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.
Do you want to sound natural in English? Here’s a tip. When you tell a story about something that happened to you in the past, tell it in past tense. Sounds obvious, right? For example, “I was riding my bike, when a car drove into it, and knocked me down. I fell off the bike.”
Now think about when you tell someone the story or plot of a book or film. It’s a fictional story about someone else. Did the hero “go to the library after he discovered the truth?” Or does he go to the library after he discovers the truth? Which option sounds more natural in English?
When we tell the story of a work of art, we usually speak in present tense. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Why are stories of film and books told in present tense?
When I see a movie or read a book, no matter how old the story is, for me, that story is taking place right now, while I’m experiencing it. When I finish the book and lend it to someone else, they will read it, and then the story unfolds for them, as they read.
I often work with actors who would like to practice speaking about their latest project, perhaps a film competing in an international film festival. As we prepare for interviews with English language media, we practice discussing the film. Sharing the film’s plot in the present tense is one of the ways to sound more natural in English. And it’s also a nice way for stories and works of art to live forever, never getting old.
Real life story: On Saturday night, an actor came over to my house to prepare for an important film audition in English.
In anticipation of the story’s continuation, I draft the rest myself: He gets the part, and the film goes on to receive international acclaim, as does he. Notice that this fictional (for now) part of the story is told in present tense.
That’s my artistic spin on the story’s continuation. Here’s hoping that life imitates art….
What happens in your story?
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.
I work with members of Israel’s entertainment industry, often in preparation for international film festivals and awards ceremonies around the globe. Israel has produced quality films, as well as quality actors. When an Israeli film is released internationally, and when it competes in an international film festival in Cannes, Berlin, or Toronto, I am so proud of the talent we have to share with the world. With the challenge to represent their film, their art, and their country, actors prepare with me for interviews and press conferences.
I’m not an expert on their films, although I often become one. I don’t tell the actors what to say. As I often say to them, they’re “the star of the show.” What I do when we work together is interview them. I ask them all kinds of questions they are likely to face on the road. And together we prepare what it is they want to express. Where I come in is helping them say it intelligently and clearly, with the right choice of words. The right choice of words serves to polish the presentation.
With the amount of ingenuity in Israel, we know that our stars are not only the ones in the performing arts. Our best and brightest can be found in the sectors of high tech, pharmaceuticals, and other industries.
Have you come out with the next big thing that will change the face of your industry? Have you been given the opportunity to represent your company or your company’s product abroad? You have the professional expertise to have developed this product, but how do you explain it to the world?
I remember when I began a new job. I was trying to fax a letter (you can tell this was a while ago) and must have forgotten to dial 9 before dialing the fax number. My supervisor brought me the fax and said, “You screwed up the fax.” As a manager the best thing you can do is empower your staff to feel good, to feel motivated, and to learn and grow. (At least I hope this is true.) I’ll never forget what my supervisor said to me that day. I was new on the job, and her choice of words gave me a strong message of the kind of person she was. I was her subordinate, so I wasn’t in a position to hire her or to enter into a business deal with her. But what happens when a representative of an Israeli start-up goes to the U.S. to meet with potential investors? And our choice of words affects the outcome of the meeting? To whom can we turn to ensure we’re using the right words?
When you are expected to present in English, and it isn’t your first language, it can be hard to sound as intelligent in English as you do in your native language. You may have beautiful English, but it isn’t as polished as you’d like it to be. Or it doesn’t sound as conversational and natural as you would like it to sound. What can you do?
First, prepare what you want to say. You have something important to share, and you deserve to be heard. That should be your thinking. Otherwise, why bother? If you really believe your message is important, put it down in words. Write it. If you need to write it first in your native language, do it- formulate the messages, which are driving this presentation or meeting. Find your direction. Without this you won’t know where to go.
Now that you have your main points, try to translate it to English. Although you may have a good command of the language, perhaps you feel that the passion, importance, or impact is missing from the English version. Does it lose your personality when translated? If you can’t do it yourself, then hire a translator. But the project is not complete with only translation. After translation, you need to then “make it your own.” Here I mean that you should put your personality or the company’s soul back into it.
Ask for help. If you know a native English speaker, someone you find to be articulate and expressive, ask to run the speech by him. While people are busy, most are often flattered when asked for their input and happy to help. Being able to ask for help does not show weakness. It actually indicates strength. Asking for help means that you are invested in this endeavor. You care about it and want to get it right.
There’s a hardware store near my home in Jerusalem, and the two and only English words on the storefront read:
Only two words, both spelled wrong. True, it’s a hardware store, and if you need some paint or nails, those two misspelled words won’t stop you from buying supplies there. But now think of your own company. Is your English written material perfect? Does the copy on your website spell success? And when you present in English, can you choose the words that will make the deal? Sometimes, it can be as easy as asking someone.
There’s a new upscale mall where I live. The stores are designer, and the architecture is a marvel. Millions of dollars were spent to create an elegant and worldly shopping experience. But the sign for wheelchair access was translated from Hebrew to English to read:
Beyond Disabled (from the Hebrew: מעבר לנכים)
You cannot rely only on automated translation programs. What I often do with clients is to speak to them about the goals and messages of a presentation or written material. And together we create the text. What I also do, and this is what makes the difference, is build a sense of understanding with my clients. We discuss the soul of the piece. How do they want the presentation to come off? How do they want the written piece to be read? We discuss not only what messages we want to transmit, but what emotions and mood we want to create.
Working together, we find the words which will best portray the company’s essence, or the speaker’s personality. Together, we build a performance, with the right words, as well as the soul, acting in concert. You may be the artist, but having someone fine tune what you say may help your speech to sing.
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.