IELTS Speaking Myths Busted (Part 3)

So far in this series, we have dispelled quite a few myths surrounding IELTS Speaking, facts that actually have little impact on your final score.

Read on to discover what other misconceptions people commonly harbour about the Speaking section.

Myth #7: Examiners aren’t interested in what test takers say

I think my examiner had little interest in what I was saying. He/she kept interrupting me.” It’s a grumble that test takers often have on completing the Speaking interview.

The truth: In IELTS Speaking, the examiner has between 11 and 14 minutes to assess a test taker’s language level. So, f they feel that the test taker has spoken enough in response to a question, they will want to move him or her on so that conceptually harder questions can be asked. Such an approach allows test takers to produce more complex language, opening the door to attaining higher scores.

Myth #8: Always use formal vocabulary

IELTS is a high-stakes test that is internationally recognised, so many wrongly believe that they should use formal language throughout the test.

The truth: Part 1 of the Speaking interview gives test takers the perfect opportunity to settle their nerves, as they are asked questions on familiar topics. While responding to questions on topics such as home, work, friends, or interests, it’s quite natural to use words and phrases that appear in our everyday conversations (e.g. chat with friends, have a blast). In fact, too many formal expressions at the beginning of the speaking interview could be perceived as a sign of rote learning, which doesn’t exactly help.

Myth #9: All prompts in Part 2 must be covered

In Part 2, the test taker will receive a task card with the topic they’ll need to speak on. The card will also have 4 prompts, each beginning with a wh-word (e.g. who, when, why). Many mistakenly believe that including all the prompts in their answer is a must.  

The truth: While the prompts can help test takers speak at length effortlessly, they are under no obligation to use them. What’s important is to produce a well-rounded answer that lasts 2 minutes; using the prompts given on the task card is a matter of choice.

The next time you spot any of these myths anywhere, do bust them. And when you need IELTS Speaking advice, see that you get it from an authentic source.   

IELTS Speaking Myths Busted (Part 2)

In the first part, we busted some myths surrounding the IELTS Speaking section, proving how speaking too fast, faking an accent, or putting on formal clothes don’t really help you get a higher band score.

Here are some more notions about the Speaking interview that you should reject straightaway if you happen to hear them.

Myth #4: Never disagree with the examiner

In the last part of IELTS Speaking, which will be a discussion, the examiner might challenge you on your views. Quite often they play devil’s advocate to have a good discussion about a topic. The end result is that you, as a candidate, receive enough opportunities to speak at length and substantiate your claims. A common misconception is that you need to agree with whatever the examiner says.

The truth: Do not feel obliged to agree with the examiner’s views. It’s worth remembering that the views you hold DO NOT get assessed. It’s the language you use to communicate your views that determines the final outcome.

Myth #5: Always speak the truth

Sometimes questions in the Speaking section require the test taker to draw on their own personal experiences. For instance, in Part 2, you may be asked to talk about ‘a time when a vehicle you were travelling in broke down’, but what if you’ve never had such an experience? Whilst it is a plus to be able to fall back on past experiences, this may not always be possible.      

The truth: There’s nothing wrong in using your imagination if you don’t have much to say on the topic that you’ve been asked to talk about. The Speaking examiner’s job is to test your level of English, not to check the authenticity of the details you choose to include in your answers.

Myth #6: The test is easier at some centres

Being an internationally acclaimed test, IELTS is available at as many as 1600 locations around the world. However, a considerable amount of effort has gone into ensuring that the test experience remains the same irrespective of where it is taken. 

The truth: IELTS speaking examiners are qualified and experienced English language specialists who work to clearly defined criteria. They undergo extensive training and are subject to ongoing monitoring, quality control procedures and re-certification, all of which make ratings consistent across test centres. 

There’s more to follow in the final part, so do watch this space.

IELTS Speaking Myths Busted (Part 1)

Since its introduction almost three decades ago, IELTS has emerged as the world’s most popular English language test for higher education and global migration.  

Over this time, some myths about the test have also been established. In this series, we’ll attempt to dispel some of the myths about the IELTS Speaking test.      

Myth #1: Speak as fast as you can

In the Speaking section, test takers are marked on four criteria, one being fluency and coherence. A common misconception among test takers is that it’s good to speak as fast as you possibly can in order to show the examiner that you are a fluent speaker. Unfortunately, this isn’t always helpful – if you focus on speed and say whatever comes to mind, you may soon start sounding incoherent. Besides, speaking fast can also make you breathless, affecting your delivery and resulting in a lower band on pronunciation. 

The truth: While it’s important to speak at a reasonable pace and without hesitation, what you say should be well organised and logical. A higher rate of speech DOES NOT automatically mean a higher band score on fluency. What you should aim for is producing answers that are sufficiently developed.

Myth #2: Put on an accent

The IELTS test accepts all standard varieties of native-speaker English, including North American, British, Australian, and New Zealand English. However, this doesn’t mean that non-native speakers are expected to sound like native speakers of the language. Trying to fake an accent could have a boomerang effect – some of the sounds you produce might become unintelligible.

The truth: Pronunciation is assessed in IELTS, accent ISN’T. As a test taker, you need to ensure that you’re intelligible to the examiner throughout, and that’s all that is required!

Myth #3: Dress formally

It’s surprising how many test takers feel pressured to dress up and look their best in the hope that it might fetch them a higher speaking band score. Nothing could be further from the truth: the examiner closely monitors what you say during the test, not what you’re wearing.

The truth: Your choice of clothing has absolutely NO bearing on your final scores, so DO NOT agonise over what to wear to the speaking test. Choose something that makes you feel confident and comfortable. We’ll be back soon to bust some more speaking myths.

Improving Intonation (Part 2)

In a previous post, we spoke of why it’s useful to better your ability to use various intonation patterns while speaking. We also looked at two common types of intonation, falling and rising.

In this post, we’ll first consider some more intonation types and then give you tips on how to improve your intonation.

Types of intonation

3. Rise-fall intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice and then drop it. This pattern is often found in:

  • alternative questions
    E.g. Would you like tea or coffee?
  • lists (pattern in the example – rise, rise, rise, fall)
    E.g. We’d need milk, sugar, flour, and eggs.
  • conditional sentences
    E.g. If you seeDanny, please ask him to call ➘ Rebecca.

4. Fall-rise intonation
In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice and then raise it. This pattern is commonly used to suggest that something is uncertain or incomplete. Have a look at these examples:

I don’t like drinking tea in the morning.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker enjoys drinking tea at other times of the day)

The first half was exciting.

(perhaps hinting that the second half was boring)

Do you think this is allowed here?

(perhaps hinting that the speaker is not sure if something is permissible)

I can’t afford a car at the moment.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker may be able to buy one in the future)

Ways to improve intonation

Here are some tips to help improve your ability to use various intonation patterns.

  • Listen carefully to short recordings of native speakers of English, paying particular attention to the way their voices rise and fall. Then, imitate their intonation by just humming along, without saying the actual words. Remember to focus on the melody, not the words.
  • Record yourself saying a sentence with absolutely no intonation, just like how a robot would do. Later, repeat the same sentence by using stress and intonation. Listen to both versions to know the difference that intonation can make.
  • Record yourself saying any common word over and over again, changing your attitude each time. For example, repeat the word ‘coffee’, giving it different meaning each time to indicate different emotions, such as enthusiasm, displeasure, surprise, and relief.

Remember, it’s difficult to listen to our own pitch, so working with audio materials is the way forward for improving your intonation.

Improving Intonation (Part 1)

A key pronunciation feature that helps you convey your thoughts and feelings with precision is intonation. In its simplest sense, intonation can be described as the melody of spoken language, i.e. the rise and fall in your voice when you speak. The focus here is on how we say things, not what we say.

It goes without saying that the concept of intonation is common to all languages; yet not many pay attention to this area while they speak, as they are so caught up in choosing the right words to express what they want to say. What they don’t realise is that intonation can be as important as word choice if not more.   

Why improve intonation

Here are a few good reasons why it is worthwhile to work on your intonation:

  • Bettering your understanding of intonation helps you become a skilled communicator.
  • Failing to use intonation could mean that listeners may soon lose interest in what you’re saying and switch off.
  • Getting your intonation patterns wrong might give rise to misunderstandings, with listeners even taking offence.
  • Not having enough awareness of intonation can impair your listening comprehension too, as you’re likely to misinterpret what others say.

Types of intonation

Here are some common intonation patterns found in English speech.  

  1. Falling intonation
    In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is usually found in:
  • statements
    E.g. I’m going for a stroll on the beach.
  • commands
    E.g. Get your hands off my coat!
  • wh-questions that seek information
    E.g. What’s your name?
  • question tags that invite agreement
    E.g. It was such a lousy film, wasn’t it?

2. Rising intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is generally found in:

  • yes/no questions
    E.g. Do you like my newdress?
  • question tags that seek an answer
    E.g. You haven’t had a fight with Tom,have you?

We’ll be back with more in the next part. Meanwhile, think about whether your pitch goes up and down when you speak in English.

Sounding Polite (Part 3)

So far in our series of posts on politeness, we’ve looked at four different approaches that can be adopted to communicate appropriately in English.   

Read on for more tips on how to sound well-mannered when you speak or write.

5. Question forms

Using question forms is a great way of sounding diplomatic when giving advice or suggestions. One option is to form yes/no questions when requesting people to do things. Another is to use negative questions in order to introduce your views gently. Here are examples of both:

Close the door.

Could you close the door, please?

I want directions to the airport.

Could you possibly give me directions to the airport?

We need a better proposal to win the contract.

Don’t you think we need a better proposal to win the contract?

We should paint the cabin blue.

Wouldn’t it be better if we painted the cabin blue?

6. Qualifiers

If you make a direct statement to express your thoughts, the chances are you’ll upset others. This is particularly true when what you’re saying is something negative. In order for you to sound more diplomatic, you could use qualifiers, such as a bit, a little, or kind of. A qualifier can decrease the intensity of anything negative that you say. Here are some examples of how qualifiers can decrease the intensity of your words when you complain or criticise.

This curry is too bland!

This curry is a bit bland.

Jeez, it’s so hot in here!

It’s a little hot in here. 

Derek is extremely boring!

Derek is kind of boring.

7. Passive voice

We can use the passive voice to shift the focus of a sentence from the doer of the action to the action itself. It’s particularly handy when we wish to avoid blaming people for things that they fail to do. Using the passive structure makes the sentence impersonal, creating distance from the immediate present. Here are some examples:

You forgot to switch the outside lights on last night.

The outside lights were not switched on last night.

Looks like you have made a lot of spelling errors.

Looks like a lot of spelling errors have been made.

Remember, more often than not, non-native English speakers sound impolite unwittingly, because they take the wrong approach. 

Sounding Polite (Part 2)

In English-speaking cultures, great importance is attached to avoiding language that others may find offensive. In a previous post, we considered how using softening expressions and avoiding negative words can go a long way towards helping you sound polite.

Here are some more ways in which you can appear courteous while speaking English.

3. Distancing verb forms

When we ask questions, make offers, or give suggestions, it is possible to use the past tense instead of the present. In such contexts, past tenses indicate ‘distance’ from the immediate present, thereby making what we say less direct. Do note that there’s no difference in the basic meaning expressed when the past tense replaces the present. Here are some examples to help you understand this better.

When do you want to check in, sir?

When did you want to check in, sir?

Do you want more sugar in your tea?

Did you want more sugar in your tea?

In the same way, sometimes progressive (continuous) verb forms are used in place of simple forms to sound more casual or less definite.

I hope you can give me a lift after the concert.

I’m hoping you can give me a lift after the concert. (less definite)

I look forward to doing business with you again.

I’m looking forward to doing business with you again. (casual)

4. Modal verbs

Another way to avoid being too direct is by using modal verbs. The past forms of modal verbs will, can, and may are commonly used in everyday communication to exhibit good manners. When making requests or asking for help, the word ‘please’is often added to make a better impression on the listener or reader.

Will you need my car tonight?

Would you need my car tonight?

Can you please call the security?

Could you please call the security?

May I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Might I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Remember, being polite helps us build good relations with the listener or reader, so it is definitely worth the effort. We’ll be back with some more tips.

Sounding Polite (Part 1)

Communicating in English isn’t as hard as many people think. Once you have a collection of common words and learn to string them together, you can pretty much begin to use English in most everyday situations. On such occasions, poor grammar or diction doesn’t always get in the way of getting the basic message across.

That being said, making sure that you sound polite or appropriate when using English is a lot harder to achieve, especially if you’ve just started learning the language. This is because all our energies go into somehow conveying our thoughts, so we sometimes fail to recognise that what we say might be too direct or offensive.

Here are some tips to help you sound more polite when speaking English.

1. Softening expressions

In some cultures, being blunt or direct is acceptable, whereas in English-speaking cultures, this is frowned upon. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use softening expressions that make what you say less direct. Examples of such expressions are I’m afraid, perhaps, I think, I reckon, maybe, I was wondering if, and to be honest.

Examples:

I can’t help you.

I’m afraid I can’t help you. 

I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

To be honest, I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

You should ask someone else for advice.

Perhaps you should ask someone else for advice.

Could you help her?

I was wondering if you could help her.

2. Avoiding negative words

There’s no doubt that people respond better to positive sounding words, making it easier to manage social interactions. Keeping this in mind, avoid using negative words wherever possible. Instead, use a positive equivalent along with a negative helping verb. Here are some examples:

It’s a bad idea to call her at this time of the night.

It isn’t a good idea to call her at this time of the night.

I find him so boring.

I don’t find him interesting.

I think this project report is useless.

I don’t think this project report is useful.

You will fail the exam if you don’t prepare well.

You won’t pass the exam if you don’t prepare well.

We’ll be back shortly with more suggestions on how to sound polite when speaking English.

British vs American English (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Mo Riza via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

With well over a billion speakers, English is the most widely spoken language in the world by some distance.

Interestingly though, there are only a handful of countries where it is spoken as a native language by the majority of the population. For the rest, English is a language they’ve acquired.

As a result, different variants of the language have evolved over time – Singlish (Singapore English), Strine (Australian English), and Namlish (Namibian English) to name a few.

However, British and American English remain the most widely recognised variants.

So, just how different is the English spoken in the UK to that in the US? Let’s find out….

 

 

1. Spelling

It’s common knowledge that UK and US spellings differ. One reason for this is that American English has modified the spelling of a number of words to reflect the way they sound when they are pronounced.

For instance, while Britons spell the printed form issued by a bank as cheque, Americans spell it as it sounds, i.e. check. Although there are hundreds of such words that are spelled differently, the difference is often minor, so it hardly ever causes confusion. Here’s a quick comparison:

 

2. Pronunciation

This is a grey area, as there are a wide variety of accents within both countries, making it difficult to clearly distinguish between UK and US pronunciation features.

To take one example, a Londoner and Mancunian (someone from Manchester, UK) may sound radically different from each other despite being from the same country, i.e. the United Kingdom.

That said, one easily noticeable thing is how Americans generally accentuate every ‘r’ in a word, whereas the Brits don’t emphasise that sound, or they sometimes omit it altogether if a word ends in ‘r’.

While it isn’t important which version of English you speak, being aware of how accents differ is always useful.

 

GLOSSARY

Record Your Way to Fluent English

Image courtesy of Ernest Duffoo via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

All language learners want to be fluent speakers, sounding both smooth and natural. Unfortunately, getting there isn’t that easy. Fluency is not just about speaking a language without hesitation; organising your thoughts well and expressing ideas clearly are important too.

 

When you’re working towards achieving fluency, regular feedback is a must. So, if you want to find out how well-structured and clear what you are saying is, you may need a listener, such as a study partner or teacher, to give you feedback.

 

What many language learners don’t realise is using an audio recorder can be extremely handy here. In fact, if you have one (and most smart phones will have one), you may not need help from others to find areas for improvement.

So, what exactly can a recording device do for you?

 

 

1. Assess yourself

When you’re giving a talk or presentation, you don’t always listen critically to what you are saying, because all your efforts go into talking for as long as you can and keeping your head above water! So recording your talk and listening to it repeatedly can help identify any language problems you have.

If your ability to use English is limited, it may be hard to notice all the mistakes that you make, but you could still make out things such as: how frequently you pause, what type of vocabulary you fall down on, and so on.

Intermediate or advanced learners, on the other hand, can discover a lot more about their language ability through such an exercise.

 

2. Chart your progress

Quite often, we’re unsure as to how much our ability to speak a language has developed over a particular period of time. Listening to different recordings of ourselves that are made weeks or months apart can tell us just how much progress has been made in that time. It can really spur you on to work even harder on your language fluency and make a step up.

So, put that recording feature on your mobile phone to good use, and start developing your speaking skills.

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