Whaddaya Say? An interview with Nina Weinstein

After the summer break I’m back working on the blog, and would like to share an interview with teacher and author Nina Weinstein. While doing some research on reduced forms earlier this year, I came across the incredibly useful book “Whaddaya Say?”. I wrote a short review of the book and how I plan to use it as a resource in future Raising Language Awareness workshops.

Nina has an extensive background in teaching learners, training teachers, and writing textbooks and academic articles. I managed to get into contact with her and we had a friendly conversation over Skype in which I asked her some questions regarding her book, her website, and how she might approach working with native English speakers in a business environment. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

Matt: Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak with us today. You have written many books on language – with “Whaddaya Say?” leading the list. It’s a great resource for EFL teachers who would like to spend time focusing on reduced forms with their learners. First…. how common are reduced forms in speech?

Nina WeinsteinNina Weinstein: They’re very common! Let me give you an example from my research, which consisted of all highly educated people (with a master’s degree or above) speaking in an unscripted way. After analyzing seven hours of unscripted recordings, I discovered that the speakers were using reduced forms – that is using pronunciations like *wanna or *hafta - 82% of the time

You can find a summary of this research in the back of my book “Whaddaya Say?”, which is a listening and accent reduction book focused on the way native speakers really pronounce English – in particular, the seventy-five or so reduced forms of Enlgish (*wanna, *hafta, *gonna, *Whaddaya, etc). 

 First, to give you a clearer idea of how people reduced sounds in certain words or word groups, I divided the reduced forms into three different levels of reduction.

  • Level One –  no pronunciation change from the written language.
  • Level Two – there was one pronunciation change – like a vowel being reduced. An example of this would be “want to” becoming *want ta.
  • Level Three – had the most reduction – Example: “want to” changing to *wanna at a natural speed.

Here’s an example of another reduced form I measured:

  • Level One – “going to + verb”
  • Level Two – “going *ta + verb”
  • Level Three – “*gonna + verb”

You can find the exact numbers for each level on the last page of “Whaddya Say”, but the overall totals for seven hours of unscripted speech were:

  • Level One frequency – 3% of the time
  • Level Two frequency – 15% of the time
  • Level Three frequency – 82% of the time

Based on my research a reduced form was used in natural speed English about every minute.

Matt: Do you think that native speakers realize the challenges they present when speaking internationally?

Nina: I’ve been working within Toyota for 14 years, and the English speakers there who deal with the Japanese are very sensitive to their language. However, many speakers outside the company are totally unaware of the challenges they are presenting – they have no idea. They’re simply unaware of how to simplify, and what they should focus on if they were trying to become more tuned in.

Matt: Where do you think the business people within Toyota learned this sensitivity? Was it from experience or do you think that they participated in some focused training on the clarity of their language?

Nina: There are people in the company that have become more sensitive in both ways. Experience in working with non-native speakers clearly helps and can do wonders in making one more aware.

Matt: If you could run a workshop or training session on raising language awareness and sensitivity with native English speakers, what would you do?

Nina: The first thingwould be to make them aware of the reduced forms they are using. That’s the biggest change — from the written language learners know to the spoken language they’re less familiar with —  so it would be a key point to such training. I think there are a lot of preconceptions about reduced forms, and many native speakers may think that they don’t use them, but if I were to record them speaking for any length of time, I would prove that they do :-)

I don’t believe I would focus a lot on the “sentence blending” for native English speakers. One thing those years of experience in-company have taught me is that as a business English trainer, I have to sift things down to the most important aspects. These are business people and they’re there to do business – not to become linguists. They can’t focus on everything. I think the same would be true for the native speakers in a training session. We just need to give them the most important things. In terms of reduced forms, that would be the first 21 units of the book “Whaddaya Say?”. .. those are the most crucial.

You know, I had a workshop that I ran a few years ago with EFL teachers, and to start it off, I gave them a little activity. I presented them with a role-playing situation to run in partners or small groups, something like “One of you is an actress. Imagine that you are really desperate to make an appointment with man X. You need to ask him for his schedule and make an appointment with him.” Something along those lines – one can create any role-playing conversation that fits the group. Then came the important message “You can NOT use ANY reduced forms in your speech, BUT you have to make it sound natural.”

It was really funny because they all started laughing very quickly. They realized they couldn’t do it. Without reduced forms, it didn’t sound natural to them. If you take out the reduced forms, you take out the naturalness. An activity like that could be a good warm up… and get everyone thinking about what reduced forms are and how often they use them.

There are other things I might focus on, like on expressions of restatement or clarification. I do that a lot with my business English learners, and I believe everyone can benefit from those skills. I’d encourage the native speakers to use those clarification and restatement expressions without concern. To use them doesn’t mean there is anything wrong or a problem. It’s just something we all should do to make sure we’ve received the message clearly. There are so many things that can cause confusion in communication…. connotation, body language (such as a listener sitting all boxed up or glancing at their watch)…. that it’s a reasonable thing to want to clarify.

Matt: What are some of the other components you work on with your English leaners? Knowing more about that can also help us native English speakers become more aware of what problems we may present in normal speech.

Nina: Well, one of the hardest things for English learners in the business world is participating in meetings. I’ve worked at companies like Toyota Motor Sales for a long time, and I focus a lot on helping non-native speakers understand people in business situations. When we speak one-to-one with somebody, there’s a lot of organization going on, even though we may not realize it. We’re turn taking, and so there are many expectations that the listener has that can help them with understanding… and that goes for any language.

Personally, when I teach, I use a listening program that I constructed after years of experience which begins with some main listening tools. They include looking at reduced forms but, I also highlight “sentence blending rules”. I talk about the music or rhythm of the language, and of what blending is, and how one can learn these “blending rules”. Native speakers automatically know them and non-native speakers can learn them.

Matt: There are many listening exercises in your book “Whaddaya Say?” in which learners compare the various reductions of speech. Have you ever been able to get authentic audio for in-company use?Whaddaya Say

Nina: Good question. It’s something that’s not easy to get but extremely valuable, as we all know that many business meetings can just become a free-for-all – without a clear order of turn-taking, fragments of language being thrown out, unscripted free-flowing dialogues, people speaking at the same time as each other, interruptions, and so on. There are really a lot of things that can happen.

The problem, of course, with getting authentic audio from business meetings is what company would want to have their internal conversation get out there? It’s private information, and even if it isn’t sensitive material, there’s a chance that somebody within that meeting may not like the way they are portrayed in the recording, even if only for a few seconds. So though it would be wonderful for training purposes, it’s hard to get.

Saying all that, I have been able to get some recordings. In one case, I got a group to record their business meeting and was able to use it for internal training only. It was on the most benign subject ever… :-) ….. It’s definitely not the most exciting material you’ve ever found….(If it were I would have never been able to record it.) but it’s authentic and it has many of those typical meeting moments that are useful for listening comprehension and training. I was only able to get that after establishing myself within the company as a trainer and a professional, and after enough trust had been built up with all parties involved.


Matt: Those types of recordings would be wonderful to use not only for employees learning English, but also in a raising awareness workshop. I find that authentic examples can be extremely powerful. You also have a new website for English learners – where almost all of the audio from “Whaddaya Say?” can be found. Can you tell us a little about it?

Nina: Yes that’s right. I started the website earlier this year, and it’s full of material that I’ve created over the years and that I continue to create. There are a lot of listening comprehension activities, but it’s actually a full English program, from the beginning. I have to say that it’s a lot of fun interacting with all sorts of English learners from around the world – and I interact with them as much as possible!

I’ve been in the field for so many years and want to share the best of what I’ve learned and perfected over that time. There are so many websites out there for learning English but it can be tricky knowing just where the material from those sites comes from. One can find online trainers with experience or… if a learner is unlucky…. find somebody with little or no language training experience at all. So I believe a strength of my site is that the learners have the chance to interact with a professional with loads of experience. There are more than 80 interactive lessons on there now with practice in vocabulary, conversation, workplace and business English, pop music, English lessons using television comedies… with more coming all the time. I’d like all of this  material and these ideas to exist somewhere besides the books I’ve written over the years… After all, I don’t want to take all of these ideas and refined lessons to the grave with me :-p I’d like them to be out there somewhere.

Regarding the audio – I offer the full digital audio for “Whaddaya Say” Second Edition at a special price for my website members only. I just put it on the site a few weeks ago. The digital audio isn’t available anywhere else (legally – My digital audio is complete and very high quality because it was done professionally.) I can offer it to my website members, as it’s part of the course I’m running, so if you’re interested in learning more about real English, come and check the website out:

Matt: That’s especially important for people interested in getting the audio from “Whaddaya Say?”, as when I ordered the book on Amazon earlier this year, I only had the option of ordering cassette tapes…. ;-o So anyone interested in getting that audio should take a close look at Nina’s website as one can find some very high quality digital audio there as a member. As a trainer, it’s a much more cost-effective way to get access to the material and you’ll have the extra bonus of being able to interact with Nina.

 Note - An asterisk (*) is used on reduced forms to show they’re appropriate for spoken English, but not written English.

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Tips for the Native English speaking presenter – An Interview with Ruben Hernandez

A few months ago I posted a review of a newly published book entitled Presenting Across Cultures” by Ruben Hernandez. With some luck and a few emails I managed to get into contact with the author… a friendly fellow Californian who currently lives in Germany. He has been a presentation trainer in Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa for over 20 years.  I recently asked him if he would be willing to answer a few questions for the blog about Native English speakers and international presentations. Who better to ask than a presentation trainer who works with international groups on a weekly basis? (Check out his bio at the bottom of this page… it’s quite interesting!)

Luckily for us all, he took a little bit of his own time and agreed to a quick interview about Native English speakers and communicating clearly when giving presentations.

So without further ado… here is the interview:

Matt: First, thanks for taking the time to share your expertise with us! :-) You work on improving communication and presentation skills with groups of participants from around the world. In your opinion, what challenges do Native English speakers present for the audience when giving presentations?

Ruben Hernandez

Ruben Hernandez: One challenge is to clean up their English of slang, idiomatic expressions or low frequency words for non-native English speakers (e.g. “we need to substantiate that claim” is more difficult than, “we need to see if what they claim is true”). This presents a few other parallel challenges.

First, many native-English speakers are not cognizant of what in their language repertoire is slang or idiomatic. They’ve never had to reflect on how they use their own language in ways that may be difficult for non-English speakers. So, knowing literally where to make these changes (which would include softening some strong regional accents) would help a great deal. A second challenge is to avoid going to the other extreme, of speaking too slowly, of enunciating to the point where one almost sounds intoxicated. It comes off as patronizing and may turn off the audience more than not making any adjustment at all.

     In the end, you need also to be able to read the subtle expressions in the faces and body language of your foreign audience. They will often try, through their expressions, to let you know they’re having difficulty. But you do need the antenna to read those faces.

Matt: Apart from intercultural differences, do you believe that Native Speakers need to be more aware of their language when speaking internationally?

Ruben: Yes. As mentioned above, “awareness” is the key. Without that you won’t be able to work on the next step of adjusting your language. Even then it may take some practice and numerous occasions before shifting to a clear level of international English. 

Matt: If you could give Native English speakers a few tips about their language before they stepped up in front of a group or before they took part in an international meeting, what would they be?

Presenting Across Cultures

Ruben: There’s nothing like practicing under realistic conditions. If you can speak to non-native speakers (recent arrivals) who have a pretty good level of fluency in English but have not yet learned to speak native-like, then that would help. I used to teach a mixed international group of ESL students for about 6 months at Santa Monica College many years ago. It was for my teaching practicum while working on my Master’s in Education. Just in the first few encounters I could see I needed to adjust my language considerably. In time, it became easy. Later, when I moved to Europe people told me that I was easier to understand than most native-English speakers. 

Matt: You currently run presentation seminars through the “International Presentation Academy” near to Munich. Do you ever have seminar groups that are entirely made up of Native English speakers? 

Ruben: That is seldom the case here in Germany. Most of the group composition is either entirely German or a mix of German and internationals. I do have clients in the UK, Ireland and the U.S. but they are usually speaking to other native-English speakers. 

Matt: Do you find Native English speakers resistant to advice about speaking “clearly” internationally?

Ruben: I wouldn’t say resistant. There are cases where they agree with the need to “speak clearly”, but sometimes are not able to do so straight away. It’s a skill…and it simply needs time to hone that skill. 

Matt: Finally – you’re an expert on presentation skills… if there is one thing a Native English speaking businessperson should remember before taking the microphone in front of an international audience, what would it be?

Ruben: For native-speakers it would be the advice given above in the first question. I would also add, for non-native English speakers as well, to get away from using text slides. This is the one biggest problem with presentations I can think of.  This may seem counter-intuitive, especially when presenting to non-native English speakers who can read better than they speak, but text slides will most likely sabotage your presentation for them as well.

     It forces the audience into 3 different cognitive processing speeds (watching, listening and reading) which the mind simply cannot do. Audience members simply try to concentrate on only one key task at a time (listening or reading).  But they don’t do the remaining chosen task very effectively either, because of the distraction the “eliminated” task still presents by simply being their (the brightly projected text or the background noise of someone speaking). In the end, overall comprehension is severely diminished. Diagrams, graphs and pictures, however, are universally understood around the world and fairly easy for everyone to process. Reading and comprehending fragmented bits of a presentation in a time-frame determined by the speaker, is not easy – even for native speakers.

Matt: Thanks for your time and for sharing your thoughts!

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Ruben Hernandez (American) has been a presentation trainer in Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa for over 20 years. He is also an experienced speaker and speech writer. His focus has been on creating simple but effective methods to train others in the skill of making clear and powerful presentations –which led to the development of the Intensive Iterative Method. A parallel focus of his has been in teaching others how to adapt their presentations to different cultures, and their listening expectations, around the world. Ruben’s experience also includes work in the theatre – as a stage director, and in radio – as a writer and announcer. A graduate of UCLA, he holds an M.A. in Education and an MBA from the OUBS in England. Here is a link to the International Presentation Academy, where you can find more about the various seminars he and his team run.

YouTube Video by Ruben Hernandez – The Sad Decline of Presentations

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