sounds and five core consonant sounds. Listen to the sounds, then work carefully on your articulation. Pick out words you think you might say in the interview, and run them by your coach. Work them before the interview.
3) Role play – Write out the questions you might get asked, bullet point the answers, and then role play the interview with your husband, wife or coach. The more you prepare, the less likely you will get stuck trying to pronounce a word your don’t know!
As an accent reduction specialist in New York City and New Jersey, I am occasionally asked by students whether learning English better will harm their ability to speak their native tongue. I usually make my point by way of analogy: if you are good at calculus, you can also be good at composition; learning one subject well does not negate the ability to learn others equally as well.
In fact, as Susan Talhouk points out in her speech above, perfecting your mother tongue can enhance your ability to speak a second language. By expanding your ability to express yourself in your native language, you expand your vocabulary base, and thus the possibility for an expanded vocabulary in your second language. The same applies to sounds. Most languages share a core set of sounds, so by learning the specific sounds of your native tongue well, you increase the likelihood of pronouncing the sounds of your second language accurately.
So don’t be daunted by the prospect of being bilingual! Excellence in more than one language is possible.