A few years ago, I had a Japanese student who was obsessed with David Beckham. For those of you who don’t know, David Beckham was a very good English footballer who became incredibly famous for his good looks as well as his ability to kick a ball. This student, Kazu was his name, dyed his hair so he was blond like Beckham. He styled his hair in the same way as Beckham. He even dressed like Beckham.
One day. he came into class and started talking with a high-pitched voice – like an 11 year-old girl. His natural voice, which I heard when he spoke Japanese, was quite deep and masculine. After the class, I asked him why he was speaking in this funny voice.
“Funny voice” he said, he looked disappointed, “I’m trying to talk like Beckham”.
Well, David Beckham has many positive qualities but he is not regarded as the possessor of a rich and resonant speaking voice. ‘Golden balls’ not ‘Golden Voice’.
However, I don’t think Kazu was wrong to look for a vocal role-model in English. His choice may have been a mistake but his learning strategy was, I think, quite a good one.
I often ask my learners who they would like to sound like in English.
I imagine most singers start by copying other singers they like. I imagine most artists start painting pictures which are similar to paintings by more famous artists. I imagine sportsmen and women and business people have role models which inspire them.
Find somebody with a clear and effective speaking voice and aspire to sound like them.
Having said that, we should choose realistic role models. If you are a woman with a high voice, you are unlikely to sound like James Earl Jones, the actor who voiced Darth Vader in the Star Wars film.
Your role model does not have to be a native speaker either. Most studies show that becoming fluent and proficient in a second language is possible but sounding like a native speaker is rare. Finding a fluent English speaker from your country might actually be a better – and more realistic – option for you.
But, why not do some research? Search for famous people with attractive voices and choose a vocal role model. See if you can find some audio or video recordings of them speaking English and try to copy them. Watch how they form the sounds in English and observe their body language. Record yourself speaking the same words and see how close you can come to sounding like them.
Analyse your vocal role model by focusing on the following aspects of their speech:
- how they stress words and which words they stress
- how they use strong and weak forms of common words (a/an/ of)
- how they use intonation to express emotion
- how they use intonation to finish one point, move to a new one, and ask questions
- which phrases (fixed and semi-fixed) they like to use
- what fillers (umm, right) they use between utterances
- when and why they vary the speed and volume of their speech
- how they interrupt and take turns
- how they reformulate, repeat, paraphrase etc.
- watch their facial expressions and how they form sounds and words
We can learn so much by observing effective speakers and discovering which techniques they use to communicate and express their thoughts, ideas and opinions. Also, make sure you watch how they interact with others and make them feel relaxed and comfortable.
Watch some TED Talks if you want to learn how to deliver speeches in English. There are some amazing public speakers you can learn from.
Who do you think has a great speaking voice that you could use as a vocal role model?