Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The confession of a non-native English speaker-series 1

This is an article which is not intended to be a final product. A clean up and peer review is necessary to make it final.

The confession of a non-native English speaker

Series 1-Level of fluency

Native speakers of English, do you know how hard it is for non-native speakers to speak/use perfect English? How is it like to be a non-native English speaker? Take some time to appreciate how to walk in a non-native speaker shoes? Of course there are a lot of bumps that non-native speakers encountered that native speakers haven’t thought of. Hey, non-native speakers, which level of the following are you in? Read the tips and first-hand experience from Patrick Yau- a non-native speaker from Hong Kong, and now the secretary of International Student Council. He is trying to identify the learning stages that any non-native English speakers must stumble upon.


In my opinion, we can divide the trend of English learning for non-native speakers into four stages. The following is the thing that I really want to share with non-native speakers and the people who think poorly of non-native speakers, and thus ignoring them. Let’s see what we non-native English speaker must do first in order to speak good English.

Pulling-the-Words-together level

If you are not good at English, prepare what you are going to say first. Substitute the words that you don't know with the words that you know. Keep your sentence short and say it slowly so you can pronounce better. Proofread your sentence that you are going to say. Try not to stutter or making grammar/logical mistakes.

I have been in this level. Everything that is new is tough, especially English! Yay! This is life!

Practice! Bash with your mental dictionary! And try every way to learn English words.

Voice and Accent-clearance level

Removing some of the obstructive accent can be beneficial because you make yourself more understandable. Sample the way people speak in televisions. Raise/lower your voice appropriately to make it sounds native. Speak slower to reduce your accent; if you are speaking slowly then you allow your audience to have time to guess what you are attempting to say.

A remark: Someone would say keeping one’s accent makes him pride of his native country. It is up to anyone to make their English a bit more understandable.

If you are not fast enough in listening, then you will have to listen to the gibberish in pieces. Break the sentence down, and you can only do that with Songs/TV shows/Internet videos. Fix the accent word by word, and don't be afraid if your attempts to imitate have failed. Try it again and again, and sooner or later you will be alright. Don't be shy. You need to talk. Listen to what you have spoken, then find a better way to say a thing, and seek improvement on other aspects on your own.

Setting up standard and self-monitoring mechanism

Setup standards for the quality of your speech, you have to make sure that you can be as accent-free and in certain level of fluency as possible all the time. Make you don't get below the standard at all time, and raise the standards if you improve. Standards are very important because you don't want to speak badly and speak well, making people trust your "speaking system", and your speaking system has to be stable! For example, I am supposed to fix the "th" sound (THurst) and the "sed" sound (teaSED), then I will have to focus on the "th" and "sed" sounds when I am speaking. Remember listen to yourself when you speak!

Remark: Some people may assume you speak bad English if you look too “International”. It is nothing bad about being too “International,” and we should give them a surprise and turn their stereotypes that they believe in upside down.

For a listening standard, you should know your listening capacity. Actually there are a lot of words that can stick together as a phrase and every good non-native speaker has to know roughly what these phrases mean. That is why you need to read the dictionary! If someone using a particular phrase in their speech, because you know that phrase, then you don't have to listen word by word! The same thing applies to listening sentences. i.e. If someone using a particular sentence in their speech, because you know that sentence, then you don't have to listen word by word! Listening Word by word is slow and you should try listening sentence by sentence!

If someone is having a light accent, try to "map" their sounds to characters. For example, his "th" sound is bad and he said it like "ke" instead of "th". To deal with this, let’s be smart. Try filtering this pronunciation annoyance on the fly with your brain and your ears.

If someone is having a think accent, listen it word by word and guess it. Then put back the sentence together. Ask him/her to slow down and use short sentences.

A standard can be also like this: You have to make sure that even if you are very very tired, you can still listen to others and speak well.

In my case, I have listening standard, speech-length standard (how much can I speak at once without the assistance of your draft on paper and other people?), how fast can you listen at a time?, how much your attention span do you have when you listen other people speaking?, how accent-free are you?, how grammar-mistakes-free are you?, how precise and concise of your speech?, how much others can understand you?, how nervous are you if you deal with critical situations while you have to deal with it in English only? How overwhelm are you when you listen English? (If you feel it hard to listen, you may get overwhelmed. Can you think of any related topics and details about the thing that you have listened?), how much energy do you spend when you speak a sentence/listen a sentence?

Standard can be raised over and over again to keep you doing great.

Let’s use qualifiers, so that people can understand you more!
Instead of saying: "I appreciate the fact."
Use this: "I appreciate the fact seriously."

Culture level

If you don't fit into the English/American culture at least in some way, you will do badly in conveying your real personality to others. If you used to be quiet, some people might think that you are not sociable. Chinese people may not greet each other every time, while English people greet each other up to 3 to 4 sentences. You need to know how people in this English world deal with matters. May be you are very nice to people, but still you are not very well accepted in a lot of groups, then you have to think the problem that you have (Are you too slow in listening? Thick accent? Bad attitude? Body languages? You interrupt people while others speaking too much?) Also, please consider body language! Some cultures do not mind body language as much as American does. Body language is very important in American culture. Although a typical American can't read your mind, they can read your body language and he can tell that you have shown him any signs of your ignorance, arrogance, dumbness, frustrations, enantiosis and skepticisms. Be careful!

Moreover, native English people can keep their way of saying things short if they want to. Always use the way that they used to describe a thing. For example,

instead of saying "I walk to there and I walk to here repeatedly.”
say this: "I walk back and forth from here to there."

Reword the sentences that you are going to speak, so that it looks polished and elegant.
Instead of saying "I have take this pen onto the computer.",
say this: "I have grab this pen onto the computer."

How to have a fast catch up on American mass media

If you want to truly integrate with the American culture, you should read a lot about it. I meant a LOT of about American cultures. Even you don’t have time to read the books or TV shows that they are talking about, you should read something like wikipedia on the Internet. Anyone will be impress how detailed mind you are if you reveal that you haven’t watch any of the TV shows, but you indeed understand what those American guys talking about! Why it matters? Because sometimes it is how American socialize! In all, wikipedia and the Internet is all you need to catch up things in the United States and perhaps this technique is applicable to other countries too.

Lobbist/Debating level

If you have to convince others into your plan, then you have to do something that is beyond speaking and talking.

You must be quick enough to build arguments for your opponents/competitors/"the one that you want to persuade". Sometimes you need to hide some facts; sometimes you need to reveal all the facts; sometimes you need to show your stance, and sometimes you don't. Fluent English speakers can make these decisions on time. They don’t think English (the language they speak) is stopping them from expressing themselves at all. People may not notice that he/she is a non-native speaker because his/her English is too good (especially for those non-native speakers that have removed a lot of their accent). Showing people his/her confidence is very important because this gives the audience an impression that everything is in control. Non-native speaker at this level tries to avoid being looking like a loser by means of his/her body language and manipulating his/her very own voice. A firm voice can make people feel you are trustworthy. A cheerful voice can make people happy. In all, your voice somehow implies your personality.

Non-native speakers at this level have good ability to control the atmosphere of an ongoing discussion. Detecting the atmosphere, then reacting and attempting to change the atmosphere properly is important because this reflects how successful he/she is to fulfill his/her purpose.

We do not need be a psyche to reach this level, but leading a discussion properly, and giving wordy speech instantly is the fair game of this level. This is a part of social skills that people cannot miss if they want to do good leaderships and entrepreneurships.


Here is the non-exhaustive list of what I did to my English:

l I read programming manuals, if I don't force myself to read it, I cannot be a programmer as today.

l I read the online dictionary. The new words are referring each other in an online dictionary. It is just faster and nicer than reading dictionaries that are printed on paper with small font size.

l I fix the accent word by word, like cutting down the trees one by one amongst the English forest.

l Close a classroom door and being alone, and read alone the newspaper to fix accent.

l I listen to interesting shows that I am interested in. In the contrary of what people usually think, English songs are good but often they are not written in good English grammar. And English songs are bad because you might mistakenly use those vulgar language or insincere speech before you know what it means. For example, recently I use the sentence “I don’t care” to mean this: “I don’t think it is important, and this is alright.” However, saying "I don't care" means that "you are boring and annoying, so that I am going to ignore you."

l Ask others to confirm that my audience does understand me.

l Expose myself an English-speaking community and try not to adhere to my own ethic group.

To native speaker: remember that every-single non-native speaker has come from a long way to speak proper English. Bear with us! I am serious!

Patrick Yau Pak Wa
Wayward Wayfarer

International Student Council Secretary

Smith Gym 214

Observe, think, high-octane!

Any opinions, questions and concerns can be forwarded to Jodi Simek and Patrick Yau Pak Wa

Patrick Yau Pak Wa, who is a non-native and non-naïve English speaker while his major is Computer Science. Dealing with geeky terms is his usual activity; however, it might be consider as an unusual activity for some native speakers. He is a non-native speaker from Hong Kong, and now the secretary of International Student Council.

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