How to Practice Your New Vocabulary
A Tiny Vowel Makes a Big Difference
Ankit was an expert in cyber security who started receiving invitations to present at different companies. He was presenting to people from a variety of professions who wanted to learn about how they can improve their own security. For the first time, Ankit was asked to repeat what he said more often and was misunderstood by the listeners. Ankit spoke Indian English, which meant the pronunciation of individual sounds was very similar to American English, but he often put stress on a different syllable than what the American English listeners expected. That tiny little difference of putting stress on a different vowel makes a big difference and throws off the listener so they are busy trying to identify that word instead of listening to the content and then when they start listening again, they’ve missed a chunk of what was said. For example:
The word “proximity” is a noun and has stress on the second syllable (typed as it sounds): prahk-SIM-uh-dee
Ankit pronounced it with stress on the first syllable: PRAHK-sim-it-tee.
This can be confusing in a sentence because it coud be confused with the adverb “approximately” which has stress on the second syllable and the first syllable is difficult to hear: uh-PRAHK-sim-it-lee. In the context of the sentence, listeners can figure out which word was correct, but this takes their attention away from what was said immediately after that and they miss part of the content in his presentation.
I listened to his presentation and we practiced words with stress on the correct syllables and looked for patterns to help remember them. The “proximity” pattern is one-TWO-three-four and other words with that pattern that he used were: analysis, stability, complexity, experiment, facility, identity, security.
Interpreting Between Different Groups of People
A major shift in responsibilities happens with promotions that put people in positions that require much more communication than their previous position. It’s usually technical skills that get you in the door, but it’s communication skills that get you to the top. The higher people rise in a company, the further away they get from the daily technical skills that they started with and they are in positions that are in-between and involve some translation. This is when people are challenged more than ever to communicate clearly between two different groups of people: 1) the ones doing the daily technical work that they used to do and are very familiar with, and 2) the higher-level management people or clients outside the company who may not have any of the same technical skills. It’s similar to the “grandmother test” for doctoral presentations, they may have to explain extremely complex information to someone without using all the same vocabulary and terms they are used to using with the people doing that work. This requires a whole other level of vocabulary that can translate the technical into the relatable.
Speaking and Interpreting on Multiple Levels
Most people don’t realize that they have been doing this kind of translation work until I point it out and explain that they’re not just speaking in their second (or multiple) language of English, they are also speaking in the language of the specific field of technical work and then translating that for people who don’t know that language at all. Being able to identify these different speaking styles and situations is very helpful because it makes it easier to consciously switch and interpret between them. Then they can work on increasing their vocabulary for specific terms, expressions, analogies, and expressions that are most familiar to both groups.
Multiple Roles and Expectations
An increase in responsibility creates an increase of speaking situations within the company and as a representative of the company. There’s never just one role. There are multiple roles and expectations for every different speaking situation. Within the company, a person may be speaking as a manager to a team of people as their superior. Then in another meeting, that same manager is now the lowest ranked position in a meeting with superiors. When meeting with clients or potential customers, that person is now representing the company as a whole brand.
Professional-social events such as networking events are a balance of both individualism and representation of the company. These combinations of professional and social expectations are confusing and difficult to navigate by anyone, but adding in cultural and language differences adds more layers to the situations. There are generalizations of every culture so using them as general guides to know what unwritten rules exist is extremely helpful. Erin Meyer’s (2014) book, “The Culture Map” describes cross-culture communication that is insightful for working with people from different cultures, but also to learn more about your own culture and understand how you may be perceived by others to avoid potential misunderstandings.
How to Improve Pronunciation in a New Role
1. Identify your old and new responsibilities that involve communicating clearly through speaking.
2. Identify the different groups of people you need to speak to and what knowledge base they have.
3. Identify the vocabulary you need to use with people your new role requires. Listen to what those people say, keep notes about common words they use. Notice wording of emails and add words to your list that are different from what you usually use.
4. Practice those vocabulary words by looking them up in the dictionary and noticing which syllable is stressed. The stressed syllable will be marked by a tiny little line just before the stressed syllable. The vowel in that syllable is stretched longer and pronounced with a higher pitch than the vowels in unstressed syllables. Listen to the dictionary’s audio example and repeat.
Example from Merriam-Webster.com for the word “annual.”
Listen to the audio on the website.
The stress is on the first syllable “an” so that should stand out to you when you hear it.
The part in parentheses, “(-wəl)” means that is optional. The word can be said with it as three syllables: AN-yuh-wuhl or with two syllables: AN-yuhl (I use “uh” to represent the schwa /ə/ sound in regular type).
This is the main reason I prefer Merriam-Webster to other dictionaries, it will give you the optional pronunciations. When you see more than one pronunciation listed, they are in the order of most common to less common.
Another dictionary I like is Dictionary.com because it shows you the pronunciation with the IPA symbols and without.
Listen to the audio on the website.
With the IPA symbols used to show the pronunciation:
Without IPA symbols, the pronunciation is represented by regular letters:
Pronunciation of important words used in your professional speaking situations is important because mispronunciation can lesson your credibility. Beyond pronunciation, there’s a whole world of the effects of prosody on how you express authority, empathy, friendliness, trustworthiness, all the ways that people perceive your intentions no matter what words you use. I’ll save that for another time, but starting with feeling confident in your pronunciation is the best place to begin making improvements to your professional speaking skills.
Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. First edition. New York: PublicAffairs.
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