Monthly Archives: July 2015

Body Language: Expressions Speak Louder Than Words

Have you ever watched a newborn contort their faces into all sorts of unusual expressions? What do you imagine the baby (pictured above) is thinking?  This is the stuff that memes (pronounced “meemz”) are made of!  A meme pairs a humorous image with a funny caption.  See my meme example below (shut-eye is slang for sleep).

Grant meme body language

This post is about non-verbal communication.  Scientific studies have shown that body language has a major impact on communication. Tone of voice and body language (posture, gestures, and facial expressions) can even change the meaning of a message.

Look at the picture of the baby again.

Eyebrows which are lifted high enough to wrinkle or crease the forehead usually indicate surprise.  When one eyebrow is lifted higher than the other it indicates incredulity, like the little guy in the picture; it is the nonverbal equivalent of “are you serious?!”

During my teacher’s training, we used the textbook, Teaching by Principles by H. Douglas Brown. In the Classroom Management section he discusses the importance of voice and body language for people working in their second language.  This is because what people hear (or think they hear) may have more to do with what they see than what is actually being said.

Tips from professor Brown:

• Let your body posture exhibit an air of confidence.

In Western culture this means standing, or sitting straight: with head up, making direct eye contact,  with shoulders back and balanced equally over the hips.

• Your face should reflect optimism, brightness, and warmth.

• Use facial and hand gestures to enhance meanings of words and sentences that might otherwise be unclear.

image via Cheapflights
image by Cheapflights on

CAUTION!  Not all gestures have the same meaning across cultures click here to see the Global Guide to Hand Gestures

• Do not plant your feet firmly in one place…

Use movement purposefully.  When speaking to a group, make eye contact with ALL the members of the group.

• Be aware of cultural expectations for proximity (how close you should stand to others) and touching (how, who, and when you should touch someone).

Westerners’ personal space extends from two to four feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters).  Only lovers, family, and close friends are allowed inside this bubble.  I like what Sinay Tarakanov wrote on his site, Study Body Language

 “…treat personal space as the property of other people – respect it – and you will gain their favor, invade it or stand too far – and you will automatically lose…”

Communicating effectively in another language requires careful observation and respect.  Like the saying goes, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”  This means when you are in an unfamiliar environment, use the behaviors of others (who are familiar with the environment) to guide you.

He says, She says*

Men and women speak differently and have different expectations of each other’s communication. Here is a short video where I explain how eye contact, and tone of voice can affect the meaning of your message

Did you know that men and women give “listening feedback” differently?  Women make more supportive sounds like: uh-huh, yeah, or mmm.  According to author Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, these differences can even interfere with successful interactions.

Additionally, women tend to touch others to communicate friendliness and support, whereas men touch to communicate power or authority. Read about this research on proximity and touch here. 


Understanding Body Language (for business and work)

Michele MVE 02 Icon 80 Percent JPEG Thank you!  Michele

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Frickin’ Fricatives

Not too long ago, I made a shocking discovery….

When I first started teaching English as a foreign language, I was constantly  reminding students about “subject-verb agreement.”  This means plural subjects like “they” or “my students” are paired with plain, plural verbs. For example, “They like pizza,” or “My students are dedicated.” On the other hand, singular subjects like “he” including mass nouns like “my family” require singular verbs, which often have an s ending. For example, “He likes pizza,” or “My family is supportive.”  But this article is not about subject-verb agreement!  Keep reading…

I had mistakenly believed that the s ending on singular verbs was confusing. What surprised me however, was that my students were leaving off s endings when they were reading aloud.  At first, I thought that this pattern of leaving off the s was so ingrained that the students were just in the habit of not pronouncing it.  That’s when I made a shocking discovery…

“My students were pronouncing the s, just not forcibly enough for my English ears to hear!

Now, I teach my students to use enough power to make their S audible. Click To Tweet

FHW Santa 2012 006


Frickin’ Fricatives

The s sound belongs to a class of sounds called fricatives.  Fricatives require air to pass forcefully through a narrow opening.  A lot of these sounds present challenges to English language learners. Let’s take a look at these frickin* fricatives:  

f, v, th, s, z, sh, and zj

Phonetic representations, and examples of words with these sounds at the beginning, middle and end:

f (unvoiced) /f/ as in fin, elephant, and laugh
v (voiced) /v/ as in vase, seven, and love
th (unvoiced) θ as in thin, marathon,  and with
th (voiced) ð as in the, father, and breathe
s (unvoiced) /s/ as in see, listen, and voice
z (voiced) /z/ as in zoo, busy, and nose
sh (unvoiced) ʃ as in she, ocean, and push
zj (voiced) ʒ as in Jacques, usual, and beige

Some linguists include /h/ as a fricative. The h  sound is produced with an open mouth naturally allowing more air to pass and making it easier to produce the correct sound. So, for this reason I have excluded it. H is friendlier than the frustrating frickin’ fricatives listed above.

Finding your voice

The first step to speaking good English is to adopt good English-speaking habits. Many English language learners are still using first language rules, especially politeness rules.

Think about it.  Is your English being sabotaged by any of the following ideas?

∗It’s impolite to show your tongue. In English the short a /ae/ vowel as in fast, man, and cat is open so wide that the tongue can be seen.  Additionally, both the /th/ sounds require the tongue to go all the way in between the front teeth.

Watch Rachel’s English demonstration of the /th/ sounds below:

∗Don’t show your teeth. This idea is similar to the one above.  A proper f , v, and long e sound should show your teeth.

∗Don’t allow others to feel or smell your breath when you speak. Keep your mouth clean and breath fresh so you can confidently enunciate fricatives and push air strongly through small openings using the teeth, lips, and tongue.

∗Don’t speak too loudly. A good rule of thumb* is to match the level of those you are speaking with.  Professional speakers and singers have learned to speak from the diaphragm, the muscle in the center of  your chest. Learning to use this muscle gives you more power and reduces stress on your voice.

Watch Rachel explain where sounds are placed in American English:

∗DO ignore these unhelpful rules which are interfering with your English pronunciation.

Develop your English persona

Sometimes when a student has a so-called* “accent problem,” it is due to a strong sense of self rooted in their first language. A successful professional may feel undignified, foolish, or even rude making some of the mouth and tongue positions required for clear English sounds.

If your accent is causing you concern, allow yourself to create an English image.  Your English persona is allowed to break the speaking “rules” that your native-language self uses. Students have even told me that their personality changes a little when they are speaking English.  Those students have an English persona!

Don’t get me wrong!* I’m not advocating a personality change.  I’m saying speaking  and politeness rules differ across languages.  I’m encouraging you to break free of constraints. Be true to who you are.  Just be an English-speaking you!

Note: English is active!  Think of English as a sport for your face!  Grab some gum and watch my Double Bubble Train Your Face video to practice making the tongue positions opening your mouth wide enough for clear English.

Lessons for Learning/Teaching

Now let’s practice those frickin’ fricatives.

Here is a fun role play I found at ESL  Work in pairs (students play one role while another student or tutor plays the other).

A: Call to order a pizza.

B: Wrong number. You sell pitas, not pizzas.

Final F Bingo, 4 players  (print out the Bingo cards and cut out the three colored tiles at the bottom of the page). One player is selected as the “caller.” Each of the other three players have a picture card.  The caller draws one tile at a time and calls out the word. The other players mark the corresponding picture.  The first player to get three in a row (in any direction, horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) calls out “Bingo!” and must read back the words on the winning row. Players take turns being the caller.

Medial F Bingo this game is played like Final F Bingo, but with words with the /f/ sound in the middle

Shop and Chop: Practice with fricatives and affricates, by Jennifer Lebedev of English with Jennifer. Several activities using  sh/ʃ/ and zj/ʒ/.  Print the instructions and student worksheets here.

And last but not least* Tongue Twisters are excellent (and fun) for pronunciation training and practice.

Michele MVE 02 Icon 80 Percent JPEG  That’s it!  Michele

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