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Say no, to yes-or-no questions














When you ask a question and the expected answer is either yes-or-no, that’s all you’re going to get. A yes-or-no question seeks a single acceptable answer or pair of alternatives.  Linguists call this a polar question. The answer is black or white, cold or hot, positive or negative.

Compare (1) Do you drink scotch? (yes-or-no) with (2) What do you drink? (scotch, gin, vodka, wine, or sparking water). (1) Will the proposal be ready tomorrow?  (yes-or-no) (2) How long will it take to finish the proposal?  It will take about two hours unless we have additional revisions.  Both # 2 examples are open-ended questions.  The answers to #1 can only be yes-or-no. They are close-ended questions. Asking only close-ended questions limits access to information with only a yes-or-no answer.  Asking open-ended questions creates the potential  for the exchange of complex information.

If you are asking only yes-or-no questions, you won’t be able to learn as much about someone compared to what you would garner with open-ended questions. Contrast  yes-or-no questions with Wh-question words (what, where, when, why, how) which reveal what someone is actually thinking, feeling, planning, and wanting. Posing open-ended questions using Wh-questions words invites rapport and relationship building with individuals and across teams.

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Vocabulary + usage = Word Power



Expanding your English vocabulary isn’t just about learning new words.  Yes, learning new words will broaden your vocabulary. But, knowing how to use words as they are conventionally understood is the key to attaining a more powerful mastery of vocabulary.  By learning words that are frequently used together, speaking and writing become easier and you are able to communicate with more command.

If you are a professional making a presentation, you possess considerable knowledge about your area of expertise and know specific content words related to your field. To communicate your ideas, however, consider what other words could combine with content words to deliver meaning in the context you desire. Knowing established expressions will assist you in producing natural sounding and precise English.

In English, we talk about cloudy skies and heavy rain. Cloudy goes with skies and heavy with rain.  If you hear someone say hard rain or the sky has clouds, the expression is understandable, but not fluent. Linguistic rules don’t dictate why these words are used together. It is merely how they are expressed in English .

Words that go together

Linguists call combinations of words that go together “collocations”  because words collocate or are placed together to express meaning .  Learning collocations or word combinations improves your ability to express ideas in a fluent and understandable way.  Knowing how words combine to express meaning also enables you to avoid overusing words such as nice, good, pretty much, a lot.

This is a good product that contains a lot of benefits.

This household product offers considerable benefits.

The first sentence conveys general meaning.  Both are grammatically correct. The second sentence more fully describes the product and offers a more precise illustration of its potential.

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Listening + Asking Questions = Communication



The number one reason we listen is to find out “what’s in it for me” or WIIFM.  When we know our happiness or health might be impacted, we listen!  Whether listening for the winning lotto number or the results of a high stakes medical exam, we tune in to information that is about “ME.” But listening isn’t always directly about “me.” Or so at times, it may seem. Like the conversation you are having at a networking event that seems so unrelated to “me” that your eyes wander off and you start to lose focus on what is being said.

If you are a sales professionals or service provider, the conversation is always about YOU. It’s about you even when it’s not about you. It’s about you because there is always potential to get to know someone and listen for a mutually beneficial connection. From the initial introduction to the back and forth of conversation, associations emerge and savvy listeners uncover realizable business leads for products and services. Though the ability to make small talk stimulates communication, real verbal engagement is only made possible by asking questions. Questions that are not necessarily about “me,” but express interest in what our interlocutor is talking about and show that we are listening.

Open-ended vs. close-ended questions

A good listener knows how to be an active participant in the conversation, not just take in information. S/he knows how to pose open-ended questions that solicit information beyond quick yes or no answers.  Asking open-ended questions allows someone to think and reflect, give opinions and feelings and also hand control of the conversation over to the respondent. Using words such as “Why…..?” and “Where…..?” or asking questions such as “What do you think about …..?” or “How do you feel about …..?” make it possible  for you to get to know the individual you are speaking with.

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Simple words, work best!



To express ideas effectively choose simple words. Don’t equate simple words with simple ideas.  Instead do what professional speakers do, use plain language to communicate well.

I work with professionals who often feel their English is not adequate enough to express their ideas. They feel they aren’t delivering the same meaning in English that they can in their native language.  The key is not learning elaborate vocabulary but finding the best simple word to express yourself. The choice of simple words in English creates a message that is direct and exacting.

An excellent resource to hear how speakers use plain language is TED Talks.  TED.com  is a global community of speakers whose talks are heard in over 100 languages.  TED speakers are passionate about sharing their ideas and use well chosen simple words that can be understood by everyone.

Simple Language

Simple language consists of words that are commonly used and mutually comprehensible. Simple language uses one- and  two-syllable words rather than “big” words.   “Manage” defined as “to take charge of” is a perfectly good verb to use rather than “administer” or “regulate” which doesn’t impart more meaning than its two-syllable cousin.

Simple language is free from jargon and idioms.  Jargon, as a language that is shared by a discipline or industry, is appropriate for colleagues.   But, overly used jargon can be off putting to individuals, not familiar with a specialized vocabulary.

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Master English pronunciation patterns for numbers

Pronouncing numbers clearly is a critical skill for speaking on the telephone or electronically where listeners are relying solely on auditory input. Without the visual cues that accompany in person conversation, professionals must master English pronunciation patterns for numbers that make it easier to be understood and achieve the desired results.
Whether it be reporting vital medical data, financial or managerial information, buying and selling products, meeting deadlines, making appointments or collecting  information, every professional uses numbers to deliver essential information.

Necessary information that numbers provide can be appreciated by anyone who has experienced confusion created by the miscommunication of numbers — a pharmaceutical error, a missed deadline, a poor decision based on incorrect financial data, the wrong contact information, a schedule upended.

The ability to communicate clearly particularly when numbers are concerned should motivate everyone to adhere to the following guidelines to master English pronunciation patterns for numbers.

1. Numbers stand out in a sentence

Within a sentence or phrase, numbers must be spoken with greater emphasis for speech clarity.  In linguistic jargon, numbers are considered “content words” meaning they convey information at the heart of your message. This emphasis is in contrast to “function words”  such as “and, or, but” that don’t provide meaning but string important content words together.  Emphasis on numbers is delivered through the features of word stress: greater duration of the vowel sound (elongating the sound), using a higher pitch which in turn makes the sounds louder in comparison to others words in a sentence d enunciating the sounds clearly particularly the final sound.

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6 English Grammar Glitches to Debug for Clear Speech


Speakers who are eager to fine tune their English often focus on pronunciation and accent as the way to set things right.  But more often, problems with English grammar and usage are significant obstacles to clear speech. English grammar and usage can be viewed as the “walking before you run” phase that is necessary for anyone to become an understandable English speaker. From my 20 years of working with speakers of other languages, I’ve compiled  the 6 most common English grammar errors that keep  speakers from  sounding intelligible and intelligent.

1. Subject-verb agreement

Subjects and verbs agree in number: singular subjects require singular verbs, and plural subjects require plural verbs. Not using the correct verb form for this rule is more apparent when using irregular verbs because a completely different verb form is used. Hint: one good reason to master irregular verbs!

A. The manager were at the office.

B. The manager was was at the office.

A. Do you has an opening on your sales team?

B. Do you have an opening on your sales team?

Which one sounds better and why?

2. English Irregular verbs

Irregular verbs do not follow the simple rule of adding -ed in the past tense. Irregular verbs are verbs with the same base form as regular verbs that change form for  use in the past and past participle.

Infinitive:to see

Present: see

Past: saw

Past participle: seen

While you can find extensive lists for irregular verbs. I recommend starting with with a short list of verbs that you consider important in expressing what you do everyday or contribute to your success at work.  On the “must know” list is: “to have, to be, to go, to do.”

Start with 10 verbs, master them and move on to the next 10. You’ll find a list of irregular verbs on this website.


3. Asking questions and sounding fluent: subject-verb inversion

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English melody delivers clear speech

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Understanding and practicing English melody and pitch patterns will make you easier to understand and produce clear speech.

You may have heard languages spoken that you can identify even though you can’t speak them.  The ability to do this is the result of recognizing the “melody” of the language — more than words.  I don’t speak a word of Japanese or Chinese but can identify either language by listening for its melody.

The melody of a language is created by the high or low of your voice, how long or short sounds are held, the loudness  of the sound and how sounds combine to create syllables into word meaning —  much like music played on a piano.  Spoken English has four pitch levels like the musical scale above.

When an English word is  spoken, a part of the word stands out and can be heard more clearly than other parts of the word.  This standing out part is called the stressed syllable.

The stressed syllable is created by a stronger burst of air coming from your lungs. This causes our pitch to rise and also makes the sound louder.  The length of time we sustain the sound is a key feature of melody. This holding on to the sound is called duration. Duration can be long, short or somewhere in-between much like the value of musical notes.

To produce English stress patterns for clear speech, not only is it important to emphasize the stressed syllable but the other syllables in the word need to be unstressed  in comparison.

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English pronunciation for business or children?

Motivation for seeking English Pronunciation coaching can be shaped by professional and personal concerns.  Both are important and can work hand-in-hand to improve communication and relationships with colleagues, clients, family and community  members.

Like the small business owner who began an English pronunciation coaching program so he could represent his products as he expanded sales into midwest U.S. markets. In addition to achieving these business goals, he had other reasons for improving his speaking skills.  His children made him painfully aware that his English pronunciation did not measure up to what they heard on popular children’s shows. So wanting to assure his daughters that he knew how to pronounce the name of the their beloved T.V. friend  “Barney the Purple Dinosaur,” mastering English pronunciation to do so became important to him.

First, we addressed his business concerns of speaking about his company and its  products to monolingual English-speaking wholesale distributors located outside the South Florida region.  Although, he was a willing English speaker with a reasonably good vocabulary, his speech was strewn with phrases literally translated from Spanish to English making ideas difficult to be understood with clarity.  We set out to replace these Spanish to English literal translations with easier to understand grammar and usage and in addition the following highlights:

  • Learning English usage, grammar and vocabulary for fluent speech
  • Using an online dictionary for pronunciation word stress reference
  • Correcting the use of grammatical endings: past tense –ed endings and -s endings for plurals and possessives
  • Pronouncing  consonants and vowels to be better understood
  • Using word stress and intonation for greater speech clarity and communicative effect
  • Connecting  words in spoken English for fluency
  • Stressing focus words for meaning and chunking words into thought groups

After meeting for several weeks with a sole focus on business, one day our program took a sharp detour. He confided that his young daughters made fun of him when he said the name of their favorite children’s TV character, “Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

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Polish your English pronunciation by focusing on “keywords.”

Meet Eduardo, a financial manager whose English pronunciation could not be understood on the telephone. Eduardo had grown up speaking English that was intelligible in the country he was from.  But now, when speaking to the bank’s monolingual shareholders who reside in the midwest, his customers demanded that he speak  more clearly. To do this, he needed to slow down, improve his  pronunciation, and use correct English word stress.

To polish your English pronunciation, professionals should make up a list of frequently used keywords and phrases and focus just on these keywords. Keywords quickly identify who you are and what you do, the name of your company, your department or division and are the words you use most often, for example: “transaction, funds, collect, customer, and deposit.”

When Eduardo said the name of his department “Payable Through Accounts,” customers had  difficulty understanding him.  Polishing his English pronunciation, involved engaging his articulators: lips, jaw, tongue, gum ridge, soft palate,vocal cords and breath in a way that make it easier to be understood. English speaking listeners, especially monolingual ones, are attuned to  hearing certain word stress patterns that create a “melody” of English that is recognizable to them.  Without the melody, intelligibility is affected and communication breaks down. Speaking too fast makes speech difficult to be understood no matter what language you’re speaking and slows communication down rather than speeding it up.

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Lessons from an accent reduction coach!

about-ester“Hot vs hat”: Hear and pronounce unfamiliar sounds using contrasting words for accent reduction

It’s been nearly two decades since I began working with accented speakers and improving their ability to be understood. My first trainees worked  at a Miami digital imaging company whose owner offered accent reduction lessons to his employees. Three staff members took him up on the offer. Margarita who worked in collections; Victor and Eddy in the accounting department. Margarita had experienced put-downs from some of the customers she would phone. Because her speech was heavily accented, customers would ask to speak with someone else or feign they could not understand her. Victor and Eddy were required to report to management about financial data. Their oral reports were often difficult to understand and as a result confusing.

All speech requires energy or breath from the lungs that is then formed by moving parts called articulators: the lips, gum ridge, tongue, jaw, soft palate, hard palate, nose, and vocal chords. Speakers use these articulators to form vowels and consonant sounds. When air is obstructed either partially or completely, consonants are spoken and when the air flows freely out of the mouth vowels are spoken.

Their accented speech was the result of forming English sounds with Spanish articulation systems or rather substituting Spanish vowels and consonants for English ones. English has 24 consonant and 15 vowel sounds; Spanish has 5 vowels and 18 consonant sounds.

Some of the difficulty  they had was not being able to discriminate between sounds they were unfamiliar with. One way to increase the ability to hear and pronounce unfamiliar sounds is to use “minimal pairs” — a series of words that differ by only one sound such as “hot” vs. “hat.” By contrasting the familiar Spanish vowel sound in “hot” /ɑ/ with the English vowel sound in “hat” /æ/, you contrast a Spanish vowel against an English vowel. The vowel sound /a / exists in English, but the vowel sound /æ/ does not exist in Spanish.

Here are more minimal pair sound contrasts for vowel sounds: /a/ and /æ/*:

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