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Bad Vocal Variety? Donít Blame it all on the Language Barrier

When I started observing my fellow Toastmasters at CCTMC, most of whom are native Chinese speakers, I came to a first conclusion:  Many of their shortcomings—especially vocal variety—are due to the language gap.  And it makes practical sense.  If the speaker is did not grow up listening to the common tonal usage in everyday conversation, if the speaker had learned English mostly by reading, and not by ear, then it is understandable that their vocal variety would have a limited range.  But is this really the case?

First, I have to concede that there is a level of truth to this claim.  Some very subtle tonal variations are very specific to English dialogue, and can only be learned by assimilating from others.  Some examples include (from basic to advanced), the upward tone in the middle of the sentence; elongated pronunciation of a vowel for emphasis (you’re maaarvelous), the wavy and elongated pronunciation of a vowel (i.e. ‘toOo’ big, ‘soOo’ small, ‘veEry’ soon) for emphasis;  There are others, more examples that will come in my future training.  Now, the use of these subtle vocal varieties is what will take you from good to great.  However, let’s focus on what can take you from not-so-good to good.

One of what I call ‘easy-hanging fruit’ to improve the vocal variety of Chinese speakers has nothing to do with language barrier.   I slowly realized this fact as I socialized with my fellow members outside the meeting—speaking in Mandarin.  A speaker, who speaks too fast in English, also speaks too fast in Mandarin.  A speaker, who speaks with a constant high pitch and volume, also does so in Mandarin.  A speaker, who speaks with a serious tone, also does so in Mandarin.   This is especially obvious when I watched the Mandarin table topics contest videos.  So, is it possible to change the colors of your stripes?   What can you do, so that you can begin to improve your pace, your pitch and volume, and the mood of the voice?  

There is an easy answer:  Practice.  Of course, there’s more to that, otherwise the CC Chatter will just be full of rubbish.   Turn on the TV and listen to how the professionals do it.  No, not watch Friends, or any other English TV show.  Tune to a Chinese children’s show, where there is story-telling involved.  Listen carefully on how the plot and the mood of the story are carried out by the vocal variety of the story teller.  Tell a story and record it; once you play back, you’ll immediately know where the gap is.   Notice how the voice is softened to convey peace and harmony; how it is heightened (differently) to convey anger and excitement; how it is shaken to convey fear and despair, how it skips and bounces to convey happiness.  If you cannot do it in Mandarin, there is no chance you’ll be able to do it in English. 

Do not be discouraged.  You will be able to improve with effort and practice.  Buy children’s storybook and begin reading them out loud.  I read somewhere (forgot where, so I apologize for lacking references), that one of the best practice is to read to children. You would naturally let your guard down.  You will find the command of your vocal variety in order to capture their attention.  You will find your potential as a story teller, and as a public speaker.  This is speaking from experience, of course.  Now, I understand that there are some members in CCTMC who has an extreme poker face, or speak in such a serious tone.  Still I believe, it is your human nature to do so, lest you scare away the children and scar then for the rest of their lives.  If you do not have access to children, then it still helps to have an imaginary audience of 5-8 year olds.  You will naturally slow down, so that their little minds can understand.  You will naturally use all the tools in your vocal variety to fully describe the story, so that they can fully appreciate it.   Good luck.

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