Speaking English and being understood is an art – which even some native speakers need to learn (Birmingham?).
Anna Walker, from Interact With Languages shares a powerful pronunciation tip. Then I share advice for writing essays with clarity.
In this episode you will learn:
- Why friends, family and tutors can understand you but examiners CAN NOT.
- Discover the one sound that most students don’t use when speaking English -this sound makes you clearer and understood almost immediately.
- Why fluency in English does not mean competency.
- How you can be an excellent writer and still write a horrible IELTS essay.
Download the whole episode here, for free, then sign up.
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Anna: Hi. Can I talk a tiny bit about pronunciation and then just a little bit about the letters? Is that all right?
Ben: Yeah that’s wonderful. Yeah that’d be great. I’ve only had a few teachers talk about pronunciation. I think even some teachers kind of avoid it because it such a difficult thing to, to teach you know. It’s more of a just, just copy me, say this I say but it’s not the best way. All right go on.
Anna: Well I’ve actually seen an, seen a video recently and I’m thinking a lot on work on pronunciation because what I’m finding; I have some students who are super good at ah, their English and what they say is just gorgeously fluent. But then I can’t understand them because is just, is just so, I call it the song of English I don’t know. I feel as if languages have a soul and each language has a song and I believe that what happens, you have these very high ability speakers who just don’t have the music or the song of English and as a result I can’t understand what they’re saying until I get attuned into their rhythm. And of course, once I do that, I can understand everything they are saying. But of course, the examiners won’t do that. And that, that’s what happens.
Ben: Yeah that’s great advice.
Anna: Yeah well what happens to these people-
Ben: Sorry I was just going to say. I totally agree with that because even, even with like the, the regional accents in the UK. If you start speaking with a Geordie from Newcastle, the first minute and it, if you’re not tuned into that sound, that rhythm, it just sounds like a block of sounds. However, after a minute, once your brain’s actually tuned into the the frequency, you’ve found the frequency, it’s locked on then it starts converting it into words. But yeah it’s true that the examiner’s not going to be able to do that.
Ben: So quickly.
Anna: Yeah and that’s what all their, all their friends are doing and all their teachers are doing it. All these people speak you know, in inverted commas “fluent English” because they really do, everyone just tunes into their frequency and they understand them perfectly, but their English is still not good enough to pass IELTS. Because of this lack of song, this lack of rhythm.
Ben: Uh hu.
Anna: And I saw a Cambridge video and it just changed my pronunciation teaching forever because um, what it did was I’ve always, you know, I’ve always understood that you’ve got the actual sounds, all the diphthongs and vowel sounds and the phonetics and the phonics of sound which have to be correct. Then you’ve got the actual stress or intonation within the word or the lexical sort of um, pronunciation has to be correct. So that’s two.
Anna: And then of course you, on top of that you have to have the sentence that has to be correct and the sentence sound is the one that most people lose out on ‘cos you say the word. You say please, you know empty. And everyone goes “empty.” And then you say well my glass is empty and that could either be my glass is empty, or my glasses empty. But as soon as you put it into a sentence, empty changes.
Anna: ‘Cos every single word changes depending on what it is that you’re saying.
Ben: That’s true.
Anna: So, yeah. So when you’re thinking of the whole sentence and creating and pronouncing for the whole sentence, what you need to do is say well what is the key word of my sentence? For example my glass is empty for me for that situation might be glass or it could be depending on how I say the sentence, but in this situation I would say my glass is empty.
Ben: Uh hu.
Anna: And that means that empty’s going to become a very quiet word and glass is going to become a little bit higher pitched. My glass is empty. And so the change in the structure of the sentence is going to change depending on what my key word is in my sentence. And it’s not only in a sentence. I should say rather in a clause because some, or in a thought. Because some sentences have three or four or two different thoughts within it and each thought there’s one key word that you need to have as your, as your strong word, the pitch changes a little bit and all the words around it then start tapering out and changing a little bit around it.
So in the song of English, you think of your key word in your thought and then you make that your strongest word with the slight pitch change. My glass is empty. And from then on, everything sort of swims in and out around it.
Ben: It makes perfect sense because I was going back to when I was learning Spanish and I quickly found out that when I was listening to somebody, if I could just find that key word that they were saying, then the rest would just make sense you know, and I could understand them from there, even if I didn’t understand the words. So finding the key word I needed well, if you’re speaking a language, stressing that keyword is going to make your communication a lot more clearer.
Anna: Uh hu and all your other words around it. You don’t have. I think what some people do is focus on every single word to make sure that every single word is pronounced properly but what happens is they change, the words change around the key word and if you’re focusing on every single word there is no rhythm. There is no song. And we cannot understand you.
Ben: That’s fantastic advice. And how does a student get this ability of stressing the key word while they’re speaking?
Anna: Well what I, what I have done with students with pronunciation difficulties in the past is I’ve recorded their speaking so we’ve done speaking and I’ve recorded what they’ve said. And then I played back to them what they say and they listen to the sentence and they can tell me then well what was the key word in that sentence? What had you wanted to stress? And then um, let’s resay it again so it’s about going, really recording yourself and listening to yourself which is probably the best way of doing that.
Ben: Yes and I’ve heard that advice a lot but I’ve never heard it when you said um I’ve never heard anyone say listen back to it and find the key word that should have been stressed.
Anna: It has worked in our class a couple of times so that’s you know, it works.
Ben: You would say that’s to get the song of English, to get this ability?
Anna: Yeah I call it the song or the music of English. I think the overall way to get it.
Ben: Yeah ‘cos when we were emailing back and forth, I did a search for “song of English” and I couldn’t find anything. I could just find some Youtube videos.
Anna: Oh cool. It’s my phrase! Oh cool, I should copyright that.
Ben: Yeah but it makes perfect sense having learnt other languages. If you can just tune into that song and say it the way that the locals say it, then immediately, I mean you may not even be using the most perfect vocabulary but just tuning into that rhythm’s going to make it ten times easier to be understood. Do you have any other advice for improving the pronunciation or any other advice you want to share regarding the IELTS?
Anna: Well I think probably just my sort of overall advice that I would give most of my students is to not skip over planning or to not think that planning is unimportant. Whether it be in writing and planning what you’re gonna say, reading and preparing, you know, beforehand like we said. All that kind of stuff even in speaking and making the plan for your Part 2; just really doing that wisely. I think planning is a, a very important part of the skills of passing your IELTS test.
Ben: Right. I see.
Anna: Well that, that would be my overall advice I think. Just don’t skip out on planning.
Ben: Uh huh. Now for the planning would you recommend sort of like making a timetable? Or just erm.
Anna: Oh I mean during the IELTS. I’m talking about during the IELTS.
Ben: Right. I see.
Anna: So for example, when you’re given an Essay 2 writing task, to spend, to be happy to spend five to ten minutes, ten minutes even, making sure you’ve got a good solid. These are my arguments. These are my um, these are how I’m going to, in what order and in what paragraph I’m gonna present them.
Ben: Uh huh.
Anna: Because then you can write a good, clear topic sentence. Then you can link it back. Same as in Speaking, when you’ve got your Part 2 and you’ve given that one minute to plan, rather than writing out sentences and all that kind of stuff, you know, do a mind map. Get all the ideas in single word form down on paper. Get, plan what it is. Plan a story, what it is that you’re gonna do, but spend the one minute wisely. Just planning planning. Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your time.
Ben: Exactly. Very good. Very good uh huh. And then just one word of advice. When they do the, they make you, when they talk about the plan, and there’s, specially if they’re telling stories. It’s got to have a beginning, what happens, then the end and why it was important.
If you just follow that simple structure, it’s, it goes back to just having a framework. It makes it so much easier if you’ve got like, like you did with the reading. Stage 1, Stage2, Stage 3, Stage 4, bam. And it makes it, it goes back to the exam skills and like having processes and systems to follow can make the exam skills ten times easier. And the Sentence Guide, you mentioned it in the emails, I’ll just give you a quick erm, what do you call it? A quick overview, yeah.
Anna: Go on.
Ben: You know like you sort of laid out a very effective, solid plan for reading?
Anna: For reading.
Ben: Well, for the writing, it was something similar because on the intern- on the site, I have a link saying oh tell me what the problem is, you know? And everybody was just sending me emails saying oh it’s the writing, it’s the erm speaking. Those two were the biggest things.
Anna: Yeah. They are.
Ben: Um yeah.
Anna: The thing is, they say they are but I, I dunno. Anyway, keep going.
Ben: Yeah I think it’s um, I think it’s those two skills they say probably because they’re the productive ones and they can see themselves as, it’s like the, almost the easiest from their point of view to improve the most logic-
Ben: To improve. ‘Cos, I mean, improvement in listening is hard to measure.
Anna: It is.
Ben: And it’s hard to sort of like make active progress in that unless you’ve got some solid advice like you just gave. But the writing I think, it’s more it’s easier to measure their progress.
Ben: You know?
Ben: So. And I’ve found as well that when I was looking at essays being written, I thought, this, the problem here is that their ability is quite good in English, but they need these solid exam skills and almost a framework to follow. To write a clear and cohesive essay because some of them, their English is fine, but it just goes all over the place.
Ben: And there’s no direction.
Anna: I know.
Ben: And they have like, I’ve got to use nevertheless. I’ve got to use however.
Anna: Right, they do.
Ben: Yeah and everything’s. All the information is there but there’s no organisation. Uh huh.
Ben: And I think as well that the, when they read the question, there’s no way to attack the question. Because maybe they’ll have sort of like an idea then a question.
Ben: And then there’s no way to sort of like think what is the, what is he asking me?
Anna: Yeah, right?
Ben: And that cloudiness often is transferred onto the paper for their answer. The haven’t really understood what the question is wanting.
Ben: You know?
Anna: Yeah that’s. I agree and that’s why in my classes I focus. I reckon if they, all right I want full writing classes, I reckon I’ll put three of them and we do planning.
Anna: Three out of the four. This how you plan your. ‘Cos you can write a very good essay but god, my god you’re ideas are all over the place.
Ben: Exactly. Exactly.
Ben: And this, this the er thing. And um, so, what I try to do is just give them the most solid plan which they sort of like memorise and they use as structure. And then there’s a few steps beforehand to sort of like really laser focus in on what the question is requiring and what to do. Like each sentence, now that we’ve established the need of the question ah ha, or what the question requires.
Ben: It just makes it so much easier. And the first essays they give, they they write, are are very basic and like a skeleton. However, they’ve got the structure and once they’ve done-
Ben: Once they know how to do this and they’ve got like a, the framework, the skeleton, then they can start layering the howevers, the nonetheless and putting in these fancy ideas and stuff. But unless the skeleton is rock solid, and in place, all these ideas of however, nevertheless and these fancy ideas, idiomatic expressions, all these things that they keep hearing that they should do from websites and from books. It doesn’t make any sense to do it unless they are put, used correctly and they add and the improve the coherence of the essay.
So that’s roughly the sentence guidance. But then, yeah more or less.
Anna: Yeah. I looked at it briefly. I think I’m going to have to get a copy.
Ben: It’s a PDF and it’s audio as well because I-
Ben: Yeah because I figure that all the students that are coming to the site, they’re audio learners. That’s why they’re tuning into the podcasts. So making them, me talking them through the process, yeah they know me, they know my accent. It gives them that confidence and it kind of makes it more clear as well. You can have the PDF but if you hear it as well I think it, you get it in both ways, especially for the audio learners. It’s very effective.
Ben: You see?
Ben: I’ll send you. I’ll send you a coffee of it.
Anna: Yeah we have great coffee in Melbourne.
Ben: Yeah I’ll send you a cappuccino through Skype.
Anna: Awesome. You laugh now, but you never know about the future.
Ben: Maybe you could give us your feedback and stuff. Well er, I think that’s everything.
Ben: So thank you very much Anna.
Anna: Thank you for having me Ben I really enjoyed it.