Spotlight - "Maria"
Progress in her speech created an upward spiral
I don’t know the exact number of students and clients I’ve worked with because I’ve never stopped to do the math, my least favorite thing to do. It’s a lot of people. I’ve forgotten a lot of names but some people and experiences will always stand out in my memory. I thought I’d start sharing some of these with you. Ironically, the people’s stories that have made the biggest impact on my life make it easy for me to remember their names but for their privacy, I’m changing the names in these stories.
Spotlight on: “Maria”
Working with Maria is one of my favorite stories because she challenged all of my expectations and habits. It was impossible not to be pulled into her world of frenzied friendliness. She spoke fast, she fidgeted while she sat, and she told fascinating stories about her life and the people in it. It was hard to believe that she was hoping to improve her accent because once I got pulled into her stories, I forgot all about the accent and if there were words I didn’t quite understand, it never interfered with my enjoyment of the story since there was enough context to help me fill in any gaps. I never imagined she lacked any confidence about her speech or anything else in life.
However, not all of her stories were happy ones. She told me about colleagues who imitated her accent and laughed at how she pronounced certain words, some of them pretended they couldn’t understand her at all, some just kept repeating the word exactly the way she pronounced it knowing that she couldn’t pronounce it any other way, some condescendingly correct her. All of this occurred in front of other colleagues, sometimes in meetings with the boss, other times privately at her desk, and sometimes at events that included people from other companies. Her main goal was to make this stop.
I honestly think the colleagues who did this had more motive than just noticing a difference in her English speech. Maria was young, beautiful, and brilliant. There was no way to hide or deny her intelligence and future trajectory of success that I’m sure was the envy of her colleagues. Underneath the high-spirited storyteller exterior was an incredibly sharp mind that demanded information at a rate faster than I could provide it.
Maria’s family moved to the US when she was 13 and she was tossed into the all-English speaking school without any specific ESL training. She had to learn on her own to survive school, make friends, and help speak for her mother and other family members when English was necessary. The English that she first taught herself is what had gotten her through to her master’s degree at Harvard because her work was excellent and spoke for itself. Now, her job required her to speak for herself, her work, and the company in phone calls, at meetings, and presenting at conferences and corporate retreats. She knew the English that got her this far wasn’t going to get her to where she wanted to be. So, she came to see me.
My planned stages of progress were blown apart when she quickly grasped the concepts and ran through the practice exercises. At first, I thought this was never going to work because she was going so fast that there was no way she was actually absorbing it, but I was proved wrong. She asked questions that were planned for the next and future lessons and made connections between concepts that I usually take time to explain explicitly. She didn’t want steps and stages of progress, she wanted to jump into the deep end and absorb it all and sort it and connect it along the way. I’d never experienced anything like it or anyone like her before.
She made progress through each of the five speaking goals very quickly and not only in a theoretical way or just understanding of the concepts, she actually started applying everything we practiced together to her daily speech as soon as she learned it. This is why I think she was so successful at making changes to her speech and feeling comfortable with it in every situation. She practiced all the time and everywhere.
How She Practiced
She listened to audiobooks and podcasts on her headphones everywhere she went and not just listening, but repeating and imitating the speakers. She did this while she walked to the train, on the train, walking the dog, doing laundry….everywhere, all the time. She was never shy about being overheard by other people. Based on our practice together, she knew what to listen for and how to notice if she was matching the target (the speaker she was listening to) or if she wasn’t and how to make adjustments to create the sound she wanted.
She asked people to repeat a word she wanted to hear again more carefully. This was more with friends and family than in the professional work environment. She knew to listen for which syllable was stressed, how much longer that vowel was stretched, and final consonants.
She made lists of words she knew she wasn’t pronouncing correctly just based on her own judgement of the differences her pronunciation and other people’s, times people asked her to repeat, and if they didn’t ask but just made the confused face. She brought those words to our next meeting and we practiced those together and she recorded them again at home.
She watched videos online of good speakers who she liked. This was a way to also observe their non-verbal gestures, expressions, and movement. She imitated their speeches and in particular how they used pauses for emphasis. Since she usually spoke in a fast pace, slowing down could feel like she was being forced to use slow-motion, but when she stretched the vowels longer in stressed syllables and took pauses as a way to add more emphasis it didn’t feel like slow-motion, it just felt like adding new methods to express her meaning.
I could hear her progress, but I could also see a transformation with every session. Sometimes she brought shopping bags to our meetings because she had just been shopping and finding more professional clothes. Sometimes she was in yoga clothes because she had just come from a class. She was making visual and physical changes in her life that she said all stemmed from working on her speech.
She was feeling more confident at work because she was being understood more easily, she was getting fewer rude comments about her pronunciation and even received compliments. She was given more responsibility by her boss and she was given responsibilities that included public speaking both within and outside the company. Progress in her speech created an upward spiral that started to expand and include more and more parts of her life.
She said she gained confidence that “If I could make changes to my English, I could make changes to my career, my health, my whole life!”
I thought that was an amazing perspective and I have no doubt she went on to make changes she wanted in every area of her life.
I believe that the part I played was small, showing her what to focus on and helping her learn to analyze her own speech so she wouldn’t need me anymore, but that small part instigated changes in her that went far beyond just “an accent.” This is my motivation for continuing to do what I do and the ultimate goal I have for everyone I work with. It’s never “just speech” or “just and accent.”