Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Silver Spoon

Being one of the 7 metals of antiquity, silver has long been valued as a precious metal. As currency, a conductor or as decoration, it has been used by humans since prehistoric times.

And you may recall that we use the word ‘silver’ as our reference point for a particular vowel sound. In primary school they called this sound the ‘short i’ (as opposed to the ‘long i’ that you hear in white). But the sound is not always represented by the letter ‘i’ as in business, build and women.

And to make matters worse, you probably don’t have this sound in your first language, so you have to learn it. So, today I have a special treat for you. I asked my dear friend and colleague, pronunciation expert Peggy Tharpe, to give us some tips on how we can master this sound. Here is what she explains:

The first thing we have to be aware of is that in the place of the silver sound, you are using the ‘green’ sound. Say /Ey/ (the vowel sound in ‘green’). Your tongue moves up diagonally from the bottom of your mouth, coming to touch your bottom teeth. The lips and jaw are tensed. Repeat a few times until you can identify where your tongue is.

From this sound, Peggy takes us to what is called the schwa, or as I like to call it, ‘mustard.’ This sound is easy to make … imagine you arrive home from a long day at work, you plop down on the sofa and you say ‘uh.’ This is the mustard sound. Practice this sound a few times. The lips and jaw are totally relaxed and your tongue rests at the bottom of your mouth.

Now we can try the silver sound. Your jaw and lips are relaxed. Your tongue moves up to touch your top teeth. To help your tongue learn this new trick, try standing in front of a mirror and as you say the first syllable of the word ‘silver’ bring your shoulders up towards your ears. This action is what Peggy calls a ‘Body Buddy:’ a large muscle movement that coaches it’s little brother, the tongue muscle.

Peggy describes the tongue as a rebellious teenager who doesn’t listen to its parents … the brain. Intellectually, you can understand the concept, but the tongue itself resists cooperation. But for some reason, the tongue does listen to a bigger sibling. This is why the Body Buddy will help you.

Peggy’s website is chockfull of pronunciation solutions for speakers of many different languages so I guarantee you’ll find the answers you’re looking for:

Every cloud has a silver lining,

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

5 Tips to Push Your English to the Next Level

How long has it been since you read ‘Speak English Once and for All?’ How are you coming along? Are you happy with your progress? Perhaps you feel like you are on a learning plateau ... a flatline in the learning curve. Today I have a 5 tips on how to push yourself up to the next level.

Be optimistic. This doesn’t mean being happy all the time, optimistic people get sad just as often as pessimists. But whereas a pessimist sees failure as, well … failure, an optimist sees it as a wonderful learning opportunity. Thomas Edison, the man who didn’t invent the lightbulb over 10,000 times said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Apply the Pareto Principle. Otherwise known as the 80/20 Rule, it suggests that 80% of production, ownership or frequency comes from 20% of the sources. So if you have 100 apple trees in your orchard, 20 of them will produce 80% of the total fruit. The average native English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. That same speaker uses only 5% of those words 80% of the time. Remember, I keep telling you about those 1000 Most Common Words? Concentrate on those.

Use your kinetic intelligence. Do you remember how you learned to ride a bike? I’m 100% sure you didn’t read a book about it. Same goes for your fluency training. Talk to your plant, write your shopping list in English and dance while you’re listening to music. This physical activity helps internalise our learning and reach a better understanding.

Ask questions. When I started out teaching ESL, the majority of my clientele was under 6 years old. Wow, are they quick learners! What makes them that way? Small children don’t try to appear ‘clever.’ They are not the least bit embarrassed when they don’t know the meaning of a word and they are certainly not afraid to ask the same question 100 times if necessary. They experiment with words to know exactly when and where each one is appropriate. They do not stop until they feel secure that they have reached a full and deep understanding.

Reward yourself. When I was a kid I used to compete in Speech Arts competitions. Win or lose, my parents would take me out for an ice cream just to say ‘good job for getting up on that stage, Jen.’ Learning a second language can be as scary as getting in front of an auditorium full of people, so give yourself a treat for your efforts. You could take yourself out to breakfast, watch a funny cat video on youtube (or any other ‘useless waste of time’ that makes you smile), visit a museum or art gallery, spend a small amount of money on something you want but don’t need or buy yourself some flowers. But don’t do any of these things on the spur of the moment. Tell yourself on Monday what your reward will be at the end of the week. Research indicates that anticipation is the bigger part of happiness.

Perhaps now is a good time to check your progress. Click the button to take the Fluency Questionnaire:

You are awesome!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Silver vs. Green

By now you must know that I’m a big fan of sound. I married a music promoter. My whole family either sings or plays a musical instrument (we have guitars, ukuleles, harmonicas, a piano, diverse percussion instruments … ) I even have my own radio station!

Perhaps it’s part of my culture … have you ever noticed that anglos can’t stand silence? We even have music for a 10 second elevator trip!

Now, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you and I hear some of the same sounds differently. For example, to me the word ‘silver’ sounds like /sil-vEr/. To a Spanish speaking ear it sounds like /sEyl-vEr/, the same sound that’s in the word ‘green’. This is completely unintelligible to a native English speaker because the tonic (the vowel sound of the important syllable) isn’t correctly pronounced. It is not a question of accent reduction, but rather accent neutralisation. This involves learning to hear the sounds so that you can reproduce them correctly.

We learn to distinguish between the different sounds our mothers make when we are still in the womb. Those sounds are ingrained in our brain like a statue carved in stone. This makes learning a new sound as an adult so challenging. I remember trying to learn the Catalan ‘ll.’ My tongue did all kinds of weird tricks until it figured out where it was supposed to be.

Reading and writing won’t help you with this. You need to listen and speak. I’ve put together a collection of videos for you to watch that are perfect for your level. Just go to my youtube channel:

There are different playlists according to what you’re looking for. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive notifications of new videos!

To the Silver Tongue,


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Chewing the Fat

If you made a list of your top ten things to do, I bet ‘chewing the fat with friends’ would be on it. And although this may seem like a trivial endeavor, social capital is responsible for our health, happiness and longevity. Harvard’s Robert Putnam says that by joining a social group, you will cut your chances of dying this year by half.

That’s a pretty startling statement!

Here’s another: Speaking with someone in English for 1 hour will improve your fluency level more than 100 hours of studying grammar books. So put those books away and get out there and be social! You will improve your English and live longer for it!

Who can you talk to? An experienced and empathetic professional is a good place to build the confidence you need to go out and speak with strangers. Most cities have conversation groups that meet in a cafĂ© or restaurant on a weekly basis. And of course the internet provides a plethora of possibilities to communicate with other people … perhaps there is someone in the ‘Speak English Once and for All’ facebook group that you can connect with. Just take a look at the thread ‘Wanna Chew the Fat?

Happy chatting,