Lingua East

People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Category: words

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.

Glossary

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

Use Language to Make a Difference

Around the United States and the world, there is discontent. This discontent is particularly strong in the immigrant community. It takes a lot to leave everything you know to move to a new country and culture. For that reason, I have an immense respect for immigrants. They are powerful people.

That discontent, when harnessed, has the power to significantly change the status quo for the better. Whether that be related to policy or cultural ideals doesn’t matter. What I’m talking about is the sheer power of that discontent. However, in order to make a change, some organization is needed.

No matter what you are doing, no matter the size of your organization, it is important to clearly define what you want. When you do this, other people can get behind the thing you’re pushing for, adding power and momentum to your cause. That is how to make a difference.

Define What You Want

There are two approaches to defining what you want. The first is specific. For example, “I want my tap water to be 99.99% free of heavy metals, inorganic compounds, and bacteria.” There is no question here about what you want.

The other approach to definitions uses language that is not so clear, language that is vague. The benefit of vague language is that it has the power to appeal to more people. Compare the specific example above to this: “Clean water.” This does not specify where the water comes from (maybe out of your tap, maybe not), nor does it make clear what “clean” actually means. However, while the people across town may or may not be okay with the water coming out of your tap containing a little bit of this or a trace of that, they are likely to agree across the board that “clean water” is a desirable goal.

Spread Your Message

Once you have defined what it is that you want, telling others about it can help you gain momentum, forward progress toward achieving your goal. Now there are more ways than ever to share your ideas with the world. Social media and messaging platforms, email campaigns, and the traditional low-tech communication mediums (i.e., printed flyers, articles and books, billboards and signs, and talking to people face-to-face) are all effective ways to spread your message.

Even if what you want is to achieve a personal goal, telling someone else about it can increase your accountability and improve your chances of achieving that goal.

Act

Even the most clearly-defined message does not make things happen. People have to hear the message and act on it. As much as I love language, I still agree with the old saying that actions speak louder than words. Once you have defined your message and gotten it out there, it’s up to you to do the things you need to do in order to create the positive change you have already envisioned.

The Good Kind of Stress (Pt. 1)

A big part of an accent is something called stress. Unlike the feeling that you get when you have too much on your plate, this stress is an important component of any spoken language. Stress is a part of prosody, which I like to define as the ups and downs of speech. When a word or speech sound is stressed, it is lengthened and emphasized, either with increased or decreased volume or pitch.

Lexical stress is the stress within a word. This kind of stress can change the meaning of the word, and sometimes it’s accompanied by a change in vowel sound. For example, when you stress the first syllable of the word record, you’re talking about an album or a history of something, and the vowel is a short e sound, like the one at the beginning of egg. If you stress the second syllable of record, you hear or and you’re talking about capturing something that you can play or read back later. Researchers have found that when the vowel sounds of words like record are changed, listeners tend to hear the unintended version of the word. In other words, if you mispronounce one of these words, it will be harder for your listener to understand what you’re saying.

There are a lot of words that change meaning when you change their lexical stress. Below is a list of some of those words. Can you come up with different definitions for each word?

conduct
protest
transport
recall
discharge
address
Contest
contract
permit
conflict

Lexical stress in other, more unique words follows specific rules. Saying the word with the stress on the wrong syllable may not change the meaning of the word, but to a native listener, it will sound funny. Imagine if someone pronounced your name with stress on the wrong syllable. That would sound pretty strange!

Numbers in the teens have stress on the first syllable, but when you get into the twenties, the stress shifts to the second syllable. Below, the stressed syllable is written in bold.

                                    Thirteen                   Twenty-one

                                    Fourteen                 Twenty-two

                                    Fifteen                      Twenty-three

                                    Sixteen                     Twenty-four

                                    Seventeen              Twenty-five

                                    Eighteen                  Twenty-six

                                    Nineteen                 Twenty-seven

                                    Twenty                     Twenty-eight

There is another class of words that experience stress shifts – and for some, vowel changes – when suffixes are changed. Can you pick out the vowel changes?

Celebrate / celebration
Music / musical / musicality
Emotion / emotional / emotionality
Environment / environmental / environmentalism

Can you think of more examples?

Lexical stress gives poetry its cadence. If you studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, then you know that they’re written in iambic pentameter, which features a pattern wherein syllables are: unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed,…

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have Astronomy,
(from Sonnet XIV)

And then there are the limericks of Edward Lear, which have another stress pattern. For example,

There was an Old Man with a beard
Who said, “It is just as I feared!-
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

Oden, The Wanderer (1886) by Georg von Rosen

When words have three or more syllables is when figuring out where the stress goes can get tricky. One way to practice is to try saying the word, and tap your hand on something (a table, your leg, your dog, etc.) one time as you say the word. You’re likely to tap on the stressed syllable. Another way to practice lexical stress is to use music. Although there are some cultural differences in picking out stress from music (another topic I can address if anyone is interested), you might be able to pick out the stressed syllable in your favorite music. Try it, and let me know how it goes.

There are so many components to speaking a second language well enough to be understood, it can be difficult to focus on everything when you’re trying to communicate what’s on your mind. However, a bit of practice can lead to improvement, and less confusion (or at least processing) on the end of your listener. After all, your listener should focus on your ideas, not your accent.

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