Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Get your intonation right

So you've just finished your 100 hours of English class and you've studied all the English tenses, irregular verbs, comparatives, prepositions and modal verbs. So you can speak English, right? Wrong. You arrive in London for that long-awaited shopping/theatre trip and suddenly you realise that you can't understand a word of what people there are saying!

What went wrong? You had a good teacher. You studied hard and took careful notes of vocabulary items and grammar rules. But the English they speak in England still seems like chinese.

It could be Chinese for all you know because it's not the same English that your teacher spoke. It is normal, even very necessary, for your teacher to speak slowly and clearly so that you understand. I increase the pace of my speech as my students level of understanding improves. But even with high level students my speech isn't the same as the way I speak in England, with my family for example.

More important than pronunciation is intonation. English words have strong stress patterns, unlike French, which can sound a little monotone in comparison. There is a stressed syllable (accent tonique) and a weak syllable in almost every word.

So a word like "manager" is pronounced "MANager" Ooo

but "computer" is pronounced "comPUTer" or oOo.

In your dictionary, the stressed syllable is indicated by an apostrophe ' before the stressed syllable. You don't have to learn phonetics, but it helps to recognise a few of the vowel sounds.
You can find them here: pronunciation guide

You must listen to a lot of spoken English in order to have a good level of comprehension. One good way is to listen to "The Archers" every day. You can find my advice about this (in French) here or in English on this blog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Telephone Tips

Even if you are have a good level in English, talking on the telephone can be a difficult task. Why? Because only a small amount of communication is verbal, that is, the actual words we use. The rest, as much as 90%, is non-verbal - our facial expressions, gestures, the intonation in our voice, body language, etc.

Here is my advice if you are feeling nervous about speaking on the phone:
  • Relax. The more stressed you are, the more difficult it will be to understand. Most people are sympathetic when they realise that English is not your mother tongue, so don't be afraid to tell them so, and ask them to repeat if necessary.
  • Summarise what you have been told. By repeating back in your own words what the caller has said, you can confirm whether you have understand correctly. The caller will appreciate this as a sign that you are interested in what he is saying. If you have to write down a telephone number, email or postal address, read it back to the person for confirmation.
  • Use the international phonetic alphabet when spelling. This is used in avaition to avoid potentially catastophic misunderstandings! You can find it at this site:
  • Concentrate. Don't be distracted by your colleagues, and especially don't be reading your emails at the same time. You need to focus, so cut out unnecessary distractions