If you were trying to improve your performance in sports, dance or music, would you simply read about how to improve them? Of course not. Instead, you would hit tennis balls or practice tango steps or play piano scales over and over again, day after day. But if you want to improve how you speak English as a foreign language, what do you do?
If you are like many of my clients, you probably do grammar exercises, silently memorize vocabulary and listen to language training CDs — but rarely speak. I have clients who only speak English once or twice a month, during presentations or international meetings. They tell me that they find reading and understanding easier than speaking. But when they ask me for a simple suggestion about how to improve their English, I say, “Read out loud in English for just ten minutes every day.”
There are two notable exceptions of incorporating bodies into the learning process: Maria Montessori and F.M. Alexander. Both demonstrated reliably, in educational centers and private classes around the world, how their methods helped students of all ages learn more effectively at their own pace and in their own way by fully engaging body, mind and emotions.
I employ that pedagogical approach in my intercultural communication seminars. During these interactive workshops, participants practice concrete ways to become more clear and confident intercultural communicators when using English as a foreign language. They learn how to harness language, body and emotions in order to embody new speaking habits.
But you don’t have to attend a seminar to benefit from an approach to learning that emphasizes the body. My practical suggestion of daily reading out loud has as its objective to make speaking English a habit. With daily practice your face, mouth, tongue and throat learn naturally and gradually what sets of muscles to use when speaking English, rather than your native language. If you rarely speak English, you cannot expect your body to know what to do when you suddenly have to say something.
In addition, you will discover that by daily reading out loud, the sounds you are creating will become more and more “normal” to your own ears. As a result, your body will begin to be more relaxed when you speak English, and your emotions will be more positive.
In my workshops we often discuss how uncomfortable participants feel when speaking English at work or how negatively they feel about their English skills. I find that people are more critical of their own speaking competences than other people are. So I strongly recommend that you refrain from being critical of yourself when you read out loud. Instead, be playful and have fun. It doesn’t even matter what you are speaking, so don’t worry if you don’t understand what you are reading. The reading out loud exercise is for your body and emotions, rather than your mind.
What is a “Good” Accent?
Some of my clients express a concern that by reading out loud they will reinforce their “bad” accent. I fundamentally disagree with English training methods that focus on teaching a “good” accent and “correct” intonation. By intonation I mean, for example, whether to go up at the end of a sentence or not. Often my clients who have encountered these methods ask me if their intonation when speaking English is correct. They also ask me with a worried expression, “Is my accent really bad?” The only way to answer such questions is with another question: what culture is listening to you?
Also overlooked is that pronunciation and intonation vary even among Anglophones. For example, the British speak with a more varied tonality than Americans and pronounce words differently. Canadians fall somewhere in between. Australians have a very distinctive rhythm to how they speak, and so on. As a Canadian, I can no more adopt the intonation of a British, American or Australian speaker than I can copy their accents.
For example, I recently met a British woman who said in her very British sing-song way, “Oh! You have an accent.” I replied, in my usual monotone Canadian way, “No, you do.” Accents exist in the listener, not the speaker.
I am convinced, from my years of experience within intercultural business contexts in both North America and Europe, that it is a waste of your time trying to master an accent or intonation that is not natural to you. I assure you that reading out loud will allow you to find your own way on these issues.
Enjoy the Flow of Language
Throughout this website I have written about many of the language, body and emotional issues of communicating across cultures. While reading out loud won’t solve all of the challenges you are facing interculturally, it will allow you to become more intimately acquainted with the intercultural dimension of your unique communication style. Become aware of how one word follows after another while you read out loud. That experience is true for everyone, the world over.
What I call the flow of language happens automatically, regardless of what language we are speaking. Even when we are speaking a foreign language, language is still flowing through us, like a river. So here’s a final tip: as you read out loud in English every day, enjoy the flow!