We generally associate language with communication. However, the repercussions of having language skills, or lacking them, go way beyond communication. Our command over the language we communicate in everyday determines how confident we are about presenting ourselves. It even reflects in our body language and self esteem.
Being fluent in English is important, considering it is the universal language of business communication. For those looking to improve their skills, here are a few tips.
As a baby, you began learning your mother tongue simply by listening and observing. This is the most natural method of learning a language. If you think grammar and rules of syntax bog you down, go back to the primal mode of learning -- listen and observe.
Be alert when you listen to someone speaking English, be it at your workplace, at a party or on television. Watch out for common expressions and usages. If you are able to grasp regularly used ways of greeting and small talk, you will be able to initiate speaking more confidently. Start noting simple things: If you meet someone at a party, do you always end up saying, 'Hi! Nice meeting you...'?
How about introducing variations here? Observe how others talk and try varying your greeting. Why not try saying 'How do you do?' or 'How are you doing?' Greetings and introduction lines may seem trivial, but if you are not fluent in a language, you often tend to avoid even these, thus ending all prospects of communication. If you can break this barrier, you can take your first step into the realm of English speaking.
While listening to English speakers definitely helps, it is important to read if you wish to expedite the process of improving. Most people are put off by this because they associate reading with big, literary books. However, what we are talking about is reading anything and everything written in correct English. Therefore, your range of choices could extend from comic strips to newspaper articles, gadget manuals to movie reviews.
While reading, try and get a feel of the language and usage of words. More importantly, note the use of articles (a, an, the) and prepositions (in, on, at, from, into, over, under, etc) as these are areas where the most common errors are committed.
Improve your vocabulary
We are not asking you to learn the dictionary by rote! Can you commit yourself to learning two new words a day? You could come across these anywhere -- while reading, on a news channel, on a sign at the shopping mall, on a billboard, etc. Make the effort to look up the exact meaning of the word in the dictionary, instead of adopting the easier route of understanding the meaning from the context.
If possible, maintain a book where you can note down the new words everyday, along with the context, so you remember them better. Write down the dictionary meaning and also frame a sentence using the word, so it is now registered in your memory. Go through this book periodically to refresh your memory and use the words in your conversations, emails and letters. A few minutes each way, coupled with an eye for observation and an ear for new words is all it takes to improve your vocabulary.
Prepare for small talk
Speaking English fluently is not just about making corporate presentations and giving long speeches. It is about expressing your views on the most mundane of things. How often do you meet a new person and face an awkward silence after the initial greeting because you don't know what to talk about? Worse, you may wish to initiate a conversation but may not be confident of putting something across correctly.
The ability to make small talk is very important in business and social conversations. Topics for casual conversation could include the weather, sports, current affairs, arts, hobbies, travel, etc. Read up on your area of interest and try framing sentences expressing your opinions. Talk about it with someone close to you so you can check for grammatical accuracy.
Then, gradually build up on your repertoire of conversational topics and start using them whenever you get a chance. Of course, when you talk, do not make it sound like a speech you have learnt by heart. Induce a casual tone and adapt to the occasion.
Can you learn swimming by standing at the edge of the pool? You have to take the plunge, right? It is the same with language. Unless you use the language, you will never know how good you are at it.
Ask a few people close to you who are good at English to help. Make them interrupt you whenever you make a mistake and ask them to correct you. Be open to feedback. Do not be embarrassed to make mistakes, for that is the only way you will learn. That is how the process of acquiring fluency in a language occurs. As a child, you may have made a lot of mistakes before getting a good grasp of your mother tongue. The only difference now is that you are conscious of the mistakes.
Books on grammar are a good supplement to strengthen your command over the language. Going through the word-power section and the vocabulary-section in this site should also help. A lot of web sites including this one will help you augment your skills.
Finally, all you need is a will to learn and the initiative to begin. That done, it is simply a matter of time and effort!
Reputed Software Company is all geared up for a client visit.
The clients have indicated that, after inspecting the progress of the project they have outsourced, they would like to meet the team members working on it.
Why? To select one team member for a stint onsite -- something almost every software engineer aspires for.
Ravi has been one of the most active members in the project and has done a wonderful job. He is technically brilliant, but has some concerns:
• Will he able to communicate his performance to the client in an impressive manner so that he is chosen?
• Why do his team mates not prefer to come to him for solutions and go to less capable people instead?
• His project manager doesn't seem to be very warm towards him either, although he does drop in those occasional mails appreciating his work.
Here is a typical scenario in an IT company; or for that matter, any organisation where interpersonal communication is involved. Or, like in Ravi's case, where an employee suffers from a lack of interpersonal skills.
Are technical and job-related skills enough?
Technical and job-related skills are a must, but they are NOT sufficient when it comes to progressing up the ladder.
With the traditional paternalistic style of leadership becoming passé, professional managers expect their teams to be proactive and communicate openly.
"Soft skills are very important in business. It is essential to be technically sound, but one should also have the ability to convey the idea to the masses in the simplest possible manner," says Mayurkumar Gadewar, an ERP consultant with Pricewaterhouse Coopers.
With the boom in outsourcing taking root across industries, many professionals and subject matter experts directly deal with their clients on a regular basis.
Their approachability and people skills are what ultimately sustain the contract their employers have bagged.
"Planning is necessary but execution is also equally important. And it takes soft skills to execute any idea because it involves dealing with people directly," says Gadewar.
6 soft skills for every hard-nosed professional
Behavioural training experts say there are several soft skills are required in these circumstances. Some of them include:
i. Interpersonal skills
ii. Team spirit
iii. Social grace
iv. Business etiquette
v. Negotiation skills
vi. Behavioral traits such as attitude, motivation and time management
Do you have these? If your answer is yes, good for you.
But if your answer is no, then you know it is time to develop these skills.
Will formal training enhance your soft skills?
There is a lot of argument in the industry as to whether it is possible to enhance soft skills in a few hours of training, especially when one considers the fact that a person has lived with those traits all his life. To this, the answer is harsh but real -- a professional who wants to do well in his/ her career does not really have a choice.
In the initial years of your career, your technical abilities are important to get good assignments. However, when it comes to growing in an organization, it is your personality that matters, more so in large organizations where several people with similar technical expertise will compete for a promotion.
Training on soft skills becomes all the more relevant in a country where the education system does not delve into personality development.
"Soft skills’ training is essential because we do not have it in our academic curricula. Therefore, corporate houses have to take up the task of grooming employees who are the link between the company and the external world, so that they are able to present themselves better, " says Summit Mehta, an equity research analyst with Fortis Securities Ltd.
Be your own trainer!
While organizations are definitely investing in augmenting their staff's people skills, here are some inputs for professionals and students who would like to initiate the process themselves:
i. Be a part of team activities
It could be either as a part of your church choir, or an NGO, or your local youth circle.
Observe your own behaviour in the group and how you relate to others.
ii. Ask family members or close friends to write down your best and worst traits.
Ideally, have at least four to five people do this for you.
Evaluate the common traits all of them have mentioned. Thus, you can be aware of your strengths and work improving your weaknesses.
iii. How well do you manage your time?
Can you do more in life? Or is your day too crammed with activities? Effective time management is very essential in the corporate world.
iv. Introspect on how you react to feedback.
In organizations, people skills mostly come into the picture when there is feedback given -- be it for an idea, an executed project or a presentation.
You are judged by the way you respond to feedback.
Do you get defensive?
Do you insist you were right?
Do you meekly accept criticism?
Remember, people tend to be judged and stereotyped according to their responses. You will, too.
v. How good are you at critiquing?
While responding to feedback is one side of the coin, giving feedback is the other side.
Are you aggressive? Pessimistic? Do you believe in constructive criticism? Or prefer to be the yes-man?
vi. Live consciously
Any organisation is manned by people, therefore soft skills are all about how you deal with people and present yourself.
Though it may be easier said than done, soft skills can be enhanced simply by being aware of oneself and living consciously.
Etiquette and polish, both in personal and business settings, are linked to how well we communicate.
Most people think communication is all about speaking and devalue the importance of listening.
And many others don't realise what a vast difference there is between simply hearing what is being said and really listening.
People who know how to listen learn more, care more, and end up being the ones we want to be around socially as well as professionally.
Want to improve your listening skills?
Understand why you need to listen and remember to practise these tips the next time you conduct a conversation.
Your eyes are a dead giveaway if you are not listening.
When your mind wanders and you begin thinking of something or someone else, your eyes show your disinterest. And the person speaking to you is well aware that you are not paying attention.
And this is true even if you don't look away. Blank stares don't conceal boredom!
How to improve your listening skills:
Have you been wondering how to put together impressively-phrased Powerpoint presentation?
Have you been wondering how to compose an e-mail that captures your strategies and goals effectively?
It is time you did something about it.
As a young professional in today's global business world, it is imperative that you are competent in both oral as well as written communication.
Important forms of oral communication at the workplace include:
• Building interpersonal relationships.
• Giving presentations and debating viewpoints effectively.
You need to master oral skills for both in-person and over-the-phone interactions.
Similarly, important written communication includes:
• Writing professional e-mails (sans SMS slang).
• Putting together concise reports.
• Creating visually powerful Powerpoint presentations.
And the key to acing oral and written communication is to spruce up your communication skills. And it is a lot easier than you think.
Here are some easy tips to do it on your own:
1. Improve pronunciation and diction
There are a few tricks to making a vernacular accent more globally understandable.
~ Try making sure that 'air' comes out of your mouth when saying the letters, 'T, P, K' and the sound 'Ch'.
~ Focus on elongating your vowel sounds. This will also automatically slow down your rate of speech.
~ Sing English songs out loud!
~ Watch news shows on channels like CNN and BBC.
~ I would also suggest buying books on pronunciation and language that come with audio cassettes.
A good book that I found really useful was Better English Pronunciation by J D O'Connor. It is part of the Cambridge series, and some of those books come with cassettes.
2. Spruce up your writing skills
~ Believe it or not, you have to Read More!
~ Well-written magazines, like The Economist and India Today, are great to read not only to improve language skills but also to learn more about the world.
~ In terms of books, read what interests you. The basic goal is to read as much as you can.
There are a plethora of good authors who are popular today. Some good writers whose language is easy to follow include Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Paulo Coelho, J D Salinger, Albert Camus and Roald Dahl.
~ People tend to forget basic grammar when writing e-mails. An e-mail is nothing more than a letter which is sent electronically.
Make sure salutations and content are professional. Use special phrases when attaching documents. For example, "Please find attached with this e-mail a report on..." This helps you sound professional.
3. Five exercises to practise every day!
i. Pretend you are a newscaster and read out the newspaper to your mirror.
ii. Do not read local newspapers. Focus on national newspapers.
iii. While reading a book, underline all the words you do not know. Look them up in the dictionary.
iv. Make a list of these words, and make sure you use at least five of them in a conversation during the day.
v. Most important, make an effort to speak in English to your friends and family.
Many deserving candidates lose out on job opportunities because of their vernacular accent.
Can I 'neutralise' my accent?
Yes, you can. All you need to do is train yourself to speak English as comfortably and perfectly as you speak your mother tongue.
How do you train yourself? By inculcating certain practices in your daily lifestyle. These will get you closer to sounding like a native English speaker and equip you with a global accent -- and you will speak not American or British English, but correct English.
This is the first step to learn any other accent, be it American or British or Australian. Lisa Mojsin, head trainer, director and founder of the Accurate English Training Company in Los Angeles, offers these tips to help 'neutralise' your accent or rather do away with the local twang, as you speak.
i. Observe the mouth movements of those who speak English well and try to imitate them.
When you are watching television, observe the mouth movements of the speakers. Repeat what they are saying, while imitating the intonation and rhythm of their speech.
ii. Until you learn the correct intonation and rhythm of English, slow your speech down.
If you speak too quickly, and with the wrong intonation and rhythm, native speakers will have a hard time understanding you.
Don't worry about your listener getting impatient with your slow speech -- it is more important that everything you say be understood.
iii. Listen to the 'music' of English.
Do not use the 'music' of your native language when you speak English. Each language has its own way of 'singing'.
iv. Use the dictionary.
Try and familiarise yourself with the phonetic symbols of your dictionary. Look up the correct pronunciation of words that are hard for you to say.
v. Make a list of frequently used words that you find difficult to pronounce and ask someone who speaks the language well to pronounce them for you.
Record these words, listen to them and practice saying them. Listen and read at the same time.
vi. Buy books on tape.
Record yourself reading some sections of the book. Compare the sound of your English with that of the person reading the book on the tape.
vii. Pronounce the ending of each word.
Pay special attention to 'S' and 'ED' endings. This will help you strengthen the mouth muscles that you use when you speak English.
viii. Read aloud in English for 15-20 minutes every day.
Research has shown it takes about three months of daily practice to develop strong mouth muscles for speaking a new language.
ix. Record your own voice and listen for pronunciation mistakes.
Many people hate to hear the sound of their voice and avoid listening to themselves speak. However, this is a very important exercise because doing it will help you become conscious of the mistakes you are making.
x. Be patient.
You can change the way you speak but it won't happen overnight. People often expect instant results and give up too soon. You can change the way you sound if you are willing to put some effort into it.
Various versions of the English language exist. Begin by identifying the category you fall into and start by improving the clarity of your speech.
~ Focus on removing the mother tongue influence that creep into your English conversations.
~ Watch the English news on television channels like Star World, CNN, BBC and English movies on Star Movies and HBO.
~ Listen to and sing English songs. We'd recommend Westlife, Robbie Williams, Abba, Skeeter Davis and Connie Francis among others.
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