Friday, 28 August 2009

A tale of inspirational aspirations...

Our guest blogger this week is Mark Caven, author of 'The Lowdown: Improve Your Speech - American English for Chinese Speakers', which launches today.

Recently I was invited to give a seminar on English Pronunciation for a group of students taking the International English Program at New College, University Of Toronto. A recommended summer program if anyone is looking, by the way... When I work with large groups at universities I am always intrigued by the variety of reasons the students have for being there. Different ages, different nationalities, many away from home for the first time, all majoring in different fields, it takes a real level of commitment not to be distracted by the summertime fun, big city, atmosphere and get the most from what your program has to offer.

The day of my seminar was warm and sunny. You could honestly say it was the first summer's day after a depressingly long stretch of rain. As I looked up at the cloudless sky, I thought to myself: there goes half my audience. I then arrived at New College to be greeted with the news that today was in fact a free day, and my seminar was the only session booked! I smiled and thought to myself… if only two show up… I promise I will make an effort to teach those two more in two hours than perhaps they’ll learn for the rest of the course. I went into the lecture hall and set up my presentation and waited. At five minutes to the appointed hour a very nice young lady from Korea arrived. At three minutes to the hour a very nice young lady from Japan arrived, then… nothing. The three of us sat in this large room and waited. Suddenly a member of staff popped his head round the door and proclaimed “This is the slowest bunch we’ve ever had. They are late for everything!”

I decided to stick to my promise and have these two young ladies speaking perfect English in no time. I abandoned my formal presentation, and began to work with them, explaining how the key to speaking any language clearly is learning how we form sounds. After about fifteen minutes the door swung open and five more students arrived. I welcomed them, and did a recap to bring them up to speed. Five minutes later another ten arrived, and I quickly gave another recap, as I could feel we were on a roll. In the end I had to give three more such recaps, as the size of the group continued to grow and grow. It was an extremely interactive seminar and I was able to work round the room unravelling some of the challenges people face when trying to speak English, but what impressed me most were the answers to my question “Why is it important to you that you speak English clearly?”

Experience has taught me that some students who enrol in English programs are only there because they need the credit, and it’s easy to spot the ones who thought it was a good excuse for a holiday abroad - while others can be almost resentful, feeling they shouldn’t have to improve the way they speak, and it should be up to the listener to make the effort to understand them as they are. Well - late in arriving this bunch may have been, but they made the effort on the nicest day of the year, with no other classes to attend, for the simple reason they aspire to be the best they can be. Without exception they were passionate that speaking English well is an important key to achieving greater opportunities in their future. That’s not to say they thought it was fair or they were happy about it, but they each agreed that English is still regarded as the common language of communication, and being able to speak clearly and proficiently offers them a door to greater freedom in life. They were enthusiastic and intelligent, and helped to turn what might have become an anti-climatic event into an inspirational one. Now if we could just teach them how to set their alarm clocks... - Mark Caven

Mark Caven is the author and presenter of 'The Lowdown: Improve Your Speech American English for Chinese Speakers' and 'The Lowdown: Improve Your Speech American English.' Mark is also the director of the Perfect English Speech program.

We'd love to know: Do you think it's important to speak English clearly?

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