Sounding Good in English

                             “Life is a foreign language, all men mispronounce it.” – Christopher Morley


If English is not your native tongue, congratulations! Your ability to communicate in more than one language and operate in more than one culture is admirable. Linguists believe that bilingualism offers other benefits, as well: an ability to see from a larger perspective, greater resourcefulness and creativity, and a better understanding of language in general. Still, as a Toastmaster, you may feel that your non-native speaker status puts you at a disadvantage among native speakers.

I have attended many Toastmasters meetings both in the United States and abroad, and even in the U.S. there are chapters (for example at Baruch College in New York City) where the non-native speakers outnumber the native speakers. These clubs excel and so do their members! If you’re not a native English speaker, this fact by itself will not hold you back.

When English is your native language, your reading, writing and speaking skills can always be improved. But when you acquire English after your first language, there is extra room for improvement, not only with these skills but also with vocabulary, idioms, usage and cultural awareness. What are some things you can do to boost your skills in a second language? Try:

Immersion. The more you can participate in an English-language environment, the more interchanges you have with English-speaking friends or counterparts, the more your command of English will develop.

Reading. If frequent interaction with native speakers is impossible, another good technique for improving your English is reading. Extended reading in English, especially on topics that interest you, will automatically help you develop a sophisticated vocabulary and skill with the more complex structures of the language. If your reading is extensive, this vocabulary goes into passive memory and often remains for years, to be activated later through conversational exchanges. Choose material that is 90 percent understandable. You’ll be able to determine a lot of the rest from context. Over time, you’ll master English effortlessly.

Guidance and Support. If you are new to an English-language environment, try to get a teacher or a class as soon as you can who will guide you and correct your mistakes before you become too fluent. If you become fluent without this, the natural mistakes you make while learning a second language will tend to become ingrained, or “fossilized,” to use the linguistic term. After this has happened, it is virtually impossible to get rid of them, even with the help of a teacher. My experience is that you have a window of perhaps a year before full fluency – the ability to speak quickly and easily – occurs.

In addition to working with a teacher, you can also prevail upon friends or colleagues to correct both your pronunciation and your grammar. I recommend both instruction and the help of friends to teach you to speak English more accurately. Your efforts will reflect well on you as an educated and professional person. While you can increase your vocabulary at any time, good pronunciation and grammar require the aid of a teacher (or dedicated native-speaker friends) at a stage before you reach full fluency.

Role Model. Choose a role model whose native language is English – someone you would like to emulate. My clients have chosen role models such as Condoleeza Rice and Richard Gere. The object here is to be able to take on a kind of English-speaking persona that is associated with a very positive image. This helps overcome psychological barriers to the articulation of sounds that seem unnatural.


Like every language, English – because of history, mentality, and convention – has its own idiosyncratic style. What are some techniques you can use to put together speeches that will sound good to an English-speaking audience? Try:

One-Syllable Words. Don’t be afraid to use one-syllable words. They carry a special impact in English. In fact, they are more powerful than multi-syllabic words. The English language is largely based in Anglo-Saxon roots, with an overlay of Latin vocabulary that was introduced only after the Norman Conquest in 1099. To really reach the heart of an audience, use those Anglo-Saxon words, the vast majority of which are one syllable. Consider Woodrow Wilson’s view of man’s task on earth: “We are not here to sit and think, we are here to do.” (Wilson was one of the most highly-educated American presidents, a former university professor. But he knew how to use simple words powerfully).

Another good example is Churchill’s description of the service Britain’s Air Force had rendered its citizens: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech contained the memorable “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” which uses 80 percent one-syllable words.

Short, Pithy Sentences. In composing your speech in English, remember that short sentences are not to be avoided. Consider the opening line of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” (The book remained on the bestseller list for over a decade). Or General Sherman’s memorable observation in a speech to military academy cadets: “War is hell.” Or the opening line of the Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” You will probably want to weave sentences of varying lengths into your speech for balance, but do remember that short, pithy sentences carry a lot of impact and resonate with English speakers.


Making a speech in a language other than the one you grew up speaking can add to your nervousness. How can you reduce this? No doubt you feel much more relaxed in ordinary conversation. Think of your speech as simply an extended conversation. The more the audience can participate, even silently, the more engaged they will feel, and the more they will relate to you. You will also receive a personal response from the audience, and this conversational dynamic – even if modest – will help you relax.

Acknowledgement of Your Audience. At the beginning of your presentation, acknowledge your audience in some way, even if it’s only “How are you this evening?” “Nice to see so many people,” while making eye contact. Your opening remarks should reflect that you know where you are, and who the audience is – that this is not a generic presentation. (It could also be a comment about the institution, the locale, their profession, or even the local weather, if that can be appropriately related to the occasion or the content of your speech.)

Audience Response. As close as possible to the beginning of your speech, ask a question or do something that requires an audience response. For example, you might ask, “How many of you are concerned about gas prices?” (if your speech is about the oil economy) or “Does anybody know what this logo represents? (if your talk is about an organization with that logo) or “What Korean companies have you heard of?” (if your talk is about the Korean economy).


Remembering a speech in your own language is difficult; remembering exactly what you want to get across in a foreign language adds to the burden. Try these tips to help you remember what to say:

Stories and Anecdotes. Tell stories and anecdotes to illustrate your point. A client of mine told the audience this story: “Two soldiers were in a race. There was a skinny soldier carrying a fat soldier on his back, and a fat soldier carrying a skinny soldier on his back. The skinny soldier fell down shortly after he began the race. The fat soldier who carried the skinny soldier carried on and won the race.” He used this story to illustrate the effect of too large a welfare state on the fluctuations of the national economy. Not only was the story easier to commit to memory than information in another format, but it served him as an anchor for the points he wanted to make. Stories are memorable. Your audience will also remember them better, sometimes long after they’ve forgotten the rest of your speech.

Topics and Places. Associate topics with familiar places. In order to remember a series of points you wish to touch on in your speech, try associating each point with a familiar place that you see every day. For example, associate the first point with the front door of your home, the second point with the foyer, the third point with your living room, etc. In fact, you can even practice your speech, moving from place to place as you move from point to point. This is what the ancient Greeks did. In fact, the Greek word “topos” – the root of the word “topic” – means “place.” This technique works well in any language.


And what are some things you can do to boost your confidence in a foreign language? Try:

Being Yourself. If possible, tell a personal story, preferably one that is relevant to your message, or give the speech a personal note to let the audience know who you are. If it fits into the topic of your speech, mention something about one of your children, or your dog, or ordinary event in your household. Or mention your country of origin and an experience or memory from there to illustrate a point. These personal touches make your speech unique, and also perk up the audience’s interest. Moreover, if your audience can relate to you as a person, your message will be received much more openly despite presentation flaws.

Engagement and Sincerity are what the audience responds to most. These two qualities will trump technical flawlessness every time.

From my own experience, the best tip of all for non-native speakers who want to improve their speechmaking capacity is to attend and participate in a Toastmasters club regularly. There you will get responses from fellow Toastmasters tailored to you individually. And other Toastmasters will benefit from your unique background and life experiences.


Katherine Meeks is a speech consultant and language coach based in New York City. She welcomes your comments at katherine.meeks@verizon.net. 

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