In business as in life, clear message and confidence goes a long way. Whether it’s that meeting with your client, important presentation or a simple phone call you want to get your message across clearly and in a confident manner.
Sad truth is that non-native speakers have to work harder to be well understood. But, don’t worry – that’s where I come in and can help! In fact 2/3 of all the billion speakers of English worldwide speak English as a second or foreign language. If you’re one of them – check out my 5 secrets below which will help you speak clear and confident English.
Secret 1: Pick your accent
Let’s face it – you have to pick just one accent and then stick to it. Not two, not three – one. No mixing. You can choose American, British (did you know there is more than one British accent?) or some other one. Choose the one that gives you the most opportunities to practice. For example: If you already live in the Australia – go for Aussie English, if you work for an American corporation – pick American. If you don’t have an opinion – choose American due to the wealth of practice materials available online.
Mixing two accents for example British and American in one sentence – creates confusion for those who are listening to you, and for you. Do you recall that strange facial expression on your native speaker friend’s face the last time you did it? Yes, she had a hard time following because she only knew one of the accents. You will surprised how much the English accents differ when it comes to pronunciation.
Secret 2: Learn all the new sounds
English uses more that 40 sounds called phonemes. Phonemes make up words and allow us to recognise them. Here’s the problem. Every language uses its own set of phonemes. You probably recall that you needed to learn few extra ones during your English class – like the TH sound as in thanks.
Did you know that while Japanese uses only 5 vowel sounds: a, e i, o and u English has 12 vowel sounds: i ɪ e æ ɜ ʌ ɑ u ʊ ɔ ɒ? That’s so many new sounds to learn for the Japanese speakers of English.
But that’s not all. If you thought that you would be able to reuse all the other sounds from your language I’ve got big news for you. You may be able to reuse some simple and common ones like the vowel i or the consonant n. However, if you pay a close attention you will notice that the similarly looking sound from your language may be pronounced in a different way in English. For example the Russian R will be much more stronger than the English R, the Polish P will not be plosive the way the English P is.
Secret 3: Use a dictionary to check pronunciation
I really hate to brake it to you but English is not a phonetic language. And that means that it is really difficult to guess the correct pronunciation from the written text, mainly because of all the historical changes such as the Great Vowel Shift. Today, English has only 26 letters but uses more than 40 sounds. What’s the solution? Thankfully, you’re not the first to ask.
Good dictionaries not only show the meaning of words but also their pronunciation with the use of the IPA phonetic alphabet which allows you to escape the ‘not a phonetic language’ trap. The IPA alphabet uses (strangely looking) phonetic symbols to represent every single sound in a word. Yes, learning the IPA alphabet is hard but it’s totally worth it. And it is your best chance to start speaking clear English.
Secret 4: Practice with native materials only
How can I learn how to speak a foreign language well? – so many people ask. Here’s a quick and simple version of findings from linguistic research which examined various factors and strategies: you need native exposure and materials. The sooner you begin to learn and the longer the exposure the better the results. But there’s a trick – only native exposure counts when it comes to speaking clearly!
Why? Your first language profoundly influences the way you speak another language. If you learn from a non-native speaker you also reinforce the non-native speech patterns of that person. For example if your colleague or even a teacher has that stronger Russian R instead of picking up the English R your brain will assume that the Russian R is the one that you need to use. And once you get used to speaking that way it will be very difficult to re-wire your brain.
Formal home-country instruction has no effect on improving your English accent! – studies suggest (e.g. Thompson, 1991)
Does that mean that you need to quit school and move to a different country? While, that would certainly help luckily today you have other options. Use native materials – pronunciation dictionaries, youtube videos, podcasts and radio broadcasts from the comfort of your home. Here’s my top tip – every time you learn a new word, even at school use a dictionary and learn how to pronounce it using a native recording. Make sure you get all the sounds correct as they will differ from those sounds from your native language. The IPA alphabet will be your best friend which will help you spot the differences. Play the recording a few times until you get it right. Review after some time to make sure your brain is using the correct pronunciation consistently.
Secret 5: Hit Record
For best results record yourself! Yes! That strategy can work miracles. It can be immensely helpful in getting the pronunciation of an new word right as well as help you make sure you’re linking words correctly in a sentence. Is that really necessary?
Well, when you hear yourself speak, you are hearing a distorted version of your voice. That’s not how you sound to others. When you hear a recording of your voice – you get to hear yourself the way everyone else hears you. And on top, it’s easier to catch error this way as you concentrate on one thing only. It’s simple – just use a recorder app on your phone and you’ll be done in two clicks.