How to Say ‘No’ – The Most Difficult Word in English

March 17, 2010

So, what IS the most difficult word in English? Some long scientific name? Something emotional like ‘love ‘ or  ‘sorry’? Something with a complex mix of consonants all together?

In everyday terms, I’d say the most difficult word is “No.”

Why? Well, think about it.  Your grandmother has given you  another pair of socks for your birthday. When she asks ‘Do you like them?’ what are you going to say??

Your boss has asked you to stay late yet again to finish a project. You already have a full in – tray and are becoming more and more stressed at your workload. What are you going to say?

Your friend asks you to do him a favour. He’s helped you out before (and reminds you of this when he asks). What are you going to say?

Psychologically, we often find it difficult to say no.  We don’t want to upset Granny (I’d agree with that one!) ; we don’t want the boss to overlook us on that promotion or to think that we’re not a ‘team player’;  we don’t want to lose our friend or become unpopular.

However, learning to say ‘No’ in an assertive and non confrontational way can have BIG advantages…not least to your stress levels.

First, be careful of your tone of voice.  You don’t want to sound as though you’re starting an argument before you even say anything.

Secondly, USE THE WORD NO.  It sounds so obvious, but most of us would rather ramble on and say something like “well, it’s going to be a bit difficult for me because I’ve got this other project to finish and Bill said that he wanted me to attend his meeting this afternoon and I’ve got to leave on time today because…….”  rather than say, quietly but assertively “No, I’m afraid I can’t do that”.

If you say ‘No’, the other person will probable ask ‘why not?!’  Their tone of voice might even indicate that they are not happy that you’ve said no! However, listen to the content of the question and not the tone…..and answer the question, for example

 “I’m already working on a  priority project, and if I undertake this task, I’ll miss the deadline” 

Be prepared to negotiate: if your boss wants the extra work done by 5 pm tonight, but you reckon that you could get it done by 5 pm tomorrow (and that really is the best you can do without having to work till 10 pm) then say so.  5 pm tomorrow might be OK after all.

Alternatively, your boss might be prepared to re-arrange your workload to let you do this new piece of work.

The ‘repeat’ technique can work well….but be careful of your tone of voice, or you might sound rude. Bascially, think of your response “No,  I can’t do it for 5 pm today, but I could do it for 5 pm tomorrow” and use that phrase 2 or 3 times in the conversation.

Why? Because the first time he hears it, you boss will ignore it – he’s too busy trying to persaude you to do the extra work. The second time, he will begin to realise that you can’t do the work right away, and by the third time he’s actually thinking about how to work round this problem.

Saying ‘no’ is difficult because you have to be brave. If you’re usually someone who find themselves saying ‘yes’ when they really don’t want to, you’ll find it REALLY difficult to say ‘no’ at first.

It gets easier though. Sometimes, of course, you’ll end up having to do the extra work because your boss says so, but at the very least, you’ll have sent a message to your boss that you aren’t a ‘yes man’ who will agree to anything regardless of your stress levels. And who knows – you may even be able to get a little of your own time back.


Why pretend English grammar is scary?!

February 22, 2010

I’m really amazed at the number of websites providing information for people wanting to learn English. Many of them are really great.

I’ve also seen some which make me think “Why are they teaching THAT?!”  These are websites which go into so much detail on perfect grammar that they become pointless.

Of course you should always learn and use good grammar – particularly when writing – but some of the more complex points of grammar, are, to be honest, not very useful in everyday life. 

I’ve seen one site which explains the difference between “whoever and whomever”  and where to use “that” or where to use “which” instead.

If you’re writing a postgraduate academic paper, then your grammar and choice of words must be precise and correct down to this detail. For everyday real life, it really doesn’t matter….and I say that as someone with  an honours degree in English language and literature, who’s been working as a commuications skills trainer for many years!

There really seem to be some people out there trying to make a black art out of English grammar, creating the frightening  impression that unless you know your whomsoevers from your whereupons and never end a sentence with  a preposition, you’ll appear illiterate, and be speaking sub-standard English. 

It’s just not true.  Don’t be scared by English grammar: most native speakers often get it wrong – even the educated ones.  Focus on communicating and expressing the meaning of what you want to say as fully and clearly as possible. Grammar is there to help communicate…not to scare you into not saying anything in case you get it wrong.

Your English accent – to change or not to change?

February 19, 2010

Your accent gives away so much. As soon as you open your mouth and speak, even before your listener has heard the content of what you’re saying, they have formed an opinion about you as soon as they hear your voice.

Sometimes you can use this to your advantage…and sometimes it will work against you. The accent in the South West of England, where I grew up, is (at last) becoming a little more fashionable , thanks to some well known TV personalities who come from that area. Otherwise, this ‘country’ accent has long been the butt of jokes about farming, drinking cider, and generally not being too intelligent. Unfair? Yes. But that’s life, unfortunately.

A Scottish accent , however (a clear one) , is generally perceived as friendly and honest, and Scottish voiceovers are used in many commercials here in the UK.

My own received pronunciation English accent can be useful in certain business contexts where a neutral accent is admired….but less so if I’m lost in an unfamiliar part of the city where a local accent would be more acceptable. It’s also useful when I’m working overseas, in that a neutral English accent is easy for speakers of English as a second language to understand.

With many call centres located in Asia and the Far East, accents on the telephone can be VERY important in engaging potential cusomters in the UK and other native English speaking countries.

So can you and should you change your accent? I think there are arguments for and against. First, your accent is very much part of you – you learnt it from your parents, your community, and those around you, and no one should ever feel that they have to disguise their roots to get ahead. Having said that, I’ve worked with companies and with people who would not have taken me so seriously if I’d had a strong West Country accent. A sad fact, but true.

Where people might consider changing their accent is where it’s so strong that speakers from other areas find it difficult to understand.  In the interests of developing good communication skills – an essential in life – in these cases it would be useful to change some speaking habits – watching pronunciation and not using local slang will go a long way to help.

A strong accent can often affect the confidence of the speaker: they can hear that they don’t sound like others around them, perhaps they have received criticism, or perhaps they feel that people aren’t really listening to the content of what they say. This can be particularly true for speakers of English as a second language.

Anyone wanting to reduce or neutralise their accent should look at the underlying reasons for it – WHY do they want to do this: to be better understood in a global marketplace? To develop their confidence? To perhaps disguise humble beginnings and feel accepted? Know WHY you want to change your accent can help you to understand HOW to change, and WHAT to do.

A second consideration is what you need to do in order to reduce your accent, or learn a new one.  Speakers of Hindi, for example, produce sounds in a different way and in a different part of the mouth to native speakers of French…whose mouth positions differ from speakers of British English. Accent reduction is as much about knowing these differences and re-educating your mouth to make new sounds, as about listening to and copying native speakers.

It’s also worth considering that ‘accent’ isn’t just about pronouncing sounds in the right way – it’s about the tone and flow of the language, the choice of vocabulary, and to an extent about cultural understanding.

None of this is difficult – it just takes a bit of thought and guidance. The keys things are to know WHY you want to reduce your accent (you might decide that your’e happy with the one you’ve got!), WHAT you need to do in order to make a change…and HOW you’ll go about it.


Confident English is easier than you think….

February 8, 2010

What exactly is CONFIDENT English?  The answer lies more with the person and his or her attitude than with their ability in English.

Imagine a child just starting to learn English, bravely asking the questions “What is your name? What are you doing?”    It might be all the English they know. They might not understand the reply they get… BUT they bravely put their little knowledge to good use.

They will get a positive response because of the WAY in which they have spoken.

Here lies a lesson for anyone learning Enlgish…or any second language.  Be brave. Don’t be afraid to speak out, and learn from mistakes.

Whatever the standard of your English, a BRAVE speaker, is a CONFIDENT speaker.

It’s much better to practice whatever you know whenever you can, than to know a great deal…but to say nothing.

4 key parts of a conversation

January 20, 2010

So, you’ve learned some English and are keen to test out your skills. How do you actually hold a conversation?

My forthcoming e-book  at contains a chapter on starting and maintaining a conversation in both a business and a social setting.  Here , though, are some basic rules of conversation.

It’s part of human nature that, when we are speaking with someone, we will want to tell them things most of the time.  This sounds obvious but it isn’t as obvious as it seems.

Do you know people who, when you try to speak to them always turn the conversation round so that they are talking about themselves or their experience??   This is a natural thing to do: we all view the world from our own point of view, and we all find ourselves interesting, and want to share our thoughts with others.

This can lead to poor conversation skills, though.

Basically, there are FOUR key parts to a conversation:





Most of us will be quite good at telling. Some might want to improve their vocabulary or their speaking voice, but this is often the easiest of the 4 parts to master.

Asking is the best way to find information out about other people. Again it sounds obvious, but many people won’t ask the other person for their opinions or information…they will be happy to tell them their own. ASKING people questions pulls them in to a conversation.

Thinking is important during a conversation. By this , I mean being able to focus on what the other person is saying and on what you want to say…what you REALLY want to say. I’m sure we have all been in a situation where we have become angry or upset with someone and have said something that we wish we hadn’t. THINK before you speak. This is also vital in complex conversations like negotiations, giving people feedback, motivating people and so on.  If you are holding a conversation in English and it’s not your first language, don’t worry about speaking it fast. Allow yourself time to think.

Listening is the most important part of a conversation. Of course, you will want to say something, but most people are not good listeners. Why? Well, because they…

…are thinking of what they will say next and not really listening to the speaker

….have ‘switched’ off, and are thinking about something else completely, and are not taking information in

….think they know what the speaker is going to say, so say it for them (and usually get it wrong)

…..listen for specific pieces of information and don’t listen to ALL of what the speaker is saying

…..make assumptions about the speaker. “He’s a typical student!” or “She’s a typical Italian!” or whatever it might be. Here, the listener is making a judgment about the speaker without really hearing them.

…..try to out-do the speaker. If the speaker’s child has won a school writing competition, YOUR child has just won a scholarship to …… If the speaker is going to France for holiday, YOU are going to the Caribbean.

REAL listening means being focused on the speaker. How will this help your conversation skills?

The other person will feel that you are really interested in them and their opinions, and they will WANT to continue talking to you. Listening will enable you to ask the right questions to that person. It will also enable you to say the right things, because you will understand them better.

If you find conversations difficult, think about these 4 parts. If one is out of balance, try to focus on it next time you’re talking to someone…and let me know what happens!

Things they don’t teach you in your English class…

January 18, 2010

If you hear a word or phrase in English that you don’t understand, let me know, and I’ll translate it and tell you when and where you should (or should not) use it!

Today’s phrase is “All talk and no trousers”. If someone is ‘all talk and no trousers’ it means that they might speak impressively about themselves or something else, but their actions don’t back this up.

For example “He says his team’s going to beat us at the cricket match, but he’s all talk and no trousers” would mean that the person might SAY that he’ll win, but you doubt that he has the skill to do so.

You probably wouldn’t say this directly to someone, as it wouldn’t be very polite!

What are they TALKING about?!

January 18, 2010

One thing that speakers of English as a second language will discover (speakers of ANY second language, in fact) is that there is a big difference between the language learned in the classroom, and the language spoken everyday in homes, shops, businesses and amongst friends and family.

This is because of several things:

Slang – we use words in everyday speech which are not taught in the classroom. The choice of these words will vary between individuals. I often say  ‘fab’ instead of ‘good’ or ‘great’. My son will say ‘cool!’ 

These slang words will also vary according to age group – teenagers and younger people use different slang words to adults (and sometimes even native speaking adults have trouble understanding them!)

Background:  the area that the person is from will also affect their choice of words.

Idioms: these are phrases and sayings that people will use which often do not translate. For example, a British person might say “It’s no good crying over spilt milk”  which means “there is no point getting upset about something which has already happened, because we can’t do anything about it”. The word ‘peckish’  means “slightly hungry – perhaps hungry enough for a small snack, but not hungry enough to eat a meal”. I’ll be starting a Blog strand on these very soon!

Accent: there are many different accents across the UK. My own accent is a neutral one (you can’t tell where in the country I am from). Different accents literally affect the vowel and consonant sounds that speakers are making, often making them difiicult to understand. I was at a friend’s wedding in the Midlands recently, and a young girl said in a strong Brimingham accent to my daughter (who has a Scottish accent) “I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t understand a word you’re saying!”

Speed of speech: native speakers will tend to speak the language faster than you.  Or, if you are not yet used to the patterns of everyday speech, they will speak faster than you can translate into your own language.

It can come as a shock, when you have learned English, to discover that you can’t understand what native speakers are saying. 

I found the same thing when I was learning French: in the classroom, I understood what was being said, and when I spoke French to my English friends, I understood. I was, in fact, being taught French my an English lady…who was of course teaching me to speak French with an English accent!

When I went to France, it was a different matter – I didn’t understand what ANYONE was saying when I first arrived.

The main thing for me at that time, and the main thing for speakers of English as a second language, is to LISTEN as closely as possible to native speakers as often as possible. News bulletins, movies, TV shows – anything will do – just to get used to hearing the everyday language spoken by native speakers. Be a little careful though – the language of TV shows and movies is dramatic, and might not be what people would actually say in ‘real life’. As a listening exercise, though, they are useful.

Keep a watch out on this blog for more information – I’m going to be developing YouTube clips and webcasts in the future, to demonstrate some of these things!

Annabelle B

Speaking Better English

January 13, 2010

Well well well. Here I am at my new blog, all about speaking English as a second language, and speaking it confidently and well. Pronouncing English vowels, pronouncing English consonants, spoken English grammar, how to correct common mistakes – I’ll be talking about them all.

Today’s top tip for learning to speak English really well (or any language for that matter) is to listen.  REALLY listen to how  a native speaker speaks. How are they forming the sounds in their mouths? How does their voice rise and fall as they speak? How quickly or slowly do they speak?

Learning to speak better English is about more than just learning vocabulary and grammar. It’s about listening.

Make sure you listen to the right things though: movies and TV shows might NOT be the type of English you want  to speak. I have a cousin who picked up some new vocabulary from a movie, and didn’t realise she had learned to swear!

Listening to a language is the only way to really learn it – and listening to a native speaker is always the best.  I speak French (badly) with an English accent. Why? Because my French teacher was an English woman. I speak better Cantonese because I learned that in Hong Kong, surrounded by native speakers.

SO, whatever stage of English you’ve reached, focus on LISTENING first, and you may be amazed what you learn.

Annabelle  B