Using Natural English – by James Cort

Hello and welcome to the instructor blog! I’m James Cort and I teach TOEFL Speaking and Pronunciation and Fluency (発音矯正) at Agos.

The year is finally coming to an end, and the winter holidays will soon be upon us. Many of us are looking forward to some time off work or school, some may be travelling overseas and others preparing for important examinations. Whatever your plans, before we forget the year at the next忘年会 (end-of-year party), let’s reflect on our academic progress and consider how to make next year even more successful.

“Well… I can understand you, but it doesn’t sound natural.” Have you ever heard this from a native English speaking friend, colleague or instructor? You might then note down the corrected sentence that your teacher offers. However, you may not understand where you went wrong or how to sound more natural in the future. Today I’m going to talk about naturalness: What is natural English? Why is it important for the TOEFL and IELTS tests? How can you learn to use it?

What is natural English?

Natural English simply means the English that native speakers actually use. This can be quite different from the English you find in many textbooks, and drastically different from English directly translated from Japanese.

Unnatural English is often caused by several types of errors. Have a look at the examples below.

Error Example Natural English
Inappropriate vocabulary choice ‘My friends and I gathered at the bar.’ ‘My friends and I met up at the bar.’
Word order ‘I went to a Japanese traditional restaurant.’ ‘I went to a traditional Japanese restaurant.’
Register (formality/context) ‘There were many people at my birthday party. Moreover, it was very enjoyable.’ ‘There were loads of people at my birthday party and we had a good time.
Direct translation ‘I entered university in 2010.’ ‘I started university in 2010.’
‘Textbook’ English For the first time, I ate dinner at Cici’s some days ago. It was so-so.’ I tried Cici’s the other day – it wasn’t great.’
‘Japanese’ English ‘I went to the hot spring to refresh my mind.’ ‘I went to the hot spring to unwind.’
Wrong collocation (collocations are words that go together) ‘The temples in Kyoto are very amazing.’ ‘The temples in Kyoto are absolutely amazing.’

If you’re told that your English sounds unnatural, then it’s likely that it contains at least one of these errors.

 

Why is natural English important for the TOEFL and IELTS tests?

The ability to use natural English is vital for both TOEFL and IELTS. This is especially true for the speaking sections, where you have limited time to think about and plan your response. TOEFL speaking is graded holistically, which means the grader gives you a score based on their overall impression of your response. Of course, more natural speech will make a better impression, so you’ll get a higher score. The IELTS speaking examiners use very clear and detailed grading criteria, and producing more accurate and natural speech will help you to reach the higher bands.

How can you learn to use natural English?

So, how do you improve? Memorising the corrections your teacher gives you is vital, but this can be a slow process. Here are three important steps you can take to speak more naturally.

  1. Increase your exposure to natural English

The first step is to expose yourself to a lot of natural English material. Tedtalks, Youtube and online radio are great free resources. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon video are useful paid resources. Most of these have English subtitles available that can help you with new language. After listening or watching, make a note of new language, practice shadowing, make your own sentences and say then say them aloud. The material doesn’t have to be difficult. The important thing is to expose yourself regularly to natural English, and try to copy how the native speakers use the language.

  1. Consider the Context

Whenever you hear new words or phrases, think about the setting. What is natural in one context may sound very unnatural in another. Ask yourself: ‘Was the setting formal or informal? Was it at work, home or school? Was the topic serious or light-hearted? What’s relationship between the speakers? What’s the emotional state of the speaker and listener? How is the speaker using intonation? Etc.’ Questions like this will give you clues as to when and where you can use this language.

  1. Get out of your comfort zone

It’s easy and safe to use what you learnt in high school. But if you act in the same way, you’ll always get the same results, you won’t make progress and your TOEFL or IELTS scores won’t improve. Get out of your comfort zone and try out what you’ve learned in the real world. Use the new language with friends, with co-workers, in class, for homework and eventually on your TOEFL and IELTS tests!

 

Try these tips and see if you can start sounding more natural in 2017, and improve your TOEFL or IELTS speaking scores!

 

Imagine yourself as the grader – by James Giguere

Hello, and thanks for visiting the instructor blog! Are you enjoying the autumn foliage (紅葉)? I recently took a quick trip to Gujo in Gifu-ken, and the leaves were already starting to turn red and yellow. I definitely recommend visiting there if you can find the time.

My name is Jim, and I teach TOEFL and SAT here at AGOS. I want to write a little bit about a trick that I use whenever I take a standardized test, especially a language test: just imagine that you are the grader.

This applies to both TOEFL and IELTS, and can be used for all sections, but let’s take the TOEFL Speaking test as an example. Imagine yourself grading a similar speaking test in Japanese. What features would prove to you that a speaker is comfortable and confident speaking Japanese? Would you be listening for their vocabulary and grammar, their ideas, or their delivery? What kinds of common mistakes do you think test takers might make?

Thinking about the TOEFL speaking test from this perspective will help you realize what’s most important to graders. The skills that you’re focusing on while you study may be different from what the graders will be paying attention to. There are some common themes, though. Here are a few points that will always catch a grader’s attention:

• Basic grammatical errors. As you’re practicing your speaking and writing, try to catch yourself every time you make a subject/verb agreement error (“she go” instead of “she goes”), singular/plural error (“I bought two book”), or other common error. One or two of these mistakes may not affect your TOEFL speaking score, but making too many will show the grader that you aren’t comfortable with English grammar. Think about a foreign person speaking Japanese – a couple of mistakes wouldn’t be too bad, right? But mistakes in every sentence would probably make you doubt their language ability. Overcoming this takes practice, practice, and more practice.
• Nervousness. Everybody gets a little bit anxious during a test, and the TOEFL speaking test can definitely make you nervous, but do your best not to think about it. Imagine that you’re talking to a friend, colleague, or classmate rather than a computer. As a grader, wouldn’t you give a higher score to someone who seems comfortable and calm while speaking Japanese?
• Memorized lines. Remember: TOEFL speaking graders often listen to dozens of responses per day, and they can usually tell when a line is memorized. If you memorize a line, make sure that your delivery sounds natural and not too different from the rest of your response. Otherwise, the memorized lines may actually hurt your score rather than help it. Try to imagine what it would sound like listening to someone robotically repeating obviously memorized lines of Japanese, rather than natural, fluent Japanese. Which would you give a higher grade to?

These are just a few of the things that TOEFL graders listen for, but spend a few minutes thinking of what you would pay attention to as a grader, and I’m sure you’ll come up with some more!

スピーキング・テストの大きな誤解 — by 柳沢洋美

皆さん、こんにちは。TOEFL/IELTS講師の柳澤です。

TOEFL/IELTSのスピーキング・セクションは、日本人にとって立ちはだかる壁ですね。でも、これはすべてのノン・ネーティブ受験者(つまり非英語圏の人々)にとって悩みの種です。実際に私がニューヨークで英語を教えていたときも、スピーキングの点数が上がらないという悩みは、南米や中国、ロシアから来ていた生徒からも相談を受けました。さて、ここで1つ!スピーキングのスコアアップのためのコツとして、「ネーティブのように話そう」と思わない!ということです。

受験者の中にはネーティブっぽく話したい、話せれば23点越えるのになあ~と思っている方も多くいらっしゃいます。具体的に言えば、「スピーディーに、Rの音をカッコよく…」。実はこれが高得点を狙えない原因の一つです。

まず、日本人によくあるのが巻き舌です。よくある巻き舌単語?がbecause(なぜなら)です。巻き舌の方は「ビコォーrズ」と発音されます。スペルにすると、becauRseです。あるいはso(だから)がsoR「ソォーr」。こういう方は、いたるところにrが混ざってしまいます。これも採点官にとっては非常に聞きにくい英語になります。巻き舌を直すのは時間がかかります。でも直せます。ご自分の英語を音声として録音して、聞いてみて下さい。あるいは人に聞いてもらってみて下さい。ちなみにアゴスには発音矯正のクラスがあります(あ、宣伝になってしまったJ LOL )。自分ではなかなか直すことは難しいときはプロの力を借りましょう!

さて「スピーディーに話せばいい」と考えている生徒さんもいらっしゃいます。もちろん、「ペラペ~ラ」と話せるなら苦労しません!ただし、私たちはノンネーティブですから、悪く言えば、英語に難があるわけです。難のある英語を早く話せばどうなるか?難を隠すどころか、さらに難は露出します。スピーキング採点官は「この生徒は何を話しているのだろう?」となるのです。これの手っ取り早い解決策は、ゆっくり話すこと。といっても一語一語ゆっくり話すのではなく(英語のリズムがなくなります)フレーズの切れ目(カタマリごと(chunking))で0.5秒くらいあけるつもりで話します。以下の文章を音読しましょう。そのとき、スラッシュのところを0.5~1秒あけます。

Traveling is something / I really enjoy doing. / I travel / whenever I have the chance. / Yes, / traveling is expensive / so I cannot take trips all the time. / But every month / I try to take a short trip / somewhere new in Tokyo.

もちろん帰国子女の方、あるいは何年か海外に住んでいましたという方なら、ある程度のスピードがあってもいいでしょう。でも、そういう生徒さんにも、「ゆっくり、威厳を持って、自信のある話し方をしてください」と私はお話しします。母国語でも、相手に伝えたい、分かってもらいたいと思えば、自然とスピードを落として話しませんか?

TOEFL/IELTSのスピーキングテストでは、皆さんが「英語圏の大学・大学院のネーティブのクラスメートと一緒にやっていける」かどうかを測るテストだと思ってください。分かりづらい発音や、メッセージが伝わりづらいと判断されないように、しっかり対策をしましょう!!

Improve your pronunciation and get higher scores! – by Michael Thundercliffe

Hi everyone, welcome to the instructor blog! I hope the summer heat isn’t causing you too much夏ばて.  I’ve been living in Japan for 11 years, and I’m still not used to this weather! I miss the mild English summers…

I’m Mike, and today, I’m going to be talking about the importance of ‘delivery’ (pronunciation and fluency) in the TOEFL and IELTS speaking tests. A lot of test takers in Japan don’t realise how important this is, but delivery is a third of your mark in the TOEFL test, and in IELTS, pronunciation is 25% of your grade! In both tests, these areas tend to pull people’s scores down.

‘Delivery’ is probably the biggest difficulty for Japanese speakers – but why is this? Well, at school, you probably learnt a lot of grammar and vocabulary, and you probably did a lot of reading, writing, listening and speaking practice too. However, you probably didn’t learn that much about pronunciation.

Let’s listen to an example. Here’s a recording of a Japanese speaker and a native English speaker saying the same sentence:

‘I want to go out tonight to eat with my friends.’

Japanese speaker:

Native English speaker:

As you can hear, there’s a big difference! The native speaker sounds more like this:

‘ah wanna go wow tonigh tah wee wi mah frens’

Sometimes my students ask me – do I really have to sound like that? Well, you don’t need to be perfect, but you need to be as close as possible to improve your speaking scores!

So how can you improve? The most important thing is to listen to a lot of English. This could be recordings from your Agos class CDs, podcasts, radio programs, Youtube videos, films, TV shows, drama or anything else. Try shadowing to say the words exactly like native speakers, paying close attention to stress, intonation and how the speaker links words together smoothly. Becoming a good listener and a good mimic will really help – you can do it!

We also have a Pronunciation and Fluency class (発音矯正)at Agos – if delivery is a problem for you, then this would be a good place to start!