With delight, I read Speech Insights for Success by my friend, Marlene Schoenberg.  The book is well written, funny, and educational. It raised my awareness of the many interesting aspects of the English language. It offers so many pieces of practical advice on how to do things better, about speaking the language, interacting with people, and about learning in general.

I always thought I spoke very well since everyone complimented me and told me how mild my accent is. While reading Chapter 5 "Nasal Vowels or Nasal Consonants?", I was curious, so I asked my daughter, Chloe, to say some of the words and sentences in the examples. I repeated the same words and sentences after her. Even before she told me I wasn't exactly right, I noticed the differences. This reminded me of some other sounds I had pronounced wrong for a long time. One example is the "dr" consonant blend in "drop" or "children". I wasn't aware of how different those words sounded in my pronunciation until one day someone pointed it out to me.  Unfortunately, as long as we speak clearly enough, people rarely correct us. Awareness is the first step toward improvement and it's really thrilling when we can get things right.

In Chapter 11, while comparing the speech and language training and Six Sigma Quality Improvement tool sets, Marlene made a very insightful connection. She said that the improvement direction is "from a lack of awareness to a change that is noticeable and measurable." In the same chapter, she mentioned that her "Advanced Pronunciation Program" begins with an individual evaluation analyzing articulation, intonation, rate, cultural voice, grammar, and idioms." I thought that was a great reminder on what I should pay attention to if I wanted to speak better.

I made many mental notes on the advice Marlene gave in the book. She has many useful insights. For example, in Chapter 13, she pointed out the importance of using newly acquired skills in many different contexts. In Chapter 30, Marlene summarized the common threads between speech learning and her experience of learning to play piano as an adult. I found both of them especially useful for me. One is about basics and memorization. She said, "As adults, we tend to resist memorizing, but until we commit some elementary facts to memory, we can't build up to more complex skills." Another piece of advice is about practice. She said, "I have searched to find a lot of simple material at my level. We need much more practice than we think. We need to move through developing good motor patterns at the early stages before we can do more advanced things."

Of course, it's not just this subject that requires motor skills which need more practice. When I taught my children, when I taught adults in various settings, or even when I studied certain subjects myself, I realized that mastering the basics by good, persistent practice was not popular. My three-year-old often says it most representatively, "I already know that!!!"  However, from my observations, people who are willing to practice their basics to near perfection are the ones who can go deeper and further. As an instructor, it's a true delight to teach those people.

Marlene's advice on interacting with people is wonderful. I will definitely put it into practice. One point which stands out for me is to build ease-in and redundancy in phone conversations. She told us to say something that was not information rich so the listener can get used to our voices, such as "Hello, I would like some information." Or "Good morning, I have a question for you." Repetition and different expressions are good tools for phone numbers and the purpose of the call. Marlene's conversation starters are great, especially for shy people like me. A few questions in the book I love are "What kind of work do you do?", "Where do you like to go on vacation?", "Where are you from originally?", "What do you do for fun?"

I also love the chapters about American idioms (Chapters 7 and 21). I learned quite a few new ones, such as "litmus test", "horse and buggy days", "It's debatable",  "bite the dust"(die), and "hot under the collar" (angry).

Just like Marlene said in the introduction, the book is like a buffet. There is something for everyone. I like it, I learned from it, and I think it's also a great reference for the future.

 Editor’s note:  Marlene Schoenberg specializes in speech coaching for scientists, executives and engineers (www.accentexpert.com).  Speech Insights for Success is a compilation of some of the articles from her communication column for China Insight.

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