How To Give A Great TED Talk With Imperfect English

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.


Accent Reduction, English Fluency and Business Interviews

interview imageAs 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!

Is Excellence In More Than One Language Possible?

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.

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.


Three Things to Avoid in an Accent Reduction Class

As the video above attests, more and more people are seeking out accent reduction classes.  Initially, accent reduction was popular in large cities like New York City, but it is growing, and reaching into bedroom communities all across the country.  Many professionals in states like New Jersey, Washington, and Arizona are signing up for accent reduction.

So what should you look out for while considering a class?  Here are three things to avoid:

1) No relevant experience – Anyone can call themselves an accent reduction coach, so it’s important to check on your teacher’s credentials.  Validate that your teacher has experience teaching at the collegiate level or a Masters Degree in Speech Pathology.

2) No lesson plan – if you’ve spent any time researching options for accent reduction classes, you are probably aware that there are many teachers who tend to wing it when it comes to the lesson plan.  Not so good.  A solid accent reduction program will take between 8-12 hours and will involve a full evaluation to start.  Your syllabus (yes you should have a syllabus) should cover core vowel and consonant sounds, but also more advanced concepts like sentence and syllable stress, and intonation.

3) No patience – is your teacher rolling his or her eyes at you every time you struggle with a sound change?  Acting dismissive or disdainful toward your questions? Not good.  In fact, that’s very, very bad.  Accent modification takes time, and it is imperative you study with a teacher who is willing to explain concepts calmly, and answer your questions enthusiastically.