When I was learning Danish I was excited to discover a treasure trove of dusty children’s books in the back corner of my in-laws’ closet. They were familiar stories that I remembered from childhood, and my husband and I quickly developed an evening ritual of reading the books together. He would read one page as I would focus on how he spoke the language. Then I would do my best to read the next page while he corrected my pronunciation.
9 years later, I now sit with my 3-year-old daughter reading her books in English while my husband reads to her in Danish. She has her favorite 3 books which get read over and over again to the point that she now has them memorized. She asks to “read” them all by herself, and I’m shocked by how much she sounds like me.
She has absorbed my intonation and stress patterns as she dramatically recites each page. Even if she doesn’t have the pronunciation of each sound just right, the overall flow and rhythm of the language is there. It reminds me just how important it is to read to our children, but also what an important tool children’s books can be in our own language learning.
These stories are filled with color, emotion and imagination. A good speaker knows how to incorporate these elements into their speech through tone, stress, pace and vocal variety.
So how can you apply this to your own pronunciation practice?
Find your favorite children’s story in English. Read it out loud as though you were reading to a small child, or if you happen to have a small child, even better! Think about what the words mean. Use feeling and emotion to bring the story to life. If you find this kind of exercise embarrassing (I totally understand), hide in an empty room in your house when no one’s home and give it a try.
Here are some examples from my daughter’s current favorite book (it might change next week), Sharing a Shell, by Julia Donaldson, who also authored the very popular book, The Gruffalo.
“Look! A storm, a terrible storm. Crashing and flashing all night.”
Bring this sentence to life by emphasizing important content words:
“LOOK! a STORM, a TERRible storm. CRASHing and FLASHing all night.”
The pace and pauses are also important. Pause slightly after “LOOK!”. Lengthen the word, “TERRible,” to give it more emotion. “CRASHing” and “FLASHing” should be quick and sharp, just as real crashes and flashes are.
It’s amazing how much meaning you can give to this sentence just by using your voice and carefully choosing which words to emphasize.
Let’s take another example:
As the crab is searching for a shell, he’s chased by a seagull until…
“At last, in a pool, an empty shell! Quick, Crab! Scuttle inside.”
This sentence only makes sense if you chunk the content into appropriate thought groups:
At last // in a pool // an empty shell // Quick, Crab // Scuttle inside.
Then choose the important words to emphasize:
at LAST // in a POOL // an EMPty shell // QUICK, CRAB // SCUTtle inSIDE!
Notice in this sentence how the function words (at, in, a, an) are unstressed. Their vowel sounds reduce to the schwa sound (close to ‘uh’). They aren’t fully pronounced. For example, “in a pool” is not “in A POOL”, but “inuh POOL.” This lends more focus to the content words and gives the excerpt some rhythm.
Don’t forget the emotion of this excerpt as well. Can you hear the relief in your voice when you say “at LAST”? Can you hear the urgency of “QUICK, CRAB! SCUTTle inSIDE!”?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This is all great, Heather, but I’m not going to talk like this at work!”
This may be true. As adults we lose our sense of discovery and imagination, and heaven forbid we show too much emotion in the workplace!
But let’s take a look at a real example from one of my clients. He had a very important presentation to the international CEO and was asking for funding (in the millions of US dollars) to expand to a new foreign market. He had fantastic statistics and research to back up his plans. The key was to deliver this information in a way that got attention.
I can’t share the actual details of his content, but here is a made-up sentence along the lines of what he needed to say:
“We’ll focus our efforts on this region which has a population of 280 million – the same as the United States.
Yes, you can dryly read this sentence, and no one will grasp its importance. Instead, bring the numbers to life:
We’ll FOcus our EFforts on THIS REgion, which has a popuLAtion of TWO HUNdred and EIGHty MILLION (lengthened for effect) (nice pause) the same as the enTIRE (lengthened) uNITed STATES.
By using tone and emphasis, along with a nice comparison that puts the numbers in perspective, you direct your audience to the important information that you want them to remember. Rattling off statistics isn’t good enough. You need to guide your listeners to the important points.
By applying these techniques, my client got his funding – on the spot. He was also the only presenter to receive a round of applause. Make an effort to connect yourself, your voice and your delivery to your content, and your audience will feel that connection as well.
Just like reading a story to a child, spark the imaginations of your listeners by breathing life into your messages.