Why We Should Change the English Language and Promote the New Version in Video Games

One Saturday afternoon, after managing to convince Vera, my lovely, wild three year old daughter to stop pretending to teach her dolls about dinosaurs, and lay down for her nap, I settled onto the couch to read the New Yorker.  I got really into an article by Elizabeth Kolbert  called “Going Negative” about carbon removal science, and how it might be able to rapidly eliminate greenhouse gasses, and thus, global warming.  According to Kolbert, Carbon removal science owes it’s origins to a physicist named Klaus Lackner, who came up with the concept after a few beers with a fellow physicist, and a long debate over why “nobody’s doing these really crazy, big things anymore”.

It got me thinking.  What really crazy, big things are happening with the English language?  Sure, there are crazy big concepts about language acquisition, and the philosophy of language, but what about the language itself?  Why is the English language so sacrosanct? Has anyone ever thought seriously about changing it?  Yes, I know, the spoken language changes daily, with many fascinating variants that count as languages in themselves, but that is largely an involuntary, evolutionary process.  But what if we were to deliberately take a variant of English, perhaps standard American English, and change it?  So here’s my big idea: I think we should create a simpler, truncated, more phonetic version of English, and promote this simpler form in cartoons and video games (and by “we” I mean anyone who loves the English language).

Do you know that the English language is one of the world’s least phonetic languages? There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, but nearly forty-four sounds.  NOBODY knows this.  Most native speakers of English are not aware of this, and many non-native speakers of English aren’t aware of it either.  When my daughter goes to preschool, she is taught the written language first, and a simplified, piecemeal variant of the spoken language second.  She is taught about the letter “O”, and the long and short versions of the sound for “O”, but not all the pronunciations that can be associated with the letter “O”.  She will never be taught the “shwa” sound because there is no symbol for that sound.  She will be able to intuit the sound as she is surrounded by the language on a daily basis, but what about a teenager in Lebanon who spends a good deal of time at an internet cafe?  If she is interested, how will she learn these subtleties?  If the connection between the spoken and written language is hazy to teachers of English, how can we assume that non-native speakers of English, with perhaps a high barrier of entry, will understand the connection, and speak English clearly?

They can’t.  In third world countries, and developing nations, the resources for proper training in English are limited, and many teachers skip over the written-spoken language gap and teach a form of English that is a combination of their local dialect and the English language.  But what if we were to shrink the number of spoken sounds in English from forty-four to thirty-four, and work to make the language more phonetic by spelling out English words and phrases phonetically in easily accessible mediums, like video games and cartoons?  There is precedent for this.  Mandarin has over ten thousand characters, so a simplified version was created called “Simplified Chinese” which utilizes much fewer characters.

So which character’s should be dropped, and why video games?  Let’s start with doing away with the “th” sound.  It has been argued that it is going the way of the dinosaur owing to the fact that it is so difficult for non-native speakers of English to pronounce.  Let’s fold it into the “d” sound for our new “Simplified English”. Yes you will need context clues to distinguish whether a non-native speaker of English is talking about a “din” or someone who is “thin” but it seems a small price to pay for a higher degree of global fluency.

And what about this crazy idea of promoting “Simplified English” to gaming companies? Well, to start with the video gaming market was worth close to $100 billion dollars globally in 2016, up 8.4% when compared to 2015. And guess which country dominated that market? China, the world’s fastest developing nation.  Why not persuade gaming companies to create “Simplified English” gaming subtitles and transcripts?  Why not create simple visual intonation patterns at the bottom of the screen and encourage players to speak or sing along with the characters?  Every international student of a certain age knows how to say “hasta la vista, baby”.  Why?  Simple. Because it’s fun to speak outside your language, and to watch movies or play video games, and pretend. Why not mash up the three?

Obviously this is not a fully baked concept, but why wait to put it out there in a world in which misunderstandings build upon themselves?  When I was at a social event not too long ago I met a young man from Iraq who had immigrated to New York City around ten years ago.  His English was flawless, and being a speech coach, I wanted to know how someone from a war torn country with a fractured relationship to the U.S. had come to speak English so well.  “I watched American cartoons”, he said.  Religiously. Every day. Over and over.  A free, immersive, interactive, fun, ubiquitous tutorial.

wat r ur eyedeeyas for a moar fonetik inglish langwij ikspeereeyuhns? #simplifiedenglish

Is it Possible to Speak too Slow while Presenting?

One of the biggest concerns of my executive presentation training clients in New York City is pacing.  “How fast should I speak” is a question I get a lot.  I tend to think you cannot speak too slow while presenting.  Adrenaline is a powerful substance, and it tends to take over a speech.  Without awareness, it’s all too easy to rush.  But there are those that think speaking too slow is a legitimate problem while presenting.  Let’s compare two TED talks, and analyze their rate of speech, starting with Laura Galante’s speech on Russian hacking:

I think Laura’s pacing is good.  She takes a clear pause at the end of each thought, and highlights important words with her intonation.  By taking her time, she makes complex material clear.

Now let’s check out Bendetta Berti’s TED talk from 2016:

Interesting comparison on a number of fronts.  I would say she is speaking much too fast, especially toward the middle of the speech.  Occasionally, she will take a break at the end of each thought group to allow her thoughts to land, but in general, she is rushing through ideas and concepts.  The problem is made worse by the fact that she is mispronouncing some important words, and dropping the “th” sound entirely.

I did my best to find an example of a TED-talker who was speaking too slowly.  I couldn’t find one.  So I stand by my original premise; you cannot speak too slow while presenting.  What do you think?  Comment below or tweet me your thoughts.

Should ESL Executives Focus on Mastering the Written Language or the Spoken Language?

There are two English languages; the spoken language and the written language.  Broken English happens when the speaker does not understand the difference between the two.  In many other languages, one symbol equals one sound, hence the spoken and written languages are one.  This is not the case with English.  There are 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 sounds in well spoken English.  One letter in English can have many sounds, and one sound in English has no letter equivalent at all.

But because many foreigners assume that the written and spoken languages are essentially the same, that the English language is phonetic, they assume that if they master the written language, they will be mastering the spoken language as well.  Because English is not a phonetic language, it is essential that students understand that the spoken and written languages are largely distinct, and learn their separate rules and logic.  Over time, the vague connection between the two can be gleaned.

What happens to your English if you don’t understand that the “o” symbol can be pronounced many different ways? “Hot” sounds like “hope”.  “Pot” sounds like “Pope”.  And on and on.  Mispronunciation becomes common because the speaker is pronouncing the 26 letters of the alphabet, rather than the 44 sounds of English.  To avoid this, it’s important to be sure to learn the spoken language concurrently with the written language, and with the same vigor.

Understanding the difference between the spoken and written language is only half the battle.  If you want to speak English excellently, you must fight against a larger, more insidious force than this basic misconception.  Do you know what it is?  Your Iphone.  Unfortunately, we live in a society that prizes the written language to the detriment of the spoken language.  How many of your friends prize public speaking, and can’t stand dawdling on their Iphones? None? Yea me too.  Since Guttenberg’s time, we have canonized writing, and eschewed speaking.  To win the battle of better English, you have to resist the pull of the written word, on your computer screen, Iphone, tablet, TV, ect, and begin to open your ears to the sounds of English.

Three Big Mistakes ESL Executives Make with their Presentations

Three Big Mistakes ESL Executives Make with their Presentations Click To Tweet

I really identify with the struggle ESL executives face when putting together a speech.  It’s difficult to give a solid presentation without struggling with the language, let alone trying to manage phrasing and articulation while presenting.  That’s a lot to juggle.  During my years as a speech coach in New York City and New Jersey I’ve seen a lot of ESL executives give a lot of different types of speeches.  Here are three mistakes I see most often:

  1. Focusing too much on the articulation of individual sounds, and not enough on the musicality of the language – It’s important to circle trouble words within your speech outline, and work on their pronunciation, but it’s equally important to make sure you circle the focus words within a phrase, and lift your intonation on them.  The rhythm and intonation patterns of the language are more important to master than individual sounds.
  2. Going too fast! – If you are an ESL executive, here is the best piece of advice I can give you about presenting… YOU CANNOT SPEAK TOO SLOW!  I know, I know, you feel like you are boring the room.  But would you rather take the risk of being a little too boring, or not being understood?  Pausing is powerful.  Take your time. Focus on your articulation.
  3. Using complex words when simple ones will do – I recently had an executive who was giving a major speech at a conference and he was throwing out a number of four and five syllable words like “instrumentation”.  Naturally, he was stumbling quite a bit.  There’s no need to use complex words, in fact the worlds greatest speakers (including Winston Churchill) generally advocated using simple words while presenting.If you want to make improvement on your articulation, join me for an upcoming online accent reduction course.