It’s been a while, and I’m back, sharing a bit about Israel, its artists, and their emergence onto the world stage. I could’ve shared much more, but a bit at a time is best, right? Stay tuned… Meanwhile, click on the image to watch the interview.
There’s this word I use which helps get me out of bed in the morning. It gets me out of my office at the end of the (traditional) workday and helps me face the work that awaits me at home. It makes me do my taxes.
Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed that I say, “OK,” before facing reality. Lying in bed in the early morning, waking up and wishing I could stay in bed a little longer, ruminating about the day’s tasks, I say, “ok,” and then I get up. It’s a simple word. It’s a shame, actually, that it’s such a common word. As someone who works with words for a living, I have a rich tableau to reference, and “ok” is my go-to word? How dull!
Perhaps saying ok somehow has the power to propel me into action mode. I don’t know when it happened, when ok became so powerful. I also don’t know how long it’ll last. And it wasn’t the result of seeing The Fault in Our Stars, which uses the word in a meaningful way.
What word helps you deal with challenges? Early this summer, I served as on-set dialect coach for the pilot episode of DIG, the new series from NBC Universal/USA, and in collaboration with Keshet International. The set was in Jerusalem, and it was an international production. Cast and crew included members from Hollywood, Israel, Ireland, and France. The producer from Los Angeles faced the behemoth task of putting it all together in a remote location- a holy city and cradle of several religions. Add to that the element of filming in Jerusalem’s Old City at the beginning of heavy tourist season and constructing the set – an archaeological dig, built within an actual ancient cave. (with no cell reception!) If this producer didn’t need a “power word” to get him up in the morning and facing the day’s challenges, then I don’t know who does. Despite the challenges, the pilot was coming along, with plans of continued filming of the rest of season one on location in the holy land.
And then during a brief scheduled hiatus, the region was suddenly in the midst of a military conflict, replete with rocket attacks, sirens, bomb shelters and the whole shebang. It was drama to rival the best film and television, but real, not reel. Our break was extended by a week, and then another week, and then the call came that the production was to be moved elsewhere, understandably. All the arrangements made so far in advance for the production now had to be changed. New sets! New locations! New crew! It was the mother lode of overwhelmingness, and I’m sure our producer needed a big “ok” to face this new reality. I’m unsure however, if his word was “ok.” Perhaps he used something else. Maybe his word had four letters. I didn’t want to bother him by asking.
The show premiers in March and has already received an order for additional episodes. I’m sure the finished product will be fantastic, much more than just ok. We all face daunting tasks. We all face the music at some point. Unexpected changes are part of life. For now, “ok” does it for me. What word does it for you? Let me know, because I might need to borrow it.
I received an email from a client in Los Angeles. “Judi, I have an audition for a Russian character for a television pilot. Do you have tips for a Russian accent?” Always eager to help and loving my work, I delved into it, taking her lines from the audition sides and transliterating them with a heavy Russian accent. I sent her my Russian sounding version and told her we could practice together over Skype. And then I reconsidered. I told her that if the audition notes didn’t specifically call for a heavy Russian accent, I didn’t think she should follow the notes I put together for her. Being able to do an authentic sounding accent can be wonderful, but it shouldn’t interfere with the overall performance.
I’m the first to admit that I am majorly impressed by actors who can master an accent that is not their own. Meryl Streep is a true accent powerhouse. You can hear her Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice and one of her English accents in The Iron Lady, roles for which she won Academy Awards. Matthew Rhys also comes to mind. He currently portrays a Russian KGB agent in the U.S. in the 80’s on FX’s The Americans, and he sounds completely American. He also sounded completely American in ABC’s Brothers and Sisters. It’s always a surprise when people hear him in an interview, when he speaks with his native Welsh accent. If you’re a good actor, though, don’t compromise your performance by trying to include an accent that draws too much attention away from the role itself. Have you ever watched a performance of someone trying too hard with an accent that just didn’t sound right? I know I have.
As a speech and dialect coach, I’m the last one who should be telling actors not to work on accents, I know. I do think actors should work on accents, absolutely. I do think, however, that it needs to sound as though it’s natural and not forced. Otherwise it’s a distraction. I also know that opportunities often arise quickly and without lots of notice. So how do you train long term to sound natural for an opportunity that may only present itself suddenly, if at all? Obviously, you can’t. What you can do, however, is the following:
You can work with a speech coach on overall pronunciation skills and mastering of general speech sounds from various regions and languages. This will lay the groundwork for when you need to quickly adjust to a new accent. You will acquire the skills of “learning how to learn” the new accent.
You can also work with a speech coach on polishing your standard American English accent as a base for then tweaking it for regional dialects as needed. This is especially useful for non-native English speakers, but it can be just as helpful for native English speakers, too.
How do you find the right speech coach? I think that it depends on chemistry, and the connection you need to work well with someone, as you would with a personal trainer at the gym. It has to feel right, and it’s a personal preference. Each coach has their own style and approach, and you need to find one that works well for you. When you’re ready, give it a shot, and keep trying until you find what’s right for you.
I don’t claim to be a self-help guru. I do claim to help people express themselves well and be better communicators. But sometimes, the road to improving your communication or your language can seem impossible. And that’s where we turn to self-actualization and basically believing in yourself and believing in the process. I often find with students that it’s not the language that’s keeping them from progressing. It’s their confidence (or lack of confidence). And this gave me a thought.
There’s an often used expression, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ which generally refers to not believing something will really happen until we see it with our own eyes. An example of this notion could be when asked about an upcoming vacation trip to Hawaii, someone responds by saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it. When I’m actually on the plane, I’ll know that it’s really happening.”
But what if we were to switch the order of the words to this expression? I’ll see it when I believe it. To me, this makes a lot of sense. If you don’t think achieving something is possible, chances are that you won’t achieve it. Now think of the converse statement- if you believe it’s possible, then you can actually visualize achieving it. And only then can you set realistic goals and a plan for making it happen and be on your way.
Relating this to the goal of breaking a language barrier or becoming a better public speaker, I see it as a switch you need to make. One student told me when I met him that he had a block against English- some kind of learning difficulty, which kept him from being able to speak the language. The more we met, discussed, read, reviewed song lyrics, watched films- all in English, the more he was able to express himself in English. He then told me that I helped him break down the wall that was keeping him from English. The truth is that I didn’t break down the wall. He did. He did it by talking about his English goals, believing that it was possible, visualizing himself speaking English, and then working to make it happen, jumping right in and speaking.
I was working with another student, an actress, who had an audition for an English language feature film and wanted to make sure she had a good grasp of the scene and pronunciation of the lines. When we first took a look at the scene’s script, she said, “oh, I can’t do this in English.” We visualized her in the role, speaking in English, pronouncing each word clearly and with her interpretation of the character, and then we jumped into it. We practiced and practiced until she felt comfortable with the lines. And then I reminded her that she had originally said she couldn’t do it. And we laughed. I want to tell you that she got the part, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she believed it, saw it, and did it . As for the casting of the role, we’ll have to wait and see. What is important here is that she is now taking the steps to believe in, visualize, and then prepare for her breakthrough to an international career.
Whatever your career, once you believe it’s possible, which I know is often the hardest part, you can then see it and then make it happen.
English words can be difficult to pronounce. They are seldom pronounced the way they are spelled. There are those darn silent letters. And there are several sounds in America English that just don’t appear in other languages.
If you have ever had these thoughts, you’re not alone. And if you’ve ever begun working on your English accent or pronunciation, you may have felt like giving up, that you will never “get there,” and change the way you sound.
Allow me to be your cheerleader today. Allow me to encourage you. One way I look at this work of accent and pronunciation is like training at the gym. The mouth consists of many muscles, which are found in the lips and the tongue. “Getting there” means working those muscles and training them. You have to practice using them in the way that produces the sounds you want to be able to make. You don’t start lifting the heavy weights until you have practiced lifting the lighter weights.
I also refer to the tongue as a dancer. To articulate the various speech sounds, the tongue must do some fancy foot work, dancing from one spot in the mouth to another spot very quickly. Think of the word months.
For the /m/, lips are together, and you’re vibrating your vocal chords: mmmmmmmmmm
For the /o/, mouth is open, tongue is down, and you’re vibrating your vocal cords: ooooooooooo
For the /n/, mouth is slightly closed, tip of tongue is touching the roof of your mouth right behind your top front teeth, and you’re vibrating your vocal chords: nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn
For the /th/, stick your tongue out between your front teeth and blow- no voice: thththththth
For the /s/, quickly bring the tongue back inside your mouth, with the tip touching the roof of your mouth again, behind your top front teeth, only this time, don’t let your tongue touch completely- leave some air between your tongue and roof of mouth, so you can blow air between the two surfaces, and don’t use your vocal chords: ssssssssssssssss
There. You have just produced a word with five diffirerent speech sounds in it, all within a fraction of a second. And your tongue sure danced from place to place quickly.
Having the skill to correctly say the word months, especially if your native language doesn’t have the /th/ sound, takes training and practice. My advice is not to give up, but rather to be patient with yourself. You can and will get there, if you’re willing to work on it.
If you were wondering if it was your imagination that English is tough, let me assure you, as a native English speaker and speech professional, it’s not you. It’s English. It’s just difficult.
If you’re looking for a good book to guide you through mastering the American English Accent, I like Barron’s American Accent Training by Ann Cook.
Some people just don’t have the motivation to independently follow a book or audio CD’s, and for those who need more of a push, working with a speech coach can be very effective. (Like a personal trainer at the gym!)
The bottom line is that if you make it a priority (like working out), you can make it happen. And if you need a little help in getting there, that’s also ok. Good Luck.
Many of my clients tell me they want to speak English like an American. They want that standard American English accent. They want me to correct them, and they want me to tell them how to pronounce the words correctly.
Here’s the irony- would you believe me if I told you that in order to sound right, you need to mispronounce some of your speech sounds? Seriously, if you want that natural sounding accent, and you want to minimize that foreign pronunciation, you must mispronounce some sounds. That will make you sound right.
Allow me to explain. When a non native English speaker tries to speak English clearly, he will often try to emphasize every syllable in a word. We know, however, that multi-syllabic words contain one syllable which is more emphasized. It’s the one that has the accent. And if you emphasize one syllable, then the others should be de-emphasized. What happens when you de-emphasize a syllable with a vowel is that usually, that vowel loses its correct pronunciation and becomes almost inaudible. You barely notice it. That barely noticeable vowel becomes a sound which is actually the most common sound in American English, although it’s not an official English letter. It’s called a schwa. The schwa is a character in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and it looks like an up-side-down and backward e– ə. I don’t recommend learning the Phonetic alphabet, but I wanted to demonstrate the sign for this sound, so you can see when to use it.
Here’s an example. Say the word banana. Do all three a‘s sound the same? They shouldn’t. The first a in banana should sound almost undetectable, as if it’s not there, and you’re saying bn, without the a. The second a should be emphasized, as this is the syllable within the word which is accented. This second a should be pronounced like the a in the words bat or at. (The a in bat or at can be difficult, as this sound does not occur in several languages, such as Hebrew or Spanish.) And the last a in banana? This one should also be de-emphasized, as if it’s hardly there. It also becomes a schwa. Think of a schwa as the sound you make when you say uh. You don’t specially shape your mouth or lips for this sound. You just relax your mouth and let out a short flow of air and voice. Uh.
So, instead of trying to sound right and pronouncing banana with an emphasis on every sound and syllable, we pronounce it as bə n΄a nə, with an emphasis on the middle a. And the other a‘s become “mispronounced.”
Here’s another example. Say the sentence, Here’s a thought. Did you pronounce the a in the middle? Or was it reduced to a schwa (ə) sound, as it should be? What about Nine o΄ Clock? That middle o should be pronounced like a schwa (ə). You can think of it as nine uh clock.
These have been examples of correctly incorrect vowel sounds in American English. These small changes can help your spoken English sound more natural. There are other sounds we mispronounce in normal, natural spoken English. Next time, we will examine those.
Pronunciation, especially in English, can be challenging and confusing. It can also make the difference in sounding as intelligent in English as you do in your native language, especially for meetings, presentations, and media appearances. For questions, or to work on it with a coach, contact me via email for more information at: jsrebro at gmail dot com.