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The five most common mistakes in English speaking…and how to fix them.
In today’s video, we’re going to go over five mistakes that we see our students making when speaking English. These are bigger picture mistakes and focusing on them can make a huge change in your spoken English. To help me make this video, we’re bringing in a teacher that I’ve been working with for almost ten years. He’s an accent coach in Rachel’s English academy, and I’ve heard and seen the stunning results that students can get by working with him. You may recognize him, he’s definitely been on this YouTube channel before, the one and only Tom Kelly.
Hi! I’m Tom Kelly a Rachel’s English teacher with Rachel’s English Academy. And today, I’m going to share with you five mistakes that you may be making that are getting in the way of you sounding like a native speaker. So let’s get started.
Mistake number one. Not doing the hard work.
So it may seem like the hard work of speaking American English is learning all the vocabulary, working on the rhythm, the intonation, all of that really challenging stuff. But in order to even work on that, there’s something you may have to do and that is take your face to the gym. All of the muscles and articulators of your face, right now, they move in a way that comes from you being able to speak your native language effortlessly. And that’s exactly what you want to do with American English. Native speakers are speaking English effortlessly, they’re not working hard to make any of these sounds, they’re not running into issues with the TH sound, or the T sound, or the AW as in Law vowel. They’re able to say it without even thinking about it.
In order to get to that place, you need to open up some more flexibility in the way you use your articulators. That means kind of loosening up, relaxing them, finding some more options for the way that they move, because right now, you have a strong habit to move them in the way that you use them for your native language. That’s why you may have an accent.
And Tom and I want you to know that we think nothing is wrong with an accent. We do not think that everyone needs to sound the same. An accent can be a very beautiful part of your identity. We do know that some students have problems being understood, and therefore they lack confidence when speaking English. Other students are very, very good but it’s their own personal goal to sound native. So what our goal is to help students meet their own goal, not to eliminate accents altogether.
One of the things that I do with my students is I give them drills. Things that don’t sound like English at all, but are actually practicing the building blocks of sounding like a native speaker. For instance, we’ll take the ai as in buy diphthong. This diphthong requires the tongue to start low in the mouth and then rise in the middle of the tongue as it arches up.
Ai, ai– the tip of the tongue stays low and forward and relaxed. The jaw drops down but doesn’t necessarily go all the way back up. It stays loose and relaxed, the lips, totally relaxed. Ai-ai-ai.
For many students, this is very challenging. To keep the jaw relaxed while the tongue does more work, while the tongue lifts up in the mouth. Ai-ai. So this is what I’ll have my students do. Very slowly, I have them say this diphthong over and over again but not using the jaw at all, let the jaw be completely relaxed.
Ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai—
My jaw, totally relaxed, my lips, totally relaxed, my tongue doing all the work.
Ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai—
Over time, you’ll be able to do it quickly.
Let’s try that together. Saying the ai diphthong, trying to move the jaw, not at all or very little.
Ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai, ai—
Okay, it’s possible, and it really does make me focus in on the tongue movement.
It is this kind of practice that helps you begin learning to have more flexibility from your articulators, that helps you begin to sound more like a native speaker.
Another example is working on the Flap T sound.
Wow, did you see that?
The tongue was moving and everything else in the face was totally relaxed.
Making a very quick d sound. Again, jaw totally relaxed, lips totally relaxed, just bouncing the tip of the tongue off the roof of the mouth, anywhere off the roof of the mouth, it doesn’t matter where, the Flap T can be made anywhere off the roof of the mouth.
Is that really hard? Does your tongue not want to do that? That means you want to build more tongue flexibility, because we use that Flap T all the time, quickly, it’s a major part of the rhythm of English.
If I can’t say ‘I got it’ with a Flap T and I have to say: I got it, I got it, that won’t sound like American English. I need that Flap T. I got it, I got it. That quick bounce of the tip of the tongue off the roof of the mouth, that is what helps you sound like a native speaker.
So I really recommend getting into relaxing your face, opening up your articulators to more flexibility. One resource we have with Rachel’s English is a series on relaxation that Rachel and I made quite a while ago. And I’ll make sure that there’s a link to that resource here so you can maybe build a warm up for yourself. Use some of those drills on a daily basis to start opening up that flexibility. Over time, with constant practice, you will end up sounding more like a native speaker.
Mistake number two: stop over pronouncing the sounds of American English.
So many of you may have learned to make some of the sounds of American English by moving your articulators a lot. So for instance, the EE as in she vowel, maybe you’ll learn to make that by pulling your lip corners really far wide. Eee– ee- and maybe that was super helpful to really get a sense for that sound. Maybe when you learned the AW as in Law vowel, you really rounded your lips a lot. Aw– aw– and dropped your jaw huge. Aw, aw– in order to find that sound. Great! That was really helpful for you to learn that sound. Maybe when you practice the ay as in say diphthong sound, you pull wide as well: ay, ay, ay. Maybe that helped you kind of get a sense for that diphthong the first time you practiced it. But all of those sounds, when spoken by native speakers, have a much more relaxed quality to them. The more tension you use to create any sound of American English, the more it will end up sounding just a little bit accented. It won’t sound quite as natural, and we’re looking for that natural flow. To do that, you actually want to do less. You can often simplify the way you’re making those sounds.
So let’s take a look at the EE as in she vowel. Ee, ee, see, speaker– my lips are not going wide. Ee, ee. Instead, my tongue position is really helping to make this sound by closing off space in the mouth. The front and middle part of the tongue are moving up, closing off that space, my lips, relatively relaxed. Ee, ee, see, speaker–
Now, the ay as in say diphthong, ay, ay. My jaw drops down, my tongue does move, but my lips, very relaxed. Ay, ay, say, later. How about the UH as in Push vowel? For a lot of students, their lips round too much for this vowel sound. Ooh, ooh, and it ends up sounding somewhere between an UH as in Push vowel, and an OO as in boo or new vowel sound. Ooh, uh.
For the UH as in Push vowel, uh, uh, the lip corners, they round very subtly. It’s really a simple lip rounding, it’s not extreme, it’s not ooh but uh. Do you see that very subtle lip rounding? Uh, uh, push, push, push.
So let’s actually take a look at some native speakers using some of these words and see how they use their articulators to make them.
And sound coming out of a small speaker like–
The most powerful speaker in American history–
Learn how to be a speaker–
Do you notice how none of them pull really far wide?
In those examples of the word ‘speaker’, spoken by those native speakers, you didn’t see the lips pull wide. They were able to make that vowel sound with a lot less effort.
How can I push myself–
People will push back against that–
There’s tremendous pushback from the community–
Notice for that word ‘push’, push, the speakers are not pushing their lips super far forward. Instead, it’s a lot more relaxed, it’s more subtle. Again, more relaxed quality.
It’s premature for us to say there’s a clear path forward.
I would say that from an economic standpoint–
And they would come to ’em and say…
For the ay diphthong in say, say, notice, they are using the tongue movement, not the lips. There’s not a huge amount of effort going into this sound from the articulators.
So don’t over pronounce the sounds of American English. If there is a sound that you feel like you need tension to make, that you need to make this big movement from your articulators, chances are you’re probably over pronouncing it. See if you can relax it. See if you can do less. Simplify the way you’re making these sounds. It will make you sound more like a native speaker.
Mistake number three: not being flexible with the sounds of American English.
So yes, we don’t want to over pronounce and we want to be drilling relaxation and finding more flexibility from our articulators. But now, I’m talking about flexibility once you know the vowel and diphthong sounds, once you have a strong sense of these sounds. Some of my students want to be able to always pronounce those sounds exactly the same way. That way they can have tons of confidence that they’re doing it right. But what that ends up taking away from you is your ability to express yourself with the language.
With the music of American English, we use the vowels and diphthongs in different ways depending on what we’re trying to express. Sometimes English teachers talk about short vowels and long vowels. I tend to think this is kind of unhelpful when it comes to speaking like a native speaker, because we play with the length of all vowel sounds in order to express ourselves in different ways.
Let’s take an example. The ih as in sit vowel. Often this is thought of as a very short vowel sound. But let’s think about an example where we might want to lengthen it, to kind of hold it out. Let’s say I’m very frustrated with my child and they will not sit down, it’s and they’re just, they’re running all around and I need them to sit down, and I need to really let them know how serious I am. I might say: sit down. Right? I might lengthen that ih as in sit vowel. Sit down.
Okay, I’ll sit down.
Right? Now that’s very different than if a friend comes over and I want to invite them to have a seat, I might say: you want to sit down? You want to sit down?
Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit. Totally different, the way I’m handling that vowel sound. That play that you want to be able to have with the vowels and diphthongs of American English is really important to practice. And so often when you’re practicing, you’re just practicing the vowel or diphthong in one way. I would say, if you’re practicing vocabulary, practice saying the word in different kinds of sentences, in different situations in your mind. Talk to that child who won’t sit. Down talk to the friend who you want to offer a seat. Try the words out in different situations, and see if you can be a little bit more playful with the vowels and diphthongs, with the music of your English.
How about another example? How about the EE as in she vowel? Often thought of as a bit of a longer vowel sound. Ee, ee. But maybe if you’re completely shocked and you just learned some news and you’re kind of quiet, and you’re saying: I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Believe, believe. There the EE as in she vowel happening very quickly, but I’m expressing this disbelief. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.
However, if I am just super excited about something, and: I just can’t believe it! I cannot believe that happened. Right? There, I’m using it to be very long, I’m expressing myself in an entirely different way.
Okay, let’s stop and think about this. Think about a phrase in your own native language that can be used various ways, it could just be a translation of ‘sit down’ for example. Now think about the extremely different situations in which you might use this. Say that phrase out loud. Think about how much the quality of your voice changes depending on what you’re trying to convey. So tom’s point is if you try to make everything the same and just learn one version of every sound, one way of speaking English, then you’re probably going to miss some chances for expression that don’t have to do with language itself. So don’t be afraid to play a little bit with emotion and language, volume, pitch, length, these kinds of things.
So I highly recommend practicing different situations when you’re practicing your vocabulary. Try it in different sentences. See if you can play with the language a bit more. Because the more you do that the more you’re gonna sound super natural, like a native speaker.
I think play is something that’s really underrated in practice. It can help you find more freedom in speaking and that can loosen up your articulators, which is something that tom’s already talked about.
Mistake number four: not listening like a native speaker.
Now, I’ve actually made an entire video on this topic talking about how to listen like a native speaker. So I’m not going to take a ton of time here to explain it. But I want you to check that video out because it is super important to start listening for the music underneath the words, as opposed to just listening for the words. When we listen for only the words, as a listener of American English, then we’re just getting the comprehension, we’re understanding what’s being said, but we don’t really understand how to imitate it. And being able to imitate the native speakers that you hear is incredibly important in becoming able to sound more like a native speaker. So check that video out. I’m going to give you a little hint, it’s all about listening to the stressed syllables. You want to hear the music on the stressed syllables. Rachel calls it the shape of stress, this up-and-down curve in the voice. That’s what you want to be listening for. Check that video out.
I’ll put a link to that video at the end of this video.
Mistake number five: trying to speak English perfectly.
The thing is, nobody speaks English perfectly. We all have our own little quirks in the way that we speak, and we all make mistakes, all the time. I’m asked to repeat myself the same way you are. Even my wife will ask me to repeat myself. I’ll be unclear to the person who I speak to the most.
So when someone asks you to repeat yourself, when you make those mistakes, let’s see if we can instead of getting super frustrated, and down and feeling like “Ugh, I’ll never get this.” know that you’re just like a native speaker, you’re making a mistake. So what do you do in those moments? I say, celebrate a little bit. Realize “Oh! Awesome! I made a mistake! That’s something I can improve upon!” maybe write down the mistake, practice it for next time. Whenever you actually become aware of a mistake you’re making, it’s a chance to celebrate, because you are getting better. Two days ago, maybe you wouldn’t have even known you made the mistake. Now, you know. It’s a huge thing.
So don’t let mistakes get you down. Instead, look at mistakes as an opportunity. Making mistakes is your way forward. The more mistakes you make, the more you’ll have information to improve. So that means you want to be speaking English a lot. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake keep you from going out there and trying it, talking to people. When people say “What?” that’s an awesome opportunity to maybe even say: what was it that I said that you didn’t get? Can you tell me why that was hard to understand? Let the mistakes be an opportunity for learning. If you can do that, you will move forward so much faster. So I highly recommend, make a bunch of mistakes.
Don’t forget that one. Go make a mistake today!
All right, that’s everything. So what do we want to remember? You want to remember to take your face to the gym. You want to remember to not over pronounce the sounds of American English. You want to remember to play with the vowels and diphthongs so you can express yourself like a native speaker. You want to remember to listen like a native speaker. Oh! And don’t even worry about making mistakes, right? Make ’em!
Oh! See? Tom was having fun playing.
That’s everything from me. Thank you so much for watching, and as always, thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.
Video: *coming soon*