Monday, May 29, 2017


You’ve all had frustrating moments when you say something as carefully and clearly as you can, but your listeners just don’t get it! Sorry to say, mastering difficult sounds (like the TH, R, L, or maybe V/B or V/W confusion) may not be enough. The problem may go beyond pronunciation alone.

In fact, your “music” may be out of tune for American English (see two Tips before this). A monotonous style of speaking (which is not “musical” in English) can either confuse those trying to follow you, or put them to sleep with a boring presentation.

You can rectify this by varying and breaking up segments within your sentences to emphasize key words or phrases. Do this by separating the words of your sentence into “Content Words” and “Function Words.” (You will need to understand, or study up on, English grammar terms in order to do this easily.)

Content Words are important words that convey crucial meaning to the sentence. They include nouns, main action verbs, adjectives and sometimes adverbs, negative words (not, never, can’t, etc.), and the last word of a sentence. Content Words must be spoken with stress, either by saying the word louder, holding it longer, or speaking it more slowly and clearly.

By contrast, Function Words connect or incorporate the more important Content Words so that the sentence functions grammatically. Function Words include pronouns, articles, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs. They are spoken with less force or clarity, and moving quickly along.

Here are two examples (Content Words in bold and spoken boldly; Function Words moving quickly along).

I can’t go with you now; I have more important things to do this afternoon.

That’s okay. I need to be home for dinner by six, so there probably isn’t time anyway.

As with most of our Tips, this is a bigger subject than we can cover completely here. But it’s something to be alert to, and then work on with greater study if necessary.

Monday, May 22, 2017


We all want to find ways to relieve stress. But if your first language is not English, you need to add stress to your speaking style in order to be clearer, more persuasive, and seem more knowledgeable.

This is because English is a uniquely “stress-timed language,” while other languages are either “syllable-timed” (all syllables uttered equally) or have structurally no syllables at all (eg. Chinese).

When Americans break a word down into syllables - that is, into sound units, each of which has one vowel sound in it, like in-for-MA-tion) - our mind processes the whole word better if its parts are individualized in some way. We do this by accenting some syllables more than others.

How? By saying a stressed syllable louder or with a rise in voice pitch, by saying it more clearly, or by holding it longer or stopping the voice for a split-second. Or by using several of these techniques at once.

You must learn to identify all the syllables in a word, and to know which ones are stressed. Then practice the most troublesome words. If you don’t, then:
  • Portuguese/Brazilian speakers will say “POL-i-cy” but it will sound like “PO-lice” (wrong word altogether).
  • French speakers will say “He FIXes his car himself,” but it will sound like “He FIX his car himself” (grammar seems wrong).
  • Spanish speakers will say “I in-TEN-ded to tell you,” but it will sound like “I in-TEND to tell you” (tense and timeframe will be misunderstood).
  • Hindi speakers will say all syllables equally fast and with no apparent break, so that “I want to explain this fully and clearly” will sound like “iwanttoexplainthisfullyandclearly” (a jumble of meaningless letters to Americans).
After mastering this, you are ready next time for some important rules for extending this concept to full sentences. Only then can you truly express your bigger ideas with clear comprehension by American listeners.

Monday, May 15, 2017


Every language has its own “music,” its unique rhythms, a distinct upward and downward flow, some staccato passages and other lingering stretched out sounds. English can be as different from your first language as a waltz is from a tango, a march is from a ballad. But is your ear tuned to hear it?

American English is relaxed, fluid and lyrical. It is unevenly paced, glides along with some sounds held longer than others, moves up at predictable times, and usually ends with a downward plunge.

If you do not learn to recognize and employ these musical qualities, your English pronunciation will lack the flavor and power to persuade, explain, appeal to, and connect with your listener.

Take time to listen to the music of native speakers of English. Listen to the changing patterns that indicate the moods behind the sentiments. Warm up to the subtleties of regional accents and the personality and charm behind the words.

Listen to clear native speakers, such as actors, broadcasters and some teachers. Listen as they move quickly from one word to the next, when they linger on a single word and stretch it out, or when they stop for an instant before, or sometimes after, a key word to give it importance. Listen to American English until the shape and flow of this language becomes familiar and natural to you. Then after listening, you are ready to analyze the details.

Next time, we shall begin to explore specific elements of American music. We’ll start with the critically important area of “stress and emphasis,” which does not exist very much in most languages. Without sufficient stress and emphasis, your American listeners will be confused or bored, and may even tune you out!

Monday, May 8, 2017


For job interviews, meetings, lectures and presentations, American culture appreciates a person with a self-assured presence and confident demeanor. You must project bold and positive energy, starting with the way you speak.

Opening your jaw more broadly and breathing from the bottom of your lungs are two improvements that will add power, clarity and confidence to your verbal delivery.

In American English, the 5 vowels actually have 17 vowel sounds. Some distinctions are almost imperceptible to non-native speakers, but all are important and necessary for your American listeners. As vowel sounds progress, say, from an “ee” (see, we, reach) to an “aah” (father, collar, apostrophe), your jaw will be almost closed for the “ee” but drop wide open for the “aah.” Practice moving from “ee” to “aah” repeatedly. Drop the jaw as much as you can, and feel the sensation when it is wide open. Expanding the jaw’s range will give you more room to say clearly all the vowel sounds in between. It will also give your verbal delivery a more “American feel,” with the mouth physically exposed and open (amazingly contributing to a confident impression on others!).

English also requires “deep breathing” so that you will not run out of air in sentences where certain words are held much longer than others. (Try saying this full sentence with power; if you run out of air midway, you now know what to work on!) You must learn to breathe like opera singers, yoga practitioners and competitive swimmers –from your diaphragm, deep in the belly where the greatest amount of air can be stored and slowly released.

Many people gather air only from the upper chest, such as many women from Japan and France, men from some areas of China and India, and others who are just “soft-spoken” by nature. If you are a “shallow breather,” realize the importance of changing this habit in order to project the power needed for American English and business confidence.

Monday, May 1, 2017


“Tongue tied” means unable to speak, usually from being nervous. This week, we give a special slant to this expression --when you can’t speak because the words themselves seem to be tangled up in your mouth, getting in the way of each other.

Talking about how you must adopt a special “mouth shape” for clear English, we move from the lips (last week’s posting) to another critical mouth part, the tongue.

Like lips, the tongue must be free of tension (Russian speakers especially!). It should rest in a concave shape, with the center lower than the edges, somewhat like a bowl. When not speaking, an American’s tongue falls into this “default position,” relaxed at the bottom of the mouth with the tongue tip (the “front edge of that bowl”) touching the back of the lower front teeth.

This resting position makes it easy to say “uh” (technically called the “schwah”). We use “uh” all the time…when we’re thinking before speaking (uh, well, uh, let me think about that); when we say any vowel sound in an unstressed syllable (“photography” becomes “phuh – TOG – ruh – phy”); and as a common vowel sound itself (punish, double, flutter).

The tongue tip is used more than any other part of the tongue for many troublesome consonants in English, such as the D, T, N and L –especially hard for East and Southeast Asian speakers. To get this right, you need instruction and practice, but even then, it’s possible only when your tongue starts from a concave position.

And the TH – EVERYBODY’s problem—requires your tongue tip to touch lightly between the upper and lower front teeth. Looking in the mirror, you must see that tongue tip jutting out between your teeth for just a second, to get the English TH right.

Next week’s tip concerns two final ways to add power and confidence to your American English speech: opening your jaw more broadly than ever, and “power breathing,” as opera singers and Olympic swimmers do best!