Category Archives: Speak English Better

accent reduction, idioms and slang, grammar, vocabulary, ESL challenges.

Books I Read and Recommend for Improving Communications

I love to share information and recommend resources to my friends and clients, and love hearing about books and authors that have made a difference in their life too.  Like many I have an Amazon page that lists the books I use in my coaching and training to help clients and teams improve their skills.  The skills we may focus on include effective interpersonal skills, reading body language, small talk and rapport-building skills, leadership development skills, professional communication strategies, presentations, conflict management, ESL (English as a second language) improvement including grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, etc.  There are even a couple martial arts books in there too!  🙂   If you’d like to know what books I read and recommend, please check out:

“Ric’s Recommended Communication Skills Training Bookstore”

Happy Reading!

Tips to Help You Enjoy St. Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patty's Day!

Happy St. Patty’s Day!

For those that may be new to the countries where this holiday is celebrated, or for those who would like to know a bit more about the beginnings of this day, please read on.

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th in many countries, especially Ireland, England, Canada and the USA. It is a day that you can celebrate by yourself or preferably with friends by doing the following:

1.  Wear some green clothing

Young or old, you can add a bit of green to your ensemble or, if you are more daring, be obvious about your love of this day and dress head-to-toe in green!  Some like to wear a shirt with a shamrock on it, or better yet, attention-getting slogans like “Everybody’s Irish!” or “Kiss me I’m Irish!” 

2.  Drink green beer

It is not uncommon to drink green beer at the pub on this day, though traditionalists look down upon this gimmick.  Don’t worry – harmless green food dye is used.  So if old enough, you should drink at a pub, preferably Irish or British, and take part in their promotions. Most pubs and restaurants will have some promotional games or contests, perhaps sponsors like Guiness, Harp or Kilkenny (Irish beers) will offer freebies (giveaways at no cost).  If you do want to drink in a local pub be warned – Irish and British pubs fill up quickly on this day, well before the 5 pm whistle is blown.  It’s the place to be on St. Patty’s Day!

3.  See a St. Patrick’s Day parade

Today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are all about having fun.  A number of years ago the parades were seriously Irish, but these days, you can see a lot of diverse floats, clubs, bands and costumes.  I remember when I was young seeing a cowboy at a St. Patrick’s Day parade and wondering “What’s he doing there?”  LOL

4.  Re-tell the original story of St. Patrick:

A young English boy was stolen from his home and brought back to then-wild Ireland and held as a slave. During these difficult years the young man turned to his Christian faith to keep him going. One night he dreamed that he would walk over a hill and discover a boat that would rescue him. Shortly thereafter he escaped and found such a boat. He finally made it back to his home in England.

Later, as a priest, he decided to return to Ireland, where he knew the language and customs, to convert them to Christianity. Other missionaries had been killed, but he was successful.

He added the circle to the cross which represented the sun, and created the “Celtic cross.”

He used the 3-leaf clover to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to the Irish people. That is why the clover or “shamrock” is a strong symbol not only on St. Patrick’s Day but of Ireland itself.

This is just a brief background description. If interested, please do more research to learn about this fun and interesting holiday, and don’t be shy to get into the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day!


Repeat Favourite Phrases to Improve Conversation

One of the things to remember when you are looking to improve conversation skills, especially if you are using English as a second language and you really want to speak English better, is that English is just one part of language, and language is just one part of communication.

A quick way to build rapport with your listener is to mimic or reflect back their favourite words or expressions. So this way, even if you ‘have an accent’ it won’t be as important as the fact that you are connecting with the person on their level and making them feel comfortable by using a few of their own favourite words/expressions.

This is also a good thing to remember when you are trying to decide if you should sway your English accent towards British or American. The actual answer is – it depends. It depends where you live or who you work with. I am not suggesting you have 2 distinct ‘fake’ voices, one that sounds like James Bond and another that sounds like the President.  I am suggesting that you listen to and imitate the people around you, especially if you are a new immigrant. This will help you bridge the gap and increase fluency or at least a sense of fluency until your English improves a bit more.

There is more I could say on this subject but for now the take-away point is to listen to the people around you for their favourite words and expressions and then repeat them sometimes. Do not be an annoying parrot though. About 3:1 should suffice.  It’s a simple trick that connects and builds rapport.  After all, we like people who seem to be similar to ourselves, right?  🙂

Are You Coming or Going? (Exploring Related Phrasal Verbs)

1. a)  to come across = to find by chance                                   
I came across a beautiful antique vase in a 2nd hand shop in Kensington Market.
1. b)  to come across = to appear
He comes across as reserved, but actually he’s very outgoing once you get to know him.
2. to come between = to be a barrier, to separate
Language or religion can come between lovers.
3. a) to come out = to be published/released
The final Hunger Games movie came out a few months ago.
3. b) to come out = to remove
The red wine stain finally came out of the carpet, after a lot of cleaning.
3. c) to come out = to announce to family, friends or the world that you are gay/homosexual.
My friend didn’t come out of the closet until he was 35.  Then he felt a great sense of relief.
4. to be going on = s/t is happening
What’s going on with them?
5. a) to go on = to go ahead of someone
You go on in the restaurant. I’ll be right behind you. I want to finish smoking.
5. b) to go on (and on) = to continue talking without a break and often repeating yourself.
I know Jack had a great time in Paris, because he will go on and on with stories to anyone!
6. to be on the go = to be very busy
Hey! You need to chill! You’re always on the go! You’re gonna burn yourself out!
7. “It goes without saying.” = it’s clear without being said
It goes without saying that I’ll help you move houses!
8. to go far = be very successful
Having studied at Harvard, I’m sure he’ll go far in life.
9. To go to great lengths = to take a lot of trouble to do something
After Tony won the lottery, he went to great lengths to keep it a secret.

Shame, Shameless and Shameful

Let’s look at the root word ‘shame’ and explore its common uses.
Shame = sad feeling, guilt, or embarrassment.
I’m ashamed (of you/us/myself) = I’m embarrassed and perhaps dishonored.
“I’m ashamed to admit that it was me who stole the winning lotto ticket from you.”
Shame on you!  = Scolding another person for a shameful act.  The meaning is you should feel shame and embarrassment/regret for whatever you just did.
“I see that you have been gambling away all our money again!  Shame on you!”
Shameless = no shame when they should have/feel some.  Opposite of shameful.
“The criminal smiled shamelessly in court as the victims read their impact statements.”
It’s (such) a shame= It’s too bad, it’s a pity.  Not necessarily meant to embarrass anyone; can be used just to politely express disappointment. 
“It’s a shame you can’t stay longer and watch the UFC fights tonight with us.  We’ll miss you.”
“It’s a shame you’re not legal drinking age yet, but next year we can party together!”
“It’s a real shame that you feel you are entitled to better service than us.”  (Meant to embarrass or shame someone).
It’s so shame = This phrase is grammatically incorrect!  Do not use it.

Try them out!

Why Teaching Idioms (Slang, Expressions) is Important in Business English

Like many of you I have a profile on the networking site LinkedIn. (You can find me at )  One of the benefits of LinkedIn is becoming a member of a group related to our fields or interests.  I subscribe to a number of groups, and sometimes feel compelled to add my two cents to the discussions.  A few days ago was one of those times that I thought I could contribute.

In the group Business English Instructors, someone opened a discussion about President Obama’s recent slip-up when he mixed a Star Wars and a Star Trek pop culture reference together during a speech.  (The exact expression he created was “a jedi mind-meld.”)

This posting in LinkedIn led to a discussion amongst the members of the Business English teaching community to debate the virtues of teaching or not teaching idioms, slang and pop culture references in their BE (Business English) classes.

I felt that due to my direct experience with teaching idioms I should reply, and so I did.  Below is a copy of my comment on the subject, which may interest some of you:

“The question a teacher or trainer needs to ask is “what is the operating language of this location?”  When I was teaching English in China a long long time ago there was very little need for idioms to be taught. The focus was on getting students to pass exams and communicate on a certain level with other Chinese or some foreign teachers, in China. The operating language was ‘functional and academic’ English, for the most part, and I adjusted my conversations and teaching style to match.

But when I was asked to do manager training many years later in Moscow, Russia, part of the requested curriculum was to teach business expressions and cultural notes to the North American style of office communications. They ‘operated’ in English with North Americans and some British, and wanted to better understand their counterparts’ words and culture.

As a Communication Coach working mostly in Toronto and the surrounding area, a number of my clients are immigrants and foreign workers. Typically they have excellent hard skills and education, but often lack the soft skills we would like them to have to fit in. I know that sounds harsh, but it is an unspoken reality – we want them to understand us and our way of business communications here. This is the location. This is where business is done. You need to understand us and our way of doing things.

I often teach everyday and business idioms and expressions to clients, even if it is for just 10 minutes at the beginning of the session, as a warm up. They want to be better equipped for the water cooler as well as the boardroom. Ignoring idioms and pop culture references limits their ability to build relationships, to fully understand those around them, to join in the discussion, to understand the nuances and contexts of conversations, etc. Remember – I am talking about working here in Toronto’s business world, not overseas.

As a last morsel of food for thought, I’ll share this with you too: When my company created an English Communication Skills Assessment for a prominent police service to be used in conjunction with the hiring process, idioms and expressions were tested for, in addition to the usual suspects of grammar, spelling, reading comprehension, writing and speaking/listening. Why would we do this? Because we were told by senior training officers that they found it frustrating when they spoke to new recruits in a casual, informal way (i.e. with idioms and slang) and some newbies didn’t understand them, and it slowed down communication. When you think about the seriousness of policing, you might imagine how miscommunication could impact the lives and the safety of officers and the public.

I know on one hand it sounds too strict or maybe too much focus is being given to idioms, but I think when you consider how prominent idioms, slang, lingo and pop culture references really are, especially in an English-speaking operating country/company, you will realize the benefits of teaching them to those that could use the knowledge to improve their personal and professional lives.”

Some People Have Real Difficulty With Public Speaking but Have No Choice!

I salute those that are striving to improve their public speaking and presentation skills. It’s not always an easy thing to do, especially if one was born introverted, with a learning challenge of some kind, is not a native speaker of the working language or simply was never used to or trained in how to handle “the spotlight.”

These days advancing your public speaking and presentation skill-set almost isn’t an option.  In business a successful person needs great communication skills, now more than ever.  In the old days there were those that were comfortable speaking, usually from sales and marketing departments for example, that were asked to do most of the public speaking and meeting running.  Technical folks could sit in the back of the room silently, or just keep working away on their computer.  Not so these days.

Many of my clients are technically brilliant people, who have achieved a high measure of success in their own right.  But they have been asked (or told) by upper management or have learned through experience that to be truly successful these days one must attempt to master the soft skills as well as the hard skills.  Job security seems to depend on adaptability and duo skill-set performance now.
These days I’m doing a lot of ‘Podium Power’ coaching.  Clients range from doctors and lawyers to accountants and managers at various levels in the company.  Some are immigrants with the additional challenge of having English as a second language.  Some have speech impediments, get bad stage fright, or have Asperger’s syndrome/autism.  I strive to teach them the finer points of how to quickly and efficiently improve their 3Vs (verbal, vocal, visual) of public speaking, presentations and PowerPoint, staying within my areas of expertise.

I just wanted to say that I really appreciate and applaud those that are struggling to learn a new way of communication that is out of their comfort zone, or that pushes them past their old, comfortable one.  It takes courage, dedication and maybe even a little kick in the butt to take up the task of improving public speaking communication skills, but I believe it is good to challenge oneself and I also believe it will pay off handsomely in today’s business world, as well as with our social communications.  Let’s be honest, they need some work these days too, right?  Everyone is constantly staring at their smart phones and tablets, rarely looking up as they mumble?  But that’s a topic for another day!  ;)

Take care,
Coach Ric