025 Speech Synthesis for the ESL Presenter

Flickr Image. Author: fatboyke (Luc)

Do you feel that speaking English is like driving your car on the left side of the road when you are used to driving it on the right? Is your spoken English bad because you are slowed down by  researchers from your own country who insist you speak to them in your own language? Do you want to slow down the aging process that is taking you downhill so that you can master English before your very own neurons tell you it’s too late? Does the road towards fluent spoken English seem endless and tortuous without a native English teacher by your side?Are you slowed down by the online dictionaries that speak one word when you want a full sentence? Can text-to-speech effectively replace a real English (or French) voice?

The ESL scientist who presents will definitely enjoy this podcast as it reveals the secrets of the incredible progress made in the naturalness in computer speech, as explained by one of its long time researcher and developer, Dr Kim Silverman of Apple Computer. But it does not stop there. Dr Silverman also explains how to use speech synthesis to improve the quality of your oral presentation. Don’t miss this podcast if you are an ESL scientist!

By Jean-Luc Lebrun

 

Presenters with Foreign Names

Lebrun is my last name. Actually, I have no prior name, so my last name is theoretically my first name, but in fact my first name is jean-Luc. Confused? Alright, let’s start again. Lebrun is my family name and Jean-Luc is my given name. The family name is not given, it is inherited:)

My name is easy to pronounce, at least I think so, my parents think so, and so do the 200 million French-speaking people, but you might find it difficult to pronounce. Our name is a people interface. It is like a door handle. It gives access to us. It is the opening move in the networking game. Cryptic, indecipherable names are intimidating, possibly repulsive. Some will avoid talking to you for fear of mispronouncing your name – a serious offence in their culture. How would you pronounce the Vietnamese last name “Phuc”? Look here.

So when your name appears on your title slide, make sure you also provide the easy-to-pronounce short form of your name in the language spoken during the conference. “Hi, my name is  Jean-Luc Lebrun, but you can call me John”.  “Watakushino namaiwa jean-luc Lebrun desu, jonto yondekudasai”. “Ni Hao, wode mingzi shi jean-luc Lebrun, danshi ni keyi jiao wo “Yue Han”. In Singapore, people from Chinese descent often adopt an English given name to make it easier for their non-Chinese speaking friends to address them, particularly when your first name is easily mispronounced.

Telling people how they can address you, will encourage them to ask questions during the Q&A since they know how to address you in a manner acceptable to you. Put the burden of making your name easy to pronounce ON YOU, not on the audience. It will reveal your social skills and your wish to be accessible to all. Here is a movie I produced on the topic of pronouncing names.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

007 Dealing with Accent

Do British or american scientist-presenters have the advantage over people for whom English is the second language (ESL)? How does one reduce the impact of one’s accent? How can native English speakers make things difficult for the rest of us not born with English DNA :)?

What can the scientist who presents learn from Churchill (Part 2)

Are you frightened to speak because you have an accent or a speech impediment? Consider Churchill’s problem, as described by his granddaughter Celia Sandys in the book “We shall not fail”.

“Churchill had to overcome a speech impediment that might have silenced many prospective public speakers.[…] Churchill spent countless hours trying to get his tongue around sentences featuring the dreaded letter s. […] Fortunately, he did not entirely succeed and the defect became his oral signature”

What struck me in that last sentence was the word fortunately. We think that our accent should be completely eradicated, but it the end, it reflects who we are, and testifies to our origins. I have a French accent and will always have it. It is not so strong that people can’t understand me. Sometimes, I even “turn it on” and slightly increase it because people find it charming.  Accent is good. It provides identity, and even charm. But if your accent is heavy, if it gets in the way of people understanding you, like Churchill, you have no choice but to practice and practice some more to lessen your accent. I often observe that researchers with a strong accent tend to speak their native language in their research lab, as well as watch TV programs and read newspapers in their native language. This prevents them from making rapid progress in their spoken English. Practice reshapes your mouth, lips, and jaws to make your foreign sounding English words sound English. Correcting an accent is done through speaking, and comparing your sounds with those of a native English speaker. Do not be fooled by the fact that your lab colleagues understand you. They have had months or years to get used to your accent. The audience you will face during your presentation will have had no time to get used to your accent.

“He began pacing about. Inspiration came and he began dictating, voice rising and falling, hands gesturing as if making the actual speech.”

Rehearsing your talk is never done silently in front of a computer screen. I witnessed ex-Apple Chairman, John Sculley, rehearse a talk in his Cupertino office. He was speaking aloud, gesturing, walking back in forth, stopping now and then only to press the spacebar of his Mac keyboard to go to the next slide. Words come to you in action. Speaking aloud with intonation and gestures helps you anchor your words to your body movements and convey your conviction and your passion. Rehearsing aloud, you create a path for the words to travel from your mind to your lips. Later, once the path is set, the same words will easily return and travel on the same path back to your lips.

By Jean-luc Lebrun