Lingua East

People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

The Mechanics of Speech

Remember learning about Rube Goldberg machines? These machines employ a series of mechanical processes that eventually result in an action. Speech production is similar to a Rube Goldberg machine. After the brain figures out what we want to say (which is accomplished through electrical and chemical means), the rest of speech production is surprisingly mechanical.

Voice Production

The Bellows

Maybe you’ve used a bellows to blow some life into a fire. You might have noticed the sound of the air rushing out of the bellows and how it changed depending on how quickly you moved the handles together. Or maybe you have created a squealing sound by stretching the opening of an inflated balloon and allowing the air to escape through the tight but unblocked opening. With a little bit of force and in close quarters, moving air can produce sound.


Image: Lisa Ann Yount

Image: Lisa Ann Yount

In speech production, the moving air comes from the lungs. We use muscles, including the diaphragm, to get the air moving. It travels up out of the lungs and into the throat, where it meets the larynx.


The Whoopee Cushion

Whoopee cushions are immensely entertaining. That is not just because of the ease with which you can trick someone into thinking they have farted, but rather, because the whoopee cushion creates its comical sound via air flowing through a flappy opening. The vocal chords (a.k.a. vocal folds), are like the flappy opening of a whoopee cushion. Just as you can shift the opening of a balloon or whoopee cushion to alter the pitch of the sound that is created by the escaping air, we adjust our larynx to change the pitch and quality of our voice. These adjustments are made using muscles that move cartilaginous structures attached to our vocal folds.

Image: Jason Meredith

Image: Jason Meredith

Voice is produced as it travels through the opening in the vocal folds on its journey from the lungs. The vocal folds are made of muscle with a flexible, stretchy, flappy cover, like the rubber of a whoopee cushion. The sound that comes out of the opening in your vocal folds is your voice.

The Bottleneck

Have you ever blown air across the top of a bottle to make a sound? You can change the sound a little by shifting your lips, but the nature of the sound that you can make with a bottle depends the most on the volume of air inside the bottle. The more liquid there is (in other words, less air), the higher-pitched the sound will be. An empty bottle makes a low-pitched sound.

Image: Dean Hochman

Image: Dean Hochman

Air resonates in a bottle like the voice resonates in the air-filled chambers of the head and neck (a.k.a. the vocal tract). The sound waves of a speaker’s voice explode out of the vocal folds and bounce around at the back of the throat, in the mouth, and up into the nose. The speaker can greatly affect the quality of the sound of their voice using the muscles of the throat and mouth to position their larynx and the surfaces of the vocal tract.


Over the years, people have created duck calls, a type of whistle designed to – like a duck’s own vocal tract – cut through the noise of water to attract ducks. There are a number of duck calls out there, with each design offering a different ducky sound. Key features of duck call designs are the use of vibrating reeds to create the sound when someone blows into the whistle, and the blockages through which the sound waves travel before leaving the whistle. The structure of these duck calls can vary greatly, with different whistles producing very different sounds.



Spoken language is a series of sounds that we create using the air we move from our lungs out our mouth (and nose). What makes it so complex is our ability to produce – and understand – a lengthy series of these sounds at high speed. We produce the sounds of speech with our lips, tongue, and the flap of tissue that separates the air in the mouth from the air in the nose.

Different sounds are produced by changing the airflow in the vocal tract in different ways. Speakers can do this by forcing the air through a smaller space (like when a pirate bunches up their tongue to say, “arrrr”), and by blocking the air (like when a diner forces the air out through the nose to say, “mmm” or a thirsty baby moves their lips together and apart to say, “baba”).

Putting it Together: Whoopee Cushion to Duck Call

Around the globe, there are over 100 different speech sounds, and all are created out of thin air[1]. When we speak, we move air from our lungs through our vocal folds, and we manipulate it for each sound. Speakers combine speech sounds in infinite ways to communicate. A listener’s ability to process a series of speech sounds quickly depends on their knowledge of the language spoken and their experience using that language, as well as the speaker’s precision of production. Just as one small change in the design of a duck call can change the sound it produces, a small change in the position of the larynx or tongue can significantly change the sound a speaker produces.

When you know the words you want to say but you feel that your speech production could be more precise, that’s where speech trainers come in. At Lingua East we can help you turn the air in your lungs into speech that people understand. Drop us a line and we’ll help you out. Go on, let them hear your ideas!

[1] While most (such as the sounds in Standard American English) are created using air from the lungs, some speech sounds, such as the various clicks in African languages, are created by drawing air in.

Why Gestures Matter in Communication

We communicate with a lot more than our mouths. Think of communication as an art. An artist has a number of tools they use to produce their art. A painter uses many different brushes, spatulas, and pigments to create a painting. A poet uses words and phrases with punctuation and page space to create a poem. A good communicator uses their mouth and upper airway as well as facial expression and gesture to share their ideas. Gestures enhance spoken communication.

Gestures are movements, usually of the hands, that enhance the meaning of spoken communication. You probably do not have to think very long to come up with an example of gestural communication, whether you happen to know American Sign Language or you’re trying to merge onto I-77 at midday.
Many gestures are fairly universal, such as the hand out, palm up gesture. Other gestures are culture-specific, such as the OK sign – whose meaning varies from the United States, where it means, “all okay,” to Argentina and Greece it is more offensive.

We can use our hands as an addition to spoken communication, to help our listeners understand us. In order for gestures to be understood, they should be produced within clear view of the listener, usually in front of the upper torso or face. Unless you are using a specific gesture that your listener is familiar with, keep it simple. The simpler the gesture, the more likely your listener will understand what you mean to say.

What are you saying with your hands?

The position of your hands has an impact on your message.

Hands open with the palms up is a more positive gesture, and is inviting – especially with outstretched arms.

When hands are in fists or face down, it tends to be received by the listener more negatively, and may serve to give you more time to speak during your turn in a conversation.

Hands up with the palms forward is a limit-setting gesture. It communicates to your listener to stop what they are doing.

Take a moment to think about how you use your hands when you speak. What is the message you’re communicating to others, beyond what comes out of your mouth?

Train Your Ears for Clear Pronunciation

An important part of many accent modification programs is auditory training. This entails listening to sounds in our second language that are so similar that we might not even hear a difference when we start the training. But, with repeated listening and practice, you can learn to hear the differences between sounds that the native speakers hear. Being able to hear the difference can help you to produce the difference in your speech.

The Mouth-Ear Connection

Although no one can know for sure exactly how speech production happens, people have come up with different theories that connect what we hear to how we speak. As babies, we played with pushing air through our mouths, and eventually we figured out how to produce the sounds that we heard around us. These are the sounds of our native language.

When we’re older and we want to learn to speak another language, we try our best to produce the sounds we hear, but there are two things working against us: one is related to the movement patterns our brains have programmed our mouths to follow to speak, and the second is the acoustic input our ears have been trained to pick up on.

During childhood, our mouths learn the motor patterns that are required to produce the speech sounds of our first language with a native accent. These are the motor patterns that, when applied to a second language, contribute to an accent. It is possible to work on the motor patterns for speech sound production to improve pronunciation and increase clarity. As I have discussed in previous posts, this is no simple task; it takes a lot of focused practice.

As we begin life, we are able to distinguish between all the speech sounds of different languages. Babies hear speech sounds with more sensitivity than adults! They can hear the differences between similar sounds in languages spoken not just at home, but around the world. As we get older, the different sounds of speech that we can distinguish are reduced to something closer to the sounds of our own language.

Why You Need to Train Your Ears

As a result of the development of language-specific listening and speaking skills, adults speaking English as a second language can experience difficulties with producing and hearing certain sounds. This difficulty stems from two things. One is not having the appropriate motor pattern to produce the sound; the other is not hearing the contrast between the sound they mean to produce and a similar sound, with which they may be more familiar.

When you think about the different features of a speech sound, it is not surprising that there are some sounds that we hear differently that are very similar. Take, for example the sounds /b/ and /p/. They are both produced by stopping the airflow in the mouth – in this instance, by putting the lips together – then releasing the built-up air. These two sounds are produced in the same part of the mouth. The only difference is that the /b/ has voice, the /p/ does not. In some languages, this difference between /b/ and /p/ isn’t as important as it is in English, so native speakers of Arabic, which has /b/ but not /p/ might not distinguish between these two sounds.

However, sounds that are difficult for an adult speaking English as a second language can be learned; proficiency can be gained. As mentioned here, here, and here, with consistent practice and assistance from a speech trainer or native speaker, it is possible to improve your pronunciation of standard American English. Part of improving your pronunciation involves training your ears.

Training your ears requires some careful listening.

How to Train Your Ears for Clear Pronunciation

  1. Select the sounds you need to work on.

There are many sound pairs that you could work on, but you will probably only need to work on a few that really affect other people’s ability to understand you. These should be sounds that you do not consistently produce when you’re speaking English as a second language. It may be helpful to find the sound pairs that other native speakers of your first language have difficulty with in English. Once you know which sound pairs to train, get a list of word pairs. If you search for “minimal pairs” then you can find several helpful websites with lists of different sound pairs.

  1. Get a recording.

It will be easier to work with just one or two word pair lists at a time. Each word in the pair should be a real word in English, and it should differ from the other word in the pair by only one sound (the sound distinction you’re training). Have a native English speaker check the list to make sure that each pair has the correct sounds, and then have that same native English speaker create a recording of themselves saying each word pair at a reasonable pace. They can do this on the voice recording app on their phone, and send it to you as a text message or email.

  1. Listen to the recording.

Listen to the recording while you’re doing an automatic activity, such as driving. Listen to the recording for several minutes at a time, several minutes a day. Each time you listen, listen really hard for the difference between each word pair.

  1. Check in with a speech trainer or a native speaker.

If you have access to a speech trainer, ask them to help you to learn the muscle patterns for clear pronunciation of the sound distinction you’re training. If you don’t have access to a speech trainer, click here to send one a message.

Show your word list to a native speaker and tell them you want them to quiz you. Ask them to say each word pair, but every couple of pairs or so, instead of reading both words of the pair, have them say one of the words twice. For every pair, tell your speaker if the words were different or if they were the same. Were you able to identify when they were different and when they were the same? Once you are able to identify whether the words are the same or different with 100% accuracy, move on to another list.

Train your ears while you drive to and from work.

Train your ears while you drive to and from work.

Lingua East provides accent modification, professional communication, and cultural communication services to individuals and companies in the United States and abroad. If you or someone you know is interested in communicating with greater clarity, confidence, and success, do not hesitate to contact us at

Seeing is Hearing: The McGurk Effect

For decades, speech pathologists and linguists have been entertaining people at parties with an interesting phenomenon known as the McGurk effect. The McGurk effect occurs when people are exposed to audio of one sound, with a visual of another sound being produced. People hear something different from the actual sound. I first learned of the effect via the following video, in which Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington elicits the effect with the sounds /ba-ba/ and /da-da/ or /tha-tha/:

Searching for that video, I found a fantastic example using the “Bill! Bill! Bill!” chant from the 90s kids science show, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Take a moment (24 seconds, to be exact) to watch and listen:

The audio is paired with images that affect how the word “Bill” is heard: first, images depicting different bills as shown. Then, as images of pails are shown the sound heard changes to “pail”. Next, images of mayonnaise are shown, and the sound shifts again to “mayo”. Did you hear the three different words?

A McGurk effect shows up in babies exposed to English by the time they are five months-old[1]. This effect seems to strengthen with age. However, the likelihood of a listener falling for the McGurk effect depends on different factors. These factors demonstrate the fascinating interplay between hearing and vision in our ability to understand spoken language.

In a noisy environment, people are more likely to mishear what was said. That makes sense; if there are a lot of noises around, it is harder to pick out one sound from the rest of the noise and correctly identify it. If English is your native language, you’re likely to fall for the McGurk effect. Researchers have found that native Japanese speakers are better able to correctly identify the sound presented, even when shown video of someone producing a different sound[2], with similar results for Chinese as a native language.

This may be related to differences in cultural communication, specifically, eye contact. In English-speaking cultures, for the most part, eye contact is pretty constant, with some degree of occasional gaze shift away from the speaker by the listener. In Asian cultures, eye contact with a speaker is less common, with a much greater degree of the listener directing his gaze to something other than the speaker. How we hear language is impacted by the engagement of the visual system while listening.

Further evidence that how we listen to language affects our tendency to fall for the McGurk effect was found in a 2008 study published in Brain Research[3]. In this study, deaf people who used cochlear implants to hear were compared with normally hearing people in their susceptibility to the McGurk effect. The normally hearing people did not fall quite as hard for the McGurk effect as the individuals using cochlear implants to hear, suggesting that the cochlear implant group relied more on what they saw the speaker doing with their mouth than the audio. This is further evidence that our understanding of spoken language is dependent on the sensory information we take in. This, in turn, seems to be related to our varied cultural communication styles.

We all come from different backgrounds of language, hearing, and abilities. It can be fun to share videos of the McGurk effect with people from diverse backgrounds, to see what they hear. Share what you heard in a comment below!

If you are interested in learning more about the McGurk effect, or if you would like to work on your speech hearing abilities, let us know. Until next time, let them hear your ideas, not your accent.

[1] Rosenblum, L., Schmuckler, M., & Johnson, J. (1995). The McGurk effect in infants. Perception & Psychophysics, 59, 347-357. link

[2] Sekiyama, K. & Tohkura, Y. (1991). McGurk effect in non-English listeners: Few visual effects for Japanese subjects hearing Japanese syllables of high auditory intelligibility. Journal of the Acoustical Sociaty of America, 90, 1797-1805. link

[3] Rouger, J., Fraysse, B., Deguine, O., & Barone, P. (2008). McGurk effects in cochlear-implanted deaf subjects. Brain Research, 1188, 87-99. link

The 4 Challenges of Changing An Accent

Have you ever been amazed at how some people can learn another language and speak it so well? Not only do they grasp the intricacies of vocabulary and common phrases, but their accent is almost imperceptible. Me too.

If you have done the hard (but rewarding) work of learning another language, then you understand what a challenge it can be to change your accent. At Lingua East, we believe that nothing is impossible. What might seem daunting at first suddenly becomes a lot less scary when we separate out and examine the factors that make changing an accent seem so challenging.

Challenge Number 1: “I put so much effort into learning the language, if I haven’t gotten the pronunciation down by now, it will never happen.”

Unless you are a language savant like the man Neil Smith and Ianthi Maria Tsimpli wrote about in 1991[1], learning a language is not easy. In fact, when you were working on the basics, there were probably times you felt that you would never master the grammar, let alone all the vocabulary. But you did. Just because you haven’t done something doesn’t mean that it will never happen. You just have to work at it.

Challenge Number 2: “I learned the language after childhood. There’s no way I can train my mouth to make those sounds.”

One of the hot topics in neuroscience is learning. Many neuroscientists focus their studies on how the brain handles learning a second language. When you learn a second language, it changes the anatomy of your brain, making it stronger and more resistant to age-related decline[2]. What they are finding is remarkable: while yes, it is a lot easier to learn speech motor patterns before you can drive a car, adults are able to learn new speech motor patterns.

Challenge Number 3: “I don’t know how to change my accent.”

The third challenge to changing your accent is easily solved. If you have the resources, I strongly encourage you to find a speech trainer to help you work on your accent. The rewards significantly outnumber the costs, and your future self will thank you.

However, if your resources are limited but you still want to change your accent, I recommend you learn as much as you can about your accent. That is, how does your native language affect your production of your second language? Learn IPA, visit the Speech Accent Archive, learn to use spectrogram software, and get as much feedback as you can from native speakers. Set goals and work diligently toward the accent you want. This route to changing your accent may take more time than working with a speech coach, but if you show up and put in the time, you can do it.

Challenge Number 4: “I don’t have time.”

You do have time. There is always time to do the things you want to do, sometimes you just have to get creative. The beauty of the focused practice necessary for changing an accent is that it only requires about an hour a day. What’s more, you can knock out this hour of practice in four fifteen-minute increments, spaced throughout the day. If you work on your accent during all those little free moments you have between tasks, you can easily squeeze an hour of speech practice into your day. You do have time, and there is no time like the present to start.

The common thread here is persistence. If you want to change your accent, then do it. It probably will not be easy, and there are no immediate results when it comes to accent modification. However, whether you have spoken your second language for decades or you just reached an advanced level, you are capable of changing your accent. Your brain is capable of learning the motor speech patterns of the accent you want (or at least coming really close). No matter where you are in the world, if you have an internet connection, you have the resources to change your accent. And there is always time.

The biggest challenge of changing your accent is you. Now that you know that, you can overcome the challenges and change your accent. Get started today. Let them hear your ideas, not your accent.

[1] Smith, N. & Tsimpli, I.M., (1991). Linguistic modularity? A case study of a ‘Savant’ linguist. Lingua, 84, 315-351.

[2] Li, P., Legault, J., & Litcofsky, K. (2014). Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning: Anatomical changes in the human brain. Cortex, 58, 301-324.

Chipping Away at an Accent with an SLP

If you read my site, you might find the term ‘SLP’ used quite a bit. An SLP is a speech-language pathologist, a person who has completed a master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders, speech pathology, or another similarly-named program. Here I explain why when you need quality accent modification services (or other communication enhancement services, for that matter), it’s a good idea to look for a speech trainer who is an SLP, a speech-language pathologist.

A certified SLP is a person who has received the Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech, Language, and Hearing Association (ASHA). You might see the letters CCC-SLP after their name. I am a certified SLP, which means that I have a master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders and that my first year or so of work was under the supervision of an experienced and knowledgeable SLP.

Anyone can market themselves as a speech coach, and there are quite a few speech coaches peddling accent modification services who are not certified SLPs. Some of them are very good at it, but not all of them have engaged in the rigorous study of the sounds of speech, language learning, motor speech patterns, and what it takes to change the sounds of speech. These are all topics of speech pathology, and they are all topics that your speech coach should be intimately familiar with.

If you’re looking for a certified SLP to provide you with accent modification or other communication skills training services, you have several options to search. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is Google. You can google the services you are looking for and your geographic area. Then, you can weed through the results to see which speech trainers are SLPs and which came to the profession from another field.

If you are unsure if your Google results are certified SLPs or not, you can verify their certification at the ASHA website. You will need their first and last names, their state, and the country to perform this check. Click here to verify a speech trainer’s certification.

A more targeted way to search is to search the CORSPAN database[1]. CORSPAN stands for the Corporate Speech Pathology Network, and it is an international organization of certified speech-language pathologists who provide accent modification, public speaking, presentation skills, voice training, and other communication skills training. At you can search for a speech trainer in your geographic region.

Something worth noting about CORSPAN is that it is a membership-based group. There are many more speech trainer SLPs in the world than are in the group, but the group provides an easy way to find a qualified speech trainer in your area. Because one of the requirements for membership in CORSPAN is being a certified SLP, it is more reliable than Google.

Changing an accent is not just an art, it is a science. Groups of speech sounds are interrelated in many ways, and some are a lot easier to change than others. With an individualized plan carefully laying out the speech sounds to address and the order in which to address them, an English speaker with an accent has the best chance at making lasting changes and getting the most bang for his/her buck.

[1] In the nature of full disclosure: I serve on the board of CORSPAN, so I am biased here. However, it is the only group of its kind, and the members are passionate about what they do.

Uptalk: The Reviled Speech Behavior’s Origins and Purpose

There are many curious features of spoken language. Nobody know where they come from or how they start, but everyone has an opinion on these mannerisms. One of such mannerisms is uptalk.

In the world of linguistics, uptalk is known as high rising terminal. In other words, it means finishing a phrase or sentence by raising the pitch of your voice. Uptalk occurs all over the English speaking world, with notable occurrences in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, and especially in Northern Ireland. Like other curious features of spoken language, the origins of uptalk are guessed at, but unknown.

In the United States, people blame “Valley Girls;” in England they blame the Australians for exporting the juicy soap opera Neighbours; and in Cape Town… I’m not sure about that one. However, uptalk appears to be one of those linguistic features that has always been around. Or at least, it’s been around for much longer than people have been talking about it.

Those particularly critical of uptalk label the high rising terminal as sounding like a question. Those people report hearing an individual using uptalk as asking a series of questions. They further state that this series of question-like utterances make the speaker sound indecisive or insecure. However, such is not the case.[1]

Uptalk is quite versatile. Uptalk is a way for the speaker to ensure the listener is paying attention and following what they are saying. Uptalk is also frequently used when listing items, especially when the speaker has to think about the next item on the list. It is a way of holding the floor so the listener will not interrupt before the speaker has finished. Uptalk has a purpose and perhaps like any other speech behavior, it can be overused, but that does not take away its linguistic legitimacy.

Because language isn’t politicized enough (that was sarcasm), many people commenting on uptalk have labeled it as a gender issue plaguing the speech of young women. Others have come to women’s defense, declaring that the “uptalk epidemic” is just part of society’s unfair policing of women’s behavior. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.[2]

The uptalk discussion has received contributions from individuals varying in their qualifications to discuss language, from the BBC reporter who consulted with Mark Liberman (a celebrity, if you follow linguist a-listers) and traced uptalk back to the 9th century, to others, who refer to uptalk as a pathology disturbingly growing in popularity among female speech. The truth is, especially in the English-speaking world, communication is not gender-specific. (You have probably heard children of both genders using uptalk as they told a story, especially in the phrase “and then…”.)

The sorts of linguistic features that women are accused of using more often, such as uptalk, or fry, are things that both genders use. Linguistics studying the incidence (how often something occurs) of uptalk have not found any definitive data pointing to it being more of a feminine or masculine way of communicating. Instead, these negative critiques of uptalk appear to be related to some of the work done by linguist William Labov in the 20th century.

Labov came up with something called the “gender paradox.” According to the gender paradox, when there is an evolution in a specific language form, then women – particularly the younger women who speak that language – are much more likely than men to use that form. If the gender paradox applies to uptalk, then you can expect to hear a lot more uptalk in the future.

All attempts to communicate thoughts and ideas are good. When others are uncomfortable with the way you speak, the problem is not yours, it’s theirs. Some speech coaches ascribe to the view that uptalk is a pathology that should be eradicated from their client’s speech, the sooner the better. Or that it is generally undesirable because it makes the speaker sound indecisive, like they lack confidence. However, uptalk has its uses. At Lingua East, we can help you get rid of your uptalk, if that is what you want. But we will never force you to change who you are. It could be that you are just ahead of the curve.

Whether you choose to use uptalk or not, let them hear your ideas.

[1] That is certainly not how the uptalk I heard yesterday from Shinzo Abe’s interpreter sounded. But maybe you disagree.

[2] I am suggesting here that women may use uptalk as a tool to hold the floor, given the overwhelming incidence of men interrupting women more than they interrupt other men.

Cultural Communication for Exceptional Service

Human relationships are the source of business success. These relationships can happen in many places. They occur among staff members, they develop between your company’s representatives and guests, and they serve as the backbone of customer referrals. The human connection is the most valuable part of your business.

Every facet of business matters. To succeed in business, one must be constantly striving, working to improve in every area without leaving any aspect of the business behind to stagnate. That’s why it is so important to work on communication skills. There is always space for improvement.

Every facet of business matters.

Every facet of business matters.

Consider the hotel industry. Hotel employees deal with guests from all over the world, perhaps with the majority of visitors coming from one or two foreign countries. Operators work very hard for years to select the best quality linens and furnishings for the accommodations, and staff works tirelessly around the clock to provide guests with other special features that make a stay at the hotel an unforgettable experience.

What so many business operators overlook, unfortunately, is the crucial importance of communication skills. After all, hotels and other service-oriented businesses rely on the customer experience more than anything else. Customers can experience the best in activities and accommodations, but if their interactions with staff are less than stellar, then they will be significantly less likely to refer others to the hotel.

Negative experiences are memorable.

Negative experiences are memorable.

Negative experiences are memorable. Studies show that we remember them more than positive experiences, and with greater detail[1]. In fact, guests are more likely to talk about their negative interactions with the staff than they are to rave about the excellent quality of the Egyptian cotton bath towels or the LED temperature controls for water fixtures in the bathroom. We have to work harder to provide memorable positive experiences.

Particularly when dealing with guests from other cultures, we come up against cultural expectations that we often do not even know about. These cultural expectations can occur in the unlikeliest and most mundane of interactions, such as a server checking on dining guests. When these expectations are violated, people notice, and they remember.

The best way to prevent individuals from your organization from inadvertently violating guests’ expectations is to educate yourself in cultural communication. Just as you make an effort to stay on top of industry news through publications, networking, and working with consultants, if you are in a service industry behooves you to work on communication skills. Especially if you provide services for international guests, communication is one area you do not want to leave behind to stagnate.

What matter most are the connections forged between people.

What matter most in the service industries are the connections forged between people. Read any business book and you’ll find countless examples of companies that sell product at higher prices than competitors, but still experience success due to an unwavering commitment to customer service. The companies that are able to persevere through tough times and turn profits, year after year, are not the ones that base their basic operations on shrewd economic principles with dead-eyed employees fulfilling job duties, nothing more, nothing less. The companies that are able to find true longevity and success are the ones that focus on people – that means both the customers they serve and the individuals they employ.

In order to provide value to your customers and excellent customer service to your guests, you must invest in your employees. Part of their training in operations and company culture should include a section on communication skills. If you serve international clients, special training in cultural communication can set your organization apart from the competition.

We all want to be the best at what we do. Employee training in cultural communication can be extremely valuable to your organization. Have a consultant train your staff once and you’ll see lasting customer service improvements that quickly recover the cost of the service. Companies of all sizes reap the rewards of communication skills training through better, more responsive customer service.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can increase profit margins with cultural communication training for employees, contact us. We provide consulting services to select organizations looking to build customer relationships through effective cross-cultural communication. Help your company make a name for itself through the human connection.

We provide consulting services to select organizations looking to build customer relationships through effective cross-cultural communication.

[1] Mickley, K. & Kensinger, E. (2008). Emotional valence influences the neural correlates associated with remembering and knowing. Cognitive, Affective, and behavioral Neuroscience, 8, 143-152.

Mickley Steinmetz, K. & Kensinger, E. (2009). The effects of valence and arousal on the neural activity leading to subsequent memory. Psychopsyiology, 46, 1190-1199.

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.

Understanding Multilingualism

Being able to speak more than one language is a wonderful thing. When you are multilingual, you can communicate with many more people than if you learn your native language and end your communication development there. When you are able to communicate with more people, you earn the remarkable opportunity to learn about other cultures, other ways of life, and all sorts of wonderful things. Multilingualism expands your world.explore1

Learning another language helps people to understand one another. We are all on this planet together, and the better we understand one another, the better we can cooperate to make the world a better place for everyone on it. Multilingualism helps people to spread urgent news from one part of the globe to another rapidly, so scientists can collaborate and share their remarkable discoveries with the rest of the world, and governments can come to agreements about difficult situations.

Furthermore, knowing a foreign language allows you to immerse yourself in someone else’s culture, to fully understand and appreciate the customs and traditions, foods, music, and even get a better understanding of how the way people from that culture think. Psycholinguists (most notably Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir) have thoroughly discussed the effects of language on thought, and have come to a general consensus that at least some of the aspects of our language shape the way we think.

processingSome people do not understand the unique benefits of knowing more than one language, and they may view foreign accents as a negative thing. While looking down upon foreign accents is certainly not the way the world should work, it is the reality. While we cannot easily change the way in which others view our accents, one thing we can do is to work on our accents to change the way our listeners process our speech.

talkWhen we hear spoken language, our brains work to translate the spoken words into ideas with meaning. Our brains can usually recognize whole words, sometimes entire phrases, and translate those into their respective meanings. When the speaker has a noticeable accent, however, that recognition process is slowed down. The listener’s brain may have to break down the words further into the separate sounds of speech before putting them back together and translating that cobbled-together series of speech sounds into words with meaning.

This process of understanding accented speech takes a little bit longer than the process of understanding speech produced without an accent. Researchers[1] have found this to be true. Furthermore, this effect of hearing and understanding accented speech varies depending on the word choice, and perhaps even the topic of conversation. More predictable words will be processed faster than words that are unpredictable. Whether a word is predictable or not depends on context; that is, the other words that are in the sentence or phrase. Researchers have found that when words contain inaccurately produced speech sounds, listeners are better able to identify these errors in words that are highly predictable (for example, in the phrase “shag garpet”) than in words that are much less predictable (“rag garpet”)[2]. Although this processing delay is only in the order of milliseconds, it can have a big effect on communication.

Luckily, there are some things that we can do as speakers to make things easier for our listeners. These tips are similar to the tips I shared in my post about communicating with people who are hard of hearing. If you want to learn tricks for getting your message across with an accent, click here.

Multilingualism[1] Munro, M. & Derwing, T. (1995). Processing time, accent, and comprehensibility in the perception of native and foreign-accented speech. Language and Speech, 38, 289–306.

[2] Cole, R. A., & Jakimik, J. (1978). Understanding speech: How words are heard. In G. Underwood (Ed.), Strategies of information processing. New York: Academic Press.

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