Lingua East

People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Category: comprehensibility

The Basics Matter

Sometimes we have to go back to the beginning in order to progress. This is true of any skill. If you want to truly master a skill, you cannot breeze through the beginning and start working on it where it gets hard. You have to master its basic parts first. Once you have mastered the basics of a skill, then it will be easier to master the more challenging parts.

Any great musician understands the importance of playing scales. Being able to produce the correct notes at the right pitch with good quality is not as easy as it looks. But once a musician masters a scale, they are much more prepared for a complicated composition.

The same is true of pronunciation.

It is remarkable how just a single sound, produced slightly less than perfectly, can result in production of a word or a sentence with a completely different meaning from the one intended by the speaker. We have all experienced funny situations in which one word sounded like another, changing the speaker’s message.

The Lingua East method of speech training divides speech into several levels, beginning with the basics and advancing to the complex. Many speakers are able to communicate with native listeners using complex language, but a few small deficiencies in the more basic levels reduce the effectiveness of their message.

We are able to target individual basic skills that need strengthening in order to maximize the effectiveness of the speaker’s message. This can be frustrating, because it feels like we are working on something we learned years ago. And that is true. But mastering the basics is an important part of communicating well in a second language.

If you are ready to be a better speaker of English as a second language, then sign up for a free consultation to see if speech training is right for you. The consultation can be in person in our Charlotte location or over the web using Zoom. There we will listen to your goals for English communication, and make some helpful suggestions for getting started.

The Two L Sounds

Did you know that in English words, there are two ways that L can sound? Sometimes the two pronunciations are referred to as dark and light Ls, but I prefer to think of them as schwa (ǝ) + L and regular L.

Schwa + L – Tongue Placement: Back of Mouth

Sometimes L makes its own syllable. This tends to occur when words end in an /l/ sound like incredible, careful or magical. In these syllables (-le, -al, and -el), there is a vowel sound produced before the /l/. This vowel is an unstressed schwa, ǝ. When L makes an appearance in this syllabic form, it is produced as efficiently as possible after the previous consonant. For this /l/ sound, the tongue is raised in the back of the mouth.

There happens to be another time the /l/ sound can be produced with the tongue placement in the back of the mouth. This occurs when the L is in the middle of words such as in although, mistletoe, and albeit. This does not mean that every time there is an L in the middle of a word it is produced at the back of the mouth; there are exceptions to every rule, and the syllable structure of the word matters.

Regular L – Tongue Placement: Front of Mouth

The regular L sound occurs when the L is included in a syllable with other sounds, such as in the words language, cantaloupe, and love. In this context, the /l/ sound is formed just as in the above case of the schwa + L, but it can be paired with consonants to make a blend, or it can be paired with any vowel – either before or after the /l/.

Typically, the /l/ sound is produced with the tongue raised and its tip flattened against the bony shelf behind the top front teeth. With the tongue in the front /l/ position, there should be some space on the sides of the tongue where the air – and sound – can flow through. This tongue placement for the /l/ sound is most commonly found at the beginning of words (love, little, and lose) and in some words that have an /l/ sound in the middle (allow, yellow, and xylophone).

This kind of L can be in stressed syllables (like in the word language). In fact, a word that might typically have a schwa + L (magical) can be pronounced like a regular L, with the tongue raised in the front of the mouth, when it is stressed or emphasized in a sentence.

Do You Have Trouble Pronouncing Your Ls Clearly?

Our speech trainer helps clients improve their pronunciation of American English so they can communicate effectively at work and in the community. With easy-to-understand explanations, visuals, and technology, our clients are guided to excellent pronunciation of English that native speakers understand. Sign up for a free consultation below to see if speech training is for you. With evening and weekend hours, we can accommodate any schedule, whether in-person at our Charlotte headquarters or online.

Want to be understood? Listen more.

Listen to this article while you read.

We all want to be understood. We humans are a social species, and being able to understand one another has its benefits. One of the struggles of learning a new language is being sure that native speakers of that language understand you. The more pressing our message, the more important it is that our listeners comprehend our speech.

Careful listening allows us to pick up on cues from a conversation partner about a couple of things. By listening closely to the other speaker, we can glean information about what is important to them. In some cases, we can find out about what they may or may not know. If you listen extra carefully, words and phrases the other speaker uses to refer to the things you are both talking about can be quite informative.

It can be difficult to correct someone’s speech. When the conversation is flowing, it can be distracting and downright annoying to have someone interrupt you to say that you used the wrong word. Consequently, most people try to use subtle corrections, if any at all. A subtle correction may be the same phrase you just said, repeated back to you with a word change, or just a single word.

Listen carefully to the words that people use. Are they the same words that you are using in the conversation? If this is the case, then you and your conversation partner are probably on the same page. However, if the other person is using different vocabulary, then take note. It could be that the words they use are more appropriate than the words you are using in the conversation. Or, the words used by your conversation partner may give you insight into their thoughts and feelings about the topic of conversation.

You can convey the same idea in different tones, depending on the way you say it. For example, when discussing a shared project, there are several ways to talk about taking away components of the project.

Saying you want to cut a component out is a fairly neutral way of saying you want to take it away. Using the phrase pare down indicates a desire to take something away in order to minimize, or simplify the work. A stronger way to communicate the same idea but with greater intensity is to eliminate something, or to rip it out. If someone uses either of these phrases, it is likely they feel strongly about the subtraction of the component being discussed.

Good listening skills are not something that you can acquire overnight. Like most communication skills, listening takes practice. The best way to practice listening in a second language is to talk to people. Having a real-life conversation not only gives us the opportunity to get to know someone, it is also a great source of feedback for our speech. Even if your partner in the conversation does not explicitly correct your speech, by listening carefully to what they say and how they say it, you can learn a lot.


pressing: urgent, important, critical :: The more pressing our message, the more important it is that our listeners comprehend our speech

to pick up on: to notice or recognize something :: listening allows us to pick up on cues from a conversation partner

glean: to get, to find out :: we can glean information

downright: absolutely :: it can be distracting and downright annoying to have someone interrupt you

subtle: hard to notice, not obvious  :: most people try to use subtle corrections

on the same page: having a shared understanding, agreeing about something :: you and your conversation partner are probably on the same page

take note: pay attention :: if the other person is using different vocabulary, then take note

insight: intuitive understanding :: the words used by your conversation partner may give you insight into their thoughts and feelings about the topic

to depend on: to be decided by, to be determined by :: You can convey the same idea in different tones, depending on the way you say it

acquire: get, develop :: something that you can acquire overnight

7 Communication Tips for ESL Speakers that Work

If you speak English as a second language, then you have run into situations where someone did not understand you. What did you do when that happened? Were you able to adjust your communication style to get your point across successfully, or did you say, “Forget it,” and move on with that disappointing feeling that you had an idea you wanted to share but you couldn’t? I know what it is like to communicate my ideas in a second language, both successfully and unsuccessfully. I know you have great ideas, and I want you to be able to communicate them successfully.

To help you communicate better as an ESL speaker, I have come up with the following tips. Try them out, you may find that some work better for you than others. Leave a comment below about which tips like the most (or least).conversation

  1. Slow down your rate of speech.

Many people speaking English as a second language find that they are better understood when they slow down their rate of speech. You don’t have to speak one…word…at…a…time, in fact, that may make your listener look at you like you have six heads. But, if you can produce the same words over a longer period of time, your listener will understand you better.

I certainly found this to be the case as a small child communicating with an aunt from Peru. When she spoke to me at her normal rate of speech, it was extremely difficult for me to pick out key words in her message. But when I asked her to repeat and she slowed her rate of speech, I understood her perfectly.

  1. Use “clear speech”

“Clear speech” is a technique that involves speaking with exaggerated movements of the tongue, lips, and jaw. You may have to think about what happens in your mouth when you produce certain speech sounds to be able to successfully use clear speech, but with practice, you’ll be able to turn it on and off when you need it. It feels strange to speak using the clear speech technique, but it can help you get your message across.

  1. Lose the fillers

A lot of us use “fillers,” words or sounds like “um” or “ah” when we’re speaking without even thinking about it. Fillers do not add any meaning to what we say, and can be distracting to listeners. When you speak with an accent, you may be using filler sounds from your native language that are especially distracting to listeners. This can make it extra difficult for your listeners to understand your message.

I was recently at a convention with thousands of other speech-language pathologists. I attended a talk by a very intelligent, extremely talented clinician. The talk was packed full of valuable information, but the clinician used the filler “right?” at the end of every other sentence, and sometimes even multiple times within the same sentence. This made it more difficult to keep track of the flow of the presentation, and I suspect the speaker had no idea she was doing it.

  1. Communicate in a quiet area

There is a lot of research about the interaction between accented speech and background noise. In short, if there is a lot of noise in the surrounding area, your listeners will have a harder time understanding you. Turn off the television, move away from the crowd, and stay away from the speakers blasting music. If it is easier to hear you, it will be easier to understand you.quiet-communication

  1. Use transition words

You can use transition words strategically to introduce topic shifts to your listeners. When you use words and phrases like “on the other hand,” “that is different from…,” and “that reminds me of…” These phrases serve to flip a switch in your listener’s brain that prepares them to understand a different set of vocabulary from what they might otherwise expect.

  1. Pause more

Public speakers use pauses to give their message more power. You can use them to the same effect. Use pauses between phrases and to separate your ideas. You can even use this pause time to plan what you are going to say next, or to prepare yourself for a transition or clear speech.

  1. Say it another way

If your listener asks you to repeat what you just said, it can sometimes be helpful to rephrase your message. Your listener may have had difficulty understanding just a couple of the key words in your sentence; if you can use different words to communicate the same meaning, you increase the chances that your listener will understand you. (This is also a great way to show off that impressive vocabulary you’ve worked so hard on!)

bubblesNow that you have read about these tips, get out and practice them. Figure out which ones work for you and which ones you already use. Keep these tips at the ready to communicate with greater success. Let them hear your ideas.

8 Confidence-Boosting Tricks for Better Communication

Communication difficulties are at the core of many of the problems we face in our day-to-day lives. How many times have you stumbled through an important conversation, knowing exactly what you wanted to say but feeling like you were failing to get your point across? Communication problems affect everyone from time to time, some more than others. If you often find yourself feeling embarrassed or ashamed of how you talk, or if you have trouble getting your ideas out with the right meaning, that can affect your confidence. This problem can prevent you from sharing your great ideas with the people who need to hear them.

Confidence on Hand

Here are some steps you can take to speak with greater confidence so you can wow others with your ideas:

  1. Write down what you want to say. If your message is complex, try to organize your ideas into their simplest forms with transitions that flow from one idea to the next. Index cards are great for this, because you can put one idea on each card, lay them all out, and move them around until the order makes sense. Add your transitions in between the ideas when you have the order just how you want it. Another bonus to using index cards is that they fit in most pockets in case you need to refresh your memory in the parking lot or the elevator.
  2. Put a key message on a stone or small piece of paper and keep it in your pocket. While you’re speaking, slip your hand into your pocket. Sometimes just feeling that stone or paper can trigger you to remember what you wanted to say. At the same time, it can help you remain calm and relaxed.
  3. Practice what you want to say. Practice anywhere and everywhere: in the mirror, in your car, with your cat, with a friend. The more you practice what you want to say, the more automatic it will become. Then, you can put your energy into…
  4. Body language – use it to add meaning to your message. Think about what you might want your hands to be doing. If your arms are crossed in front of your chest, you’re sending a negative message that tells others that you’re closed off to their ideas and input. Standing with your hands on your hips is a position that emanates power. Use a mirror or ask a friend to find out what kind of a message your body language is sending and work to figure out the right position for your message. On a similar note…
  5. Stand in a powerful position for a few minutes before you have the conversation. Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology last year showed that when people stood in a “power pose” before a job interview, they did better in the interview than people who had a more withdrawn position before the interaction.
  6. Do something before the conversation that relaxes you. Take a walk outside, draw a picture, or simply stop to smell the roses. If you’re calm going in, you’re more likely to be calm going out.
  7. Take care of your body. You have better control of your mind when you get enough sleep, eat good quality food, and drink plenty of water.
  8. If you’re concerned about your accent, try practicing what you want to say, with stress on the appropriate words. If that’s difficult for you to do on your own, or if you still have concerns, seek help from a speech pathologist or ESL teacher. People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

7 Tips for Talking to People Who Are Hard of Hearing

According to the American Speech, Language, and Hearing Association, 28.6 million people in America have problems with their hearing. That’s more people than there are in Nepal. That’s more people than the number of ping pong balls you can fit in a Hummer. That’s more people than there are bicycles in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland combined. You get the idea: it’s a heck of a lot of people. If you talk to people, chances are good you’re going to run into someone with hearing loss at some point or another. Read on for seven great tips for communicating with people who are hard of hearing.

by Das Fotoimaginarium

These guys are doing it right. (Photo: Conversation, by Das Fotoimaginarium)

  1. Look at the person. It’s not recommended to stare at the person like a creep, but it’s a good idea to look the person in the eye when you’re talking to them. That way, not only do you know you have their attention, but they can see your mouth and get a better idea of the words you’re saying, and they can read the expression on your face. If you’re trying to talk to someone who is behind you, there’s less of a probability that they will know what you’re saying.
  2. Have good lighting. Having the person be able to see you doesn’t help if you’re in the dark, unless they happen to be a lemur and can see in the dark. 

    Don't worry about lighting with this fella. (Photo: Brown Mouse Lemur, by Frank Vassen)

    Don’t worry about lighting with this fella. (Photo: Brown Mouse Lemur, by Frank Vassen)

  3. Increase the volume of your voice without losing your intonation. It can be helpful to speak in a louder voice, but try to keep the ups and downs of your speech; otherwise, it might sound like you’re shouting at the person.
  4. Some people hear better on one side than the other. If someone says they hear better on their right side, talk more into that ear, but try to do so in a way that they can still see your face.
  5. Cut down the background noise. It’s never a good idea to try to have a conversation with someone in a construction site; similarly, turn down background music and turn off the television. If you are in a room with a lot of other people, look for a quiet spot to talk. Background noise can be distracting to the listener and can make it harder for them to hear you.

    Not an ideal place for a conversation. (Photo: Crowd, by James Cridland)

    Not an ideal place for a conversation. (Photo: Crowd, by James Cridland)

  6. If someone is having trouble understanding, rephrase what you’re trying to say. Try to stay away from words with s, f, and th sounds. (Those sounds are the hardest to hear.)
  7. If you’re not sure if the other person is following you, ask!

Good communication involves a speaker and a listener. If you want someone to be thinking about what you have to say, try to set up the conversation for success. It only takes a small effort to share your big ideas.

Accent in English as a Second Language

It’s not you, it’s them (sometimes).

If you’re communicating in a language you picked up later in life – also known as an L2 – effective communication is more than just knowing how to put the words together. It’s about pronouncing the words clearly and fluidly, with just the right intonation to get your point across, and using the right words. That’s true even in a first language.

A topic of investigation for speech researchers is what, exactly, contributes to our hearing an accent in the speech of someone’s L2. Three factors have been identified as affecting how English spoken as a second language sounds: intelligibility, accentedness, and comprehensibility.

Intelligibility is a measure of how much of what a person says can be understood by a typical listener.

Accentedness is similar to intelligibility, but involves influence from a native language. When we speak languages we learned later in life, it’s hard to know how much of an accent we have, because the perception of accentedness comes from a listener who learned that language from birth. What can we do about this? Knowing we have an accent, we can work to make our L2 sound more natural, or native. This is where the accent in “accent modification” comes from.

Comprehensibility is a little bit different. It has to do with how easy it is for a listener to process what someone else says. It involves not just the sounds of speech, but also the meanings of the words and how they’re put together. Comprehensibility gets at our deep understanding of a language: knowing which words to use and when, in what order, and getting those words out clearly enough that the person you’re talking to can follow what you’re saying. I think we’ve all had conversations with someone speaking an L2 where it took a lot of mental effort just to understand what they were trying to say.

A study published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research looked at the three factors mentioned above in Spanish speakers with English as an L2. The speakers were each assigned to one of three groups depending on how much of an accent they had and were recorded as they produced three types of sentences:

  1. True/False: A statement that is either true or false. (Example: June is the first month of the year.)
  2. Meaningful: A sentence that is grammatically correct and makes sense. (Example: Crazy Mary digs a deep hole.)
  3. Unexpected: A sentence that, although it is grammatically correct, does not make sense because of the vocabulary used. (Example: The refrigerator ran across the field.)

Monolingual English speakers listened to the recordings and ranked them by accent. These rankings coincided pretty accurately with the accent groups the speakers were assigned to. Of the three sentence types, the True/False sentences were the easiest to understand, and were judged as being spoken with less of an accent than the other two sentence types. What’s more interesting is that while the meaningful sentences were pretty easy to understand, the listeners judged the recordings of the unexpected sentences that didn’t make sense as being spoken with more of an accent. In other words, when the speakers said sentences that did not make sense because of the vocabulary, the listeners perceived a stronger accent!


This research indicates that part of what gives us an accent when we’re speaking a second language comes from the person we’re talking to. We have to take into account how their brain is processing what we’re saying. We can do this by really thinking about and working to improve the way we present our ideas and introduce new topics. Often, it’s our most exciting and innovative ideas that we most want to be heard by others. Working on communication skills in your second language can help others to start thinking about the meat of your ideas without having to waste brainpower processing the words you’re using to communicate.

It takes a long time to learn another language really well, and if you have, chances are good that you’ve worked your tail off to learn the vocabulary to communicate intelligently with native speakers. Lingua East can help you with your accent and comprehensibility so that people hear your ideas, not your accent. Contact us today!

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