To my readers

Thank you very much for all your feedback! Comments and suggestions are coming from all parts of the world. A lot of followers are in Ukraine, Turkey, and Canada. Please let me know any ideas you have for the blog.

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Monday, December 1, 2014

Easy rules for speaking English

Please excuse the delay in posting new material here. The real reason I stopped posting was that I ran out of suggestions or observations to share. Of course no easy rules for speaking English exist, but thinking of a few guidelines is not hard. For example, speak slowly unless you are already fluent. Trying to speak as fast as native speakers just makes your English sound worse. No doubt this is true in most languages, not just English.

Speaking clearly also helps listeners understand you in any language. Don't cover your mouth, look down at your feet, or swallow your words. Watch your listeners for signs of understanding or confusion. Use the tone of your voice and body language to help get your point across. Sitting like a statue or talking head does not help you express yourself.

Please let me know any topics that interest you and I will consider them for a future blog. Also I am glad to help anyone who asks.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Easy ways to improve your English speaking

Take a deep breath, then speak slowly.

Easy ways to improve your English speaking
Three simple strategies can quickly boost your English speaking fluency. Most people don’t know them because they are not usually taught in English classes. English classes focus on your message, what you are trying to say: the meaning of your words. What classes don’t teach is how to make your speech into pleasing English sounds. When you think about it, speaking and singing are similar (as rap and hip hop music also demonstrate.) Though singing is more poetic, our regular speech also contains rhythms and patterns which help listeners understand the overall meaning.

The first strategy is based on the fact that both speaking and singing rely on breath. If we have insufficient breath, then our vocal production will suffer. So before you start speaking (or singing), exhale all your old air and take in a deep breath of fresh air. When your inhalation is complete, then begin your first words. You will have a reservoir of breath to use for a whole sentence. Just like filling up your gas tank before a trip, fill up your lungs before speaking. Breathing also calms our minds and gives a few moments to select our first words. When it’s your turn to speak, try exhaling and inhaling before you begin. Try this for a few days and see if it works for you, like it does for most of my students.

The second strategy is selecting the correct speed. Most of my students initially believe they need to speak fast. Humans talk faster when excited or stressed, but very rapid speech is hard to understand and remember. Since we live in an exciting and stressful world, people are excited and stressed all the time but that does not make them more fluent. Newscasters and sportscasters on television have to speak fast, but that does not make them easier to understand. When the President gives an important speech, he speaks slowly and clearly. Even native English speakers cannot speak correctly while speaking too rapidly. Even if they could, listeners would have trouble keeping up with them.

Non-native speakers face an additional challenge. Their brains are already wired for their native language. Our very thoughts and concepts are shaped by our first language. Additional languages can never be processed as efficiently as the original language that shaped our minds after infancy. Some people learn to overcome this, but most of us need to slow down while speaking in a foreign language. We have to work harder and be more careful than we need to in our first language. Usually I am able to convince students that slower is better. After all, once you speak perfectly you can always work on increasing your speed. See if speaking more slowly feels more comfortable and sounds better to others. Try recording yourself speaking fast, and then repeating it slowly. Which sounds better?

The boxes on the bottom contain a sentence. The other boxes identify the various phrases used to construct the sentence.

The third strategy is to speak in phrases. A phrase is a group of words that are related, such as several adjectives and a noun: a big, black, hairy dog. All types of words can appear as a part of a phrase. English classes stress words and sentences, but spoken English sounds more like a series of phrases with a longer pause at the end of each sentence. A sentence is a group of words that express one complete thought, while phrases only express certain aspects of that one complete thought, such as subject, verb, object, etc. Related words in a phrase need to be spoken together, with a brief pause at the end of each phrase. In written English, sometimes this brief pause is marked by a comma (,). But even if there is no comma, pausing at the end of a phrase helps the listener digest the words before you go on to the next phrase.

Students tell me that in Asian languages, all words have equal space between them. Therefore they never considered varying the spaces between the words in the manner I suggest. Though difficult to demonstrate in writing, try this exercise. Try recording yourself saying the words separately, like a list:
Ask yourself, what is the subject? What qualities does it have?
What did the subject do? How did he do it?
When, where, why did the subject do the action?

Now speak the sentence as three phrases. When you read this sentence, pause briefly at the end of the first two phrases and a little longer after the final one (the end of the sentence.)
The big black dog…ran quickly…down the street……….

Speaking in phrases also allows you to regulate your breath better, helping you stay calm and focused.
If you listen to audio books, the readers always speak in this manner. Try imitating a passage from your favorite audio book. Even if your grammar is not perfect or if your vocabulary is not great, you can still sound better speaking English by changing your behavior. Sounding better will give you more confidence, even if you need to keep learning new words. Try learning 10-20 words each week. In one year you can learn 500-1000 words. Since most people, even native speakers, only use around 1000-2000 words in every day conversation, you can double or triple your vocabulary over time. Let me know if you find any of these three strategies helpful. Also please send any suggestions or recommendations you can offer. Oh yes, practice, practice, practice!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

American idioms use sports metaphors as symbols

American idioms use sports metaphors as symbols
This baseball player is definitely keeping on his toes!
Meeting new people all the time really keeps me on my toes. Instead of just being around people I happen to know all the time, I get to meet great people and at the same time sharpen my own social skills. Keeping on my toes means I feel more stimulated and mentally alert. Generally, to keep on your toes means to watch out or be careful. For example, parents really have to keep on their toes when their children become teenagers. Maybe this expression is based in sports, like many other idioms. Such idioms use a physical posture or position as a symbol for an abstract concept such as mental stimulation. On my toes means I am ready to take action, poised and watchful. It does not necessarily mean my heels have left the ground, so the use is metaphorical.
This shows focus

When runners get ready to sprint, just before the starting gun they raise their heels and put more weight on the front of the foot, so they are actually on their toes. Basketball players have to keep on their toes all the time. Being “caught flat footed” means being caught off guard, unsuspecting. For example, “The surprise attack by the guerillas caught us flat footed. We were all asleep in the barracks.” If they had been on their toes, they would have posted guards around the camp. The guards were only flat footed metaphorically since they were lying down asleep in reality.

Besides keeping me on my toes, meeting a lot of new people makes me “think on my feet,” means adapting quickly and constantly to changing situations. Standing, walking, and running while at the same time thinking means you can respond to changing situations and modify your behavior continuously. Athletes generally have to think on their feet, and so do CEOs, politicians, and parents. In public debates when candidates must answer their opponents, they must think on their feet. Texting or other aids are not allowed under debate rules. Some questions may require candidates to think on their feet, and to express themselves spontaneously instead of according to a script. Sometimes the results are unintentional disasters, losing face for candidates who try to think on their feet. They really drop the ball when they come under pressure.

Keep your eye on the ball
Balls of various size and kinds are used in all kinds of sports. Players must constantly pay attention to the ball’s location and trajectory. They must keep focused “on the ball,” whether it is golf, tennis, baseball, or billiards. Coaches always tell their players in batting practice “Keep your eye on the ball.” More generally, a reputation for being on the ball means you are regarded as competent and efficient. For example, Democratic voters think President Obama has more on the ball than any of his Republican opponents. Naturally Republicans believe the opposite. Keeping your eye on the ball means staying very focused on your goal. When it comes to tracking my retirement investments, I really keep my eye on the ball. Keep your eyes on the prize is another way of saying keep your eyes on the ball. Since eyes rhymes with prize the former expression has a nice sound.

Baseball pitchers often put a spin on the baseball so that if actually hit, it will fly out of bounds. Putting a spin on events means selecting only certain facts and using them to justify one’s own position. This is exactly what happens in court, where prosecution and defense lawyers try to put different spins on the same set of facts and circumstances. Politicians (mostly lawyers) are masters of spin. Since the early 1900s, public relations became a profession devoted to molding public opinion. Conservative media like Fox spin the news to reflect opinions of conservative voters, while their liberal opponents work just as hard spinning the other way. Every day we are bombarded by messages trying to spin us in certain directions: buy this, believe that. We may never agree about what the world is really like, but we can agree that everyone has their own spin on what it all means.

Oops! I dropped the ball!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Idioms for putting up a false front

Lady Gaga takes outrageous posturing to new heights.
Putting up a false front to impress people is called "posturing." First, what is posture? Basically it means the position of our body, such as standing, sitting, or lying down. Good posture is straight, while bad posture is slumped, twisted, or otherwise distorted. My mother always reminded me to stand up straight so I would have good posture. Good posture prevents joint injuries, bone deterioration, and pain so I try to follow her advice. As I write this I am in a seated posture (I am sitting down).

As I grew up I learned words could have both literal and symbolic meanings. That is when I learned that posture can also mean a symbolic position, such as in the expression “What is your posture on national defense?” In other words, what is your position or what are your views on national defense? In this sense, posture means a carefully thought out view or opinion on any sort of issue. Since the posture is an intellectual position instead of a physical position of the body, this usage is more symbolic.

In addition to its noun uses “posture” can be used as a verb: to posture. To posture means acting out for the benefit of an audience. For example, one way to intimidate people is to act aggressively. Posturing uses insincerity to influence others. Trying to impress people by acting flamboyantly (outrageously) is posturing by Lady Gaga, for example. Off stage she might be a very ordinary person. “Grandstanding” is posturing taken to the extreme. Bragging to everyone about your greatness and taking all the credit for a team effort would be an example of grandstanding.

“Putting on an act” means the same as posturing: pretending to be someone other than yourself. The usual reason for posturing is to manipulate others in various ways, such as pretending to be angry and making empty threats. Growing up we all met bullies in the playground who would threaten or intimidate us. Bullies seek to gain status by exerting power over other people who are usually weaker. People who posture are trying to inflate their own sense of importance and personal power, presumably to compensate for other areas of deficiency. Posturing and grandstanding are superficial behaviors that can only temporarily cover true character. 

Political debates are a great place to watch posturing. Very little information or communication is exchanged. Instead, the candidates puff themselves up to look better than their opponents. You can also see subtle posturing during celebrity interviews, press releases, public announcements, and speeches. Marketing and public relations exist to help posture products or people in popular culture. Innumerable consultants recommend all sorts of image enhancement techniques to posture their clients for consumers and voters.

At work, posturing goes on all the time, from the boss on down. Looking busy when the boss is in the office is a form of posturing, and so is the boss’s VIP corner office and private parking. Business meetings are an ideal environment for posturing because the images we project interacting with others either adds to or subtracts from our reputation. Posturing plays a part in all kinds of negotiations in politics, business, and media.

Many years ago I tried posturing in my first sales job. I bought some fancy suits, had my hair styled (when I had hair!), got a hot tub, and generally tried to act cool and successful. Though I kept this up for a couple of years it did not get me anywhere. I quit trying to be somebody different and focused on being myself. Soon I had a successful business and since then have not experimented with posturing. However, my posture remains important to me as I hear my yoga teacher echo my mother telling me to stand up straight.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Easy ways to improve your English writing.

Starting sentences with "it" makes them very weak.

Easy ways to improve your English writing.
What are some simple ways to improve your English writing style? First, don’t start sentences with “there is” and “there are.” When I pointed this out to one student, he understood immediately, and added his own observation "These words are like dead wood::” they added no meaning to the sentence. Though not technically incorrect, using these words only weakens your writing. In fact, using any unneeded words weakens your message by diluting it with irrelevancies. “There is/are” really says nothing except that something exists. Try to leave this out as much as you can.

In conversation, we use this construction frequently so using it in writing is natural. However, when writing we have time to carefully select the words and phrases we use. Any sentence starting with ‘there is” or “there are” can be stated differently. For example:
“There are twenty customers in the restaurant.”       
“Twenty customers are in the restaurant.”
“There is some food in the refrigerator.”
“Some food is in the refrigerator.”
In both cases, the facts can be stated directly, instead of needing the superfluous (extra) words “there is/are.” Sometimes, constructing sentences without these words seems difficult or even impossible. Don’t give up. Discovering the answer is how you can refine your English writing proficiency.

These comments also apply to writing sentences starting with “it is,” as in “It is sunny today.” The pronoun “it” is supposed to substitute for the previous noun but in this case, there is no such thing. Dig deeper and realize that what is sunny is the weather. Then rephrase the sentence: “The weather is sunny today,” or even “Today’s weather is sunny.” When you can express the same thought in several different ways, you can select the best one to suit your intention, to express yourself fully.

Even many U.S.-born writers use these expressions, not realizing the shortcomings. These easy, simple constructions become a habit to avoid having to select a more effective construction. You will note that professionally edited writing, online or in print, uses these constructions only rarely. Government and corporate bureaucrats use "It is" and "There is/are" s a lot, since they often seek ways of saying something without saying anything.

The second easy way to improve your English writing is by avoiding passive sentences. Sentences can be active, such as “The man carried the laptop,” or they can be passive “The laptop was carried by the man.” The second sentence is passive, because the subject (laptop) did not do anything. In fact, the action of carrying is reversed. Both sentences are true, but the passive sentence describes the action from the laptop’s point of view. Some more examples:
                The man flew the airplane vs. the airplane was flown by the man.
                I wash the dishes vs. the dishes are being washed by me.
                He watches TV vs. TV is being watched by him.
                The last goal was made by the youngest player vs. the youngest player made the last goal.

Notice how passive sentences only mention the agent indirectly (by him) while the object acted on is featured as the subject of the sentence. If you are not certain about active and passive sentences, transitive and intransitive nouns in English, reviewing them will help a lot. 

Using passive sentences in your writing only obscures your meaning. Why? This construction makes readers work harder to understand your meaning. Passive sentences actually detract from readability. Standard readability measures, such as featured in MS Word, detect and report the percentage of passive sentences. Though a careful reader will find passive sentences in my writing, I try to avoid them as much as I can. Often writers have trouble converting passive sentences to active ones. As difficult as it seems sometimes, all expressions can be stated actively if you try hard enough.

As a grammar exercise, try thinking of active sentences, like “the man drove the car” and its passive version, “the car was driven by the man.” Try to think of at least ten or twenty examples. Once you have practiced like this, your brain will begin to recognize the symmetry between active and passive. From then on, you can encourage yourself to discover active constructions for all your sentences.

Keeping these ideas is a very basic way to improve your writing style. Try to pay attention to what you read and write, to look out for these constructions. Ask yourself, do they add to the meaning?