*This article focuses on English learning, but the six ways it offers for improving your speaking are great for students of other languages too!*
As I stepped out of the bar in Delhi, a dust storm began to rage. It was not the best of nights to walk home, but it was late and there were no taxis available.
Amidst the wind, a voice called out to me. It was coming from behind me, and as the wind died down the voice became clearer. Someone was asking if I had any spare change. There was nothing surprising about that in Delhi, but the voice was very refined, educated, and almost regal.
I tried to picture in my mind who that voice belonged to. It sounded like a woman in her forties, perhaps an intellectual such as a professor at a university?
When I turned around I discovered the voice belonged to a young beggar girl who looked about twelve years old. I had never before heard English spoken so well, and I have never since.
The incident fascinated me for some time; how had a child so young developed such mastery in speaking English? Had she been trained by someone? I believe that she had, and it had produced a voice effective in persuasion and stagecraft.
Is it possible that with the right training anyone could speak English so well? The answer to this question is certainly ‘yes’.
I’ve listed below six ways to better develop your voice, and English speaking ability. If, after reading this article, you have suggestions of your own then please add them to the comments section.
Do not mumble
When speaking, move your lips back to give your teeth and tongue more space. To show the difference this makes, try to speak a few English sentences with your lips covering your teeth completely. The result will be stilted and mumbled dialogue which will be difficult for others to hear.
You don’t have to smile like the Joker in the Batman movies, but try speaking and moving the lips to give your voice a little clearance. At the same time, lean your head back and keep a straight chest. Do not lean over when speaking, even if you are sat at a desk. By leaning back you open up the throat to deliver its full power.
As another exercise suggestion, try leaning forward over a desk and read some English dialogue. Then try leaning back and reading the same text again - you will find it’s clearer as you will have more power when you lean back and are able to take deeper breaths.
The actor known as Laurence Fishburne often uses this posture when speaking. Search YouTube for the opening interview scene of the movie ‘Deep Cover’. Notice how Fishburne’s voice is clear and powerful due to his body language and speaking posture.
You don’t need to be able to sing as many songs as Elton John, but having one good English song to sing is a good idea. If you’ve never sang before, it can be surprising how weak your voice is. However, with practice your voice can become more powerful than you think.
When learning Japanese, I decided to memorise and sing the main theme song to the movie ‘Tokyo Drifter’. I thought I had made a big mistake at first, as my early attempts to sing the song sounded like a donkey who had stepped on some glass.
With practice, the song became clearer and actually gave more power to my vocal chords. It is also a very social skill to learn to sing. When I was out drinking with some friends they asked me to sing the song. I was nervous but managed to sing, and I got a round of applause. Where I am from, no one sings in Japanese and this made a lot of people curious - particularly about the song’s lyrics. They wanted to know what the song meant in English.
I would suggest you choose a song which is fun to sing, will help give power to your voice, and may also entertain others.
Study great verbal storytellers
The ability to tell a good verbal story is an art form that is in decline. If you are lucky enough to know someone who can tell a great story then spend more time around them. Try to pick up on what makes their stories entertaining, and what the tools of their stagecraft are.
The best storyteller I have met in person is my uncle. He spent a few years living and working in Canada in the late nineteen-seventies.
He has many tools in his storytelling toolkit. The best tool he has is his enthusiasm. He is generally very interested in what he is saying and this is shown on his face as his eyes light up and he begins to smile. Showing such emotions is not always easy, but they can be practiced. When someone tells you something or introduces themselves to you - smile. Show them that you are happy to meet them and want to listen to what they have to say.
When you practice speaking English - even when reading from a book - show the emotion of the words and sentences. Are the words happy, sad, or exciting? Decide what the tone of the language is, and use emotion when speaking it in English.
My uncle’s next tool is the ability to speak English using words that everyone can understand. When speaking English to a group of people, use plain English language that can be understood by everyone. Limit your use of complicated English words to people who can understand those words, or for an occasion when they are necessary,
My uncle has ten to twelve stories that he likes to tell. I have heard them all before in the past, but over the years they have become better and funnier. The reason for this is that my uncle has practiced and practiced telling those stories until they have become very polished.
As his confidence has grown in telling his stories, he has tweaked them by adding more description, more information about the characters, and has even included impersonations of the people in the stories. The more you practice your English, the more confident you will feel when using English, and you will find using English becomes a lot easier.
Try to write your own stories about some events from your own life. When you have one story in English - record it on your phone or computer. Then practice the story over and over for a month or even two months. Then record your story again. Compare your latest recording of the story to your original version one month before - the results may shock you.
Vary the tone of your voice
Many of my English learning students were curious about tones used when speaking English. When I gave examples of how tones are used, many students became nervous at the thought of trying to change the tone of English words.
Varying the tone of your voice in English is far easier than you would think. The key to succeeding is to try one word in a sentence at a time. Do not try to shift the tone on every English word, this is unnecessary and would be a difficult feat even for a native English speaker.
Increase your tone on one word in a sentence that you think is the most important word. With practice, this will become second nature, and will also make your speaking more interesting to other people. Varying tone is most useful when describing a topic which may be quite serious or even difficult to understand.
If you have access to YouTube, I would suggest studying the English speaking of the journalist known as Betty Liu. The tone of Liu’s voice constantly shifts when she is announcing events in the business world. This change from low to high tones removes the information from the flat tones that would otherwise lose our attention.
Know when to change the pace of your voice
When speaking in our native language, we often speak slowly when trying to make information easier to understand. For some students of the English language, it does not occur to them to speed up or slow down the pace of their speech.
If you were telling an exciting story to your friends, in your native language, you would consciously speed up your dialogue to build tension and create excitement.
When speaking English, you should also try to adjust the pace of your speaking. If you are new to English, this may sound difficult but with practice it can become easier. Again, consider the tone of the information you are delivering: is it sad, exciting, funny, or serious? This is a judgement call only you can make, but if you surround yourself with native English speakers or watch English language movies - observation will be your best education.
I would suggest you try watching Sherlock Holmes movies starring the South African actor known as Basil Rathbone. Rathbone would often make a speech which was initially slow in pace. As he worked his way to the middle of his dialogue, Rathbone was able to speed up the pace of his monologue which made it exciting and informative at the same time.
Make more English speaking friends
As babies and young children we naturally, and unconsciously, pick up the speech patterns and language of those we are in contact with. I was able to speak before ever setting foot in a school - that was down to the time I had spent around my parents. My parents were my first mentors in speaking English.
It doesn’t matter whether you make more English speaking friends in a nightclub, a karate class, or even online. What matters is that you are around people who can help you to improve your English speaking by correcting your mistakes, teaching you new words or phrases, or better yet by listening to your English stories.
As the saying goes: no one is an island. Make friends and have a good social life, then you will really see your language skills improve.
Image by Bahman Farzad (CC BY 2.0)