Improve Your Spoken English as an International MBA Student

Christina Ball

Christina Ball - B-Speak! English

Christina Ball is an mba.com Featured contributor and the Director of B-Speak! English

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For international students who are focusing on choosing the right MBA program and navigating the application and visa process, it’s easy to overlook your preparation for another important part of the student experience: your spoken English language skills.

While you may have achieved the TOEFL or IELTS score that you need to be a competitive candidate, you may still need to improve your spoken English to get the most out of your international student experience and ensure you can express yourself with clarity and confidence with your classmates, professors, and potential employers.

B-Speak! English is here to help! Here are our five tips for improving your spoken English in advance of starting business school.

1. Assess your spoken English skills

What are your unique strengths and weaknesses? Which situations do you find most challenging or stressful? Which communicative challenges are unique to you as an individual and which challenges might be related to your native language and background? Are you effective at expressing your ideas and challenging other people’s ideas in a group setting?

Before you can begin to elevate and improve your spoken English skills, it's important to know where you stand today. At B-Speak English, we provide each student with a “English Language Profile” (ELP), a thorough assessment. But on your own, you can do a quick self-assessment by asking these questions:

  • Are you confident that your English vocabulary and business vocabulary are adequate for your academic path and career?
  • Are you confident giving presentations as a public speaker?
  • Do you feel comfortable speaking in informal social situations?
  • Do you understand almost everything, even when people are speaking quickly?
  • Are you able to identify and correct your own grammar mistakes?
  • Is your pronunciation clear so that your listener easily understands you?

If you are able to answer “yes” to these questions, congratulations! However, it’s quite possible that you, like many of our clients, still need to polish and refine some aspects of your English.

Read on to learn more about the areas we typically address with our MBA students in their live coaching sessions.

2. Learn the “music” of English

Contrary to what a lot of English language learners believe, mispronouncing a specific sound (such as “th” or “v”) is likely not the reason your English is being misunderstood by your listeners. In fact, research has shown that when it comes to being comprehensible, the most important aspects of spoken English are more “big picture” ones: sentence stress, intonation, linking, and word stress.

These aspects make up what we call the “music” of English.

Sentence stress, also called rhythm, is the way that native English speakers emphasize certain words while quickly passing others by. Understanding how sentence stress works in English will help you not only be more comprehensible when you speak but will also go a long way toward helping you understand natural speech by native speakers.

Words called content words—which include nouns, main verbs, adjectives, most adverbs and negatives—are stressed. They are pronounced louder and last longer.

On the other hand, function words—which include auxiliary verbs, articles, prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and determiners—are unstressed. They are pronounced more quietly and quicker.

These patterns contribute to the “music” of English. In general, the content words, which communicate the actual meaning or important information in a sentence, receive stress, while the function words, which simply add structure or grammar, are often left unstressed.

For example, in the following sentence, the stressed words are capitalized:

  • We are MEETING on the FIRST of the MONTH to PLAN what to DO with the EXTRA FUNDS.

Other areas of pronunciation that may need work in your speech are intonation—the way your voice rises and falls within certain phrases, and how that conveys your meaning or attitude about what you’re saying. Linking sounds, or “connected speech,” refers to the way that the ends of words are connected to the beginnings of others. And word stress means which syllable in a word receives stress and which ones get no stress.

There are rules and patterns for all of this, and spending some time learning about and practicing them will greatly improve your comprehensibility when you speak English. If you feel you have problems with your pronunciation, it’s advisable to work with a trained language coach who can give you feedback.

3. Master the art of small talk

Small talk is an important skill to master for your MBA program and beyond. But for many international students, making American-style small talk is challenging. They may understand that some topics should be avoided (politics, religion, money) and that others are safe (weather, common interests), but still find it difficult to initiate and sustain a conversation.

Our B-Speak! English coaches engage their students in frequent role plays or mock scenarios, putting our top tips into practice such that they become natural and engrained in your spoken English without you even needing to think about.

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4. Improve your vocabulary and listening skills with podcasts

One of the hallmarks of B-Speak coaching for MBA students is the way our coaches work with students on the presentation and classroom discussion skills.

We also encourage students to set aside time each day for listening to podcasts. The wonderful thing about podcasts is that listening—like speaking—is a skill that can only improve with lots of practice! Simply listening, without the visual cues we often rely on to help us understand what someone is saying and meaning, is a lot harder.

The great thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them in the car, while jogging, hiking, cooking, brushing your teeth or walking the dog. (Same goes for audio books). Also, you can adjust the speed as needed, starting slow and speeding up as you get more comfortable. Many also have transcripts so you can read as you listen.

5. Learn from your mistakes

One thing is certain when you are learning and speaking a second language—you will make mistakes! You may even make the same ones repeatedly, and that’s okay. Mistakes, particularly in language learning, offer us excellent opportunities to learn and grow.

The next time your teacher corrects you or a friend suggests a different way of saying something, make a mental note or, even better, write it down! You can even use the notes app in your phone, or text or email it to yourself. Don’t waste this valuable opportunity and simply correct yourself in the moment and continue speaking. Instead, take just a few seconds to write down what you said and the corrected language. If you can get an explanation as to why you were wrong, this may also be helpful. Whether you write down the explanation is your choice. Take a few minutes every couple of days to review your notes.

When you reframe your view of mistakes from something to be avoided into something to be acknowledged and used for a clear purpose, you take control of your language-learning journey and ensure that those mistakes will not go to waste. If you’re going to make them, you may as well make the most of them!

Improve your spoken English with time and intentional practice

With time, instruction, and intentional practice, you can absolutely improve your spoken English. Use the five tips outlined above as your blueprint for success. With your new spoken English skills and your MBA education, there’s no telling how far you’ll go in your career!

Christina Ball

Christina Ball - B-Speak! English

Christina Ball is an mba.com Featured contributor and the Director of B-Speak! English.

B-Speak! English offers individual online English coaching for graduate students and professionals. Originally created for international students at the Darden School of Business in 2012, B-Speak! now partners with numerous U.S. business schools to help prepare their students for the communicative challenges of the MBA classroom and the job market beyond. B-Speak! works with students at any stage of their MBA journey. 

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