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Are less-than-stellar language skills preventing you from reaching your professional or academic or personal goals? [Show summary]
Christina Ball, Fulbright scholar and founder of Speak! Language Center and B-Speak! brings her love of cultures and languages to this episode. She describes the approach her programs take to making language learning enjoyable and effective for those looking to improve their English or learn a new language.
Language issues don’t need to keep you from reaching your dreams [Show notes]
Welcome to the 446th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, Accepted’s podcast. Thanks for joining me today. Before we dive into today’s interview, I want to share a free resource at Accepted that can benefit you if you are applying to graduate school. The challenge at the heart of admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target schools and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions will show you how to do both. Master this paradox and you are well on your way to acceptance. Download your free guide at accepted.com/fiso.
It gives me great pleasure to have on Admissions Straight Talk for the first time, Dr. Christina Ball. A Fulbright scholar, Dr. Ball earned her PhD in Italian language and Literature. In 2004, she founded Speak! Language Center to help people learn other languages. In 2012, she co-created B-Speak! English, a one-on-one coaching and educational service designed to help international graduate students, especially those applying to business school, and working professionals strengthen their speaking and writing skills in the English language. She’s also a writer and actress. Let’s hear her story and then cover how she can help you.
How did you get into the business of language instruction, both for Speak! and B-Speak!? [2:13]
It all started with my own passion for language and my interest in languages and cultures. Both sets of my grandparents were immigrants from Poland and Italy, so I grew up hearing lots of Italian and Polish in the household of my grandparents. I think it all started there. Then, in my own travels and studies, I just fell in love with Italian, French, Spanish, all of the literature, and meeting people and hearing their stories and learning about culture, so real love of culture. Speak! started in 2004. I have an academic background, so I was a college professor before starting my business. Many people in my family have businesses, so I think I definitely have the entrepreneurial gene.
I was teaching at Yale, Wake Forest and here where I live at University of Virginia, and I just started to notice not only my own desire to have a language center, but also people kept asking me, “I’m not a student at UVA. I’m an adult, and I’m going to Italy. How can I learn Italian?” I just saw there was a real need for a language center like you have all over Europe. You’ll find private businesses, which are language centers, teaching people all of the languages of the world, but it’s less common here in the US where we tend to rely on universities to teach us.
So in 2004, I started a one-room Italian school called Ecco. In Italian, ‘ecco’ means like ‘voila’, or ‘here it is’. I had about five adult students and me as the teacher and then over the years the demand for Spanish, French, and German caused us to change the name to Speak! Language Center in 2009 and to add online services. Now we teach 22 languages as well as obviously English, and we just added sign language. It’s very exciting.
We started B-Speak in 2012 through a local connection. We have the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business here. We started hearing from some of their own graduate students from different countries, such as China and Korea, and they came to us on their own saying “I see you do English now. Can you help me? I’m struggling in my class” or “I’m not getting any internship or job interviews. Can you help me?” Eventually we connected with the leaders at Darden and created the pilot program for B-Speak, or ‘Business Speak’. It also was initially called Be-Speak, which is like a bespoke suit, which means tailored but we changed it to B-Speak because it was easier to understand, but we still focus on customizing each course to the student’s native language and their challenges. It all started with Darden and we created our one-on-one coaching course and curriculum to support business students and helped them with all of the challenges they might face. Then we eventually opened it up to different business schools, businesses, and individuals.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the more common language-related challenges that international students face in the US? [6:46]
We all need a suit, but we all have different styles and body shapes, which is the beauty of language and humanity. There are some common challenges that all international clients that we work with face. I would say one is the lack of confidence in speaking English in different contexts. Another one is understanding native speakers of English and being understood themselves. And the third one is I would say American culture. If they haven’t lived here, worked here, studied here, it might be difficult to pick up the familiarity with American culture. Also our idioms, like “Are we on the same page?” or “Let’s cut to the chase.” Making small talk is another. Those are common ones.
As you mentioned, I do acting because I was very shy as a child and lacked the confidence as a public speaker, so acting really forces me to get on the stage and do what really frightens me. Since we tend to focus on adult education — adults meaning 18 and up — confidence is something we really work on. A lot of people think, “Oh, I’m terrible at learning languages. I was always bad at Spanish.” That’s the kind of mental attitude that we try to change through our approach, which is focused on sharing meaningful content and then talking about what interests the individual and what their passions are and what their motivation is.
How does B-Speak! help students meet the three challenges that you just laid out? [9:04]
Let’s talk about confidence first. That’s a huge one. When students sign up and they have to list their challenges on the registration form, that’s always one, I would say it’s listed by 90% of people. So, how do we help them build confidence? I would say first of all, by developing a sense of trust between the individual and their coach. All of our coaches are expert teachers and very nice people and very patient and warm. I always look for that in my coaches. What they create on Zoom in their video conferences is a safe space, so the student and their client feels like they are able to make mistakes in their English, in their word choice, and they won’t be criticized. They’ll be corrected and supported and taught how to do it. I think that trust relationship, all of our students say that that really helped them. Oftentimes, our teachers, the first person they meet before as they’re applying to business school or before they start a new job or business school. That’s their real confidant and their coach. That’s why I like the word coach, even though we’re all teachers, right? Then we also give them lots of practice. So practice your elevator pitch, practice your job interview, your admissions interview. That builds confidence. When you’re practicing, you’ve done it a hundred times in different ways, you’re going to be more confident.
Then the second point was being understood and understanding others. I think to be understood and to understand, you need to understand yourself, and in this case, what is your English like? What is your English language profile? Where are you strong? Where are your weaknesses? Is it pronunciation? Do you make a common grammar mistake constantly? Are you always using the present tense when you should say the past tense? Leaving off articles? These are the common ones that you hear and that we make and when we speak foreign languages. So really, we assess everyone’s English in the beginning, in the first session, and we document in an English language profile, we call it, all of these strengths and weaknesses which becomes our roadmap to teaching them so we help them learn to strengthen these weaker areas. We also assign students to listen to podcasts, TV shows, and Clubhouse, and all of those things to help them to understand American English.
The third one is American culture. That, again, goes with listening to podcasts, reading articles with your teacher, discussing them, practicing idioms, and practicing small talk. We always start with a little bit of small talk at every session just based on current events or what’s happening in the student’s life and what whatnot. That helps a lot.
READ: International Applicants, Don’t Sell Yourselves Short in Your Admissions Interviews >>
Do you work only with students coming to the US or also students who want to study in the US or the UK or Canada or some other English speaking country? Do you work with students who are abroad before they even enter the United States? [14:55]
We definitely focus on North American English, so it could be Canada or the US. We don’t pretend to be experts in British English. I’m not that good of an actor to teach. None of our teachers have UK experience or native speaking ability. There are so many great schools in the UK that do similar things to what we do and definitely in Canada and the US as well. Some of our teachers are from Canada, I’d say three or four of them, actually, and a lot of amazing Canadians, especially voice coaches for the accent bit that we’ve brought on board. That’s exciting. But I’d say anybody working in the US or coming to the US would be our focus.
We work with a lot of people now who are applying to business school and graduate school and we’re helping them strengthen their English before they begin or before they apply. They are overseas although some are already living in the US, but I’d say definitely the most are in Asia, Europe, Latin America. We also work with professionals. They could be working. We just finished with someone in the Middle East who was working for a US company so they were dealing on the phone with us clients and just wanted to improve their speaking skills and listening skills, and also writing, email writing, and all of that. So we work with anybody working or studying in the US or anyone planning to do that.
What advice would you have for someone who studied English abroad but didn’t really use it regularly and they want to come to the US or Canada to study? How can they ease their transition? [16:45]
Well, besides signing up for some B-Speak! coaching or some course with us, they could definitely just get back into listening, speaking, writing, reading in any ways that are possible for them. Nowadays with technology and the internet, obviously podcasts, you’ve got a world of listening right there on your phone, where there’s a podcast for any interest. Now we have Clubhouse where you can listen and come talk and practice.
I’d say find those resources and work on what interests you. Work on the field, that if you’re going to go into business, read more of those articles, watch Ted Talks, watch videos and all of that, and definitely try to get the conversation help with a one-on-one conversation partner from the country. I’m sure you can find somebody if not in your community, then definitely online. And just follow your interests. I think that’s one of the main motivations we find that really helps people stick with the learning. It’s just like, “What do you love to read? What do you love to listen to?” Just indulge in that first and you’re going to build your vocabulary naturally and your skills that way.
I noticed that B-Speak! also has advice on email etiquette in the US. What are some ways that email etiquette may differ in the US from other parts of the world? [18:21]
I think that’s a great question. Of course, now texting is even more common than emails, so a lot of the time with younger clients, we have to remind them that emails are not texts. It’s a little more formal, like a letter, remember letters? I think in many of the more formal cultures, we talk about cultural communication and there are low-context and high-context cultures.
Can you explain the difference between low-context and high-context cultures? [19:05]
Let’s say in a country like Japan where historically people have shared the same culture, language, and points of references, they don’t need to repeat everything after a meeting. There are lots of innuendo or kind of suggestive things. Whereas in the US where people tend to be from different cultures so we need to for example, after the meeting say, “This is what we discussed in the meeting. Point one, point two, point three.” and then I’m going to send an email to everyone repeating what we went over in the meeting. That’s an example of a low-context culture. A country like Japan is high context. A lot of stuff is just understood, a lot of meaning is understood. It doesn’t have to be stated literally. Low context, you don’t have a lot of things in common, so when you communicate with others, you tend to be very literal and say, “This is what we’re going to do.” We always teach our students that, especially if they are coming from Asia, that you might have to be more clear in your email. Why are you writing? What are you hoping to get out of this? Just state it very clearly. We can be a little bit more informal when we’re writing emails, and the greetings, and whatnot, and have a little humor. It doesn’t have to be too formal and dry. But again, so much depends on context. So, did you meet the person before? Have you met at a recruiting meeting? Is this coming out of the blue? Do you have someone in common put that in the subject line, that you were referred by a professor So-and-so, or met you at the coffee chat. You know?
There’s a great book called The Culture Map, which we love. This is a great book all about different ways people communicate in different cultures. It also relates to criticism, like how do you give people feedback? Here in the US, we tend to sugarcoat, so sometimes people really want constructive feedback, but they’ll just say all the good things. It’s just like at the end, put in a little, “But there’s one area where you could improve is this.” Other countries, like I think in the Netherlands, they’re famous for just telling it like it is. Or in France. I think the author of this book lives in France for a period and her son goes to school there. She’s like, “The teachers are always just saying what he does poorly.” You know, “Need to improve on this, their spelling or accent.” The child actually when he gets praised, it’s just like, “Oh, I did really well, Mama.” You know? And so, he actually learns to enjoy that. It’s not like you get a trophy for losing the basketball game.
I’ve noticed that certain cultures seem to be more loquacious than others. [22:30]
Definitely. Americans versus the Chinese clients that we work with are more quiet and they’re more quiet also in the business school classroom, the professors share with us, because it’s not as common to be like, “Me, me, me. This is my idea.” You know, “I’m going to raise my hand.” I think, especially in business school, there’s that kind of that salesy communication style that you want to get ahead and speak and that is definitely different from the educational approach where there’s more respect for the professor and your other classmates. We have to teach them that, no, the teachers want to hear your point of view. You have to share your opinion of that case or your grade will suffer. I’d say the case method schools definitely utilize B-Speak! the most.
What are some of the differences in the US and other places with small talk? [23:44]
I’d say in Asia, again, which is the most extremely different culturally from the US, the students always tell us that they never make small talk in a business context, only with their good friends and family. That’s why they always want to practice small talk with their coaches. They’re not sure of the register, they’re afraid to be too informal and friendly, they’re not sure of the topics. It seems strange for us that you’d have to practice what are the acceptable topics: the weather, current events, what are you doing today, what did you have for breakfast.
We go over what’s appropriate and what isn’t for networking and even for admissions interviews, because we work with so many admissions departments at business schools and they share their experiences and what they’re looking for in an interview with us so that we can help people get ready for those interviews. Often, the students are trying to kind of repeat their whole resume in the 20 minutes they have and it’s like, “No, they already have your resume. They’re trying to get a sense of how you are as a person. What’s your personality? How are you in the classroom? How will you fit in with the business and culture of the school?” So make small talk.
Would you say networking is an American thing or is it something that’s just done differently in different places? [26:18]
So we don’t teach networking, but we help students develop the comfort and the ease in their communication skills and style that will make networking easier. I think the schools that we work with have excellent career development, career offices, and help with that as well. We just support more in the English and American culture side.
Do you deal with accent reduction or have any tips for reduction? [27:41]
We definitely find that many of our clients and students say that people, their classmates and their professors or their colleagues, are having a hard time understanding them. I always do a free consultation on Zoom for B-Speak!. I can often tell, because I’ll be chatting with the individual, and it’s just like, “Could you repeat that?” I never judge but I’ll just write a note of the areas in which I had trouble understanding or the pace.
We find that a lot of people from India are fluent in English and are often more educated in English and bilingual, yet they speak at a very quick pace and with totally different intonations and rhythm so it makes it very hard for the American native ear to pick up the meaning. We definitely deal with accent softening and pronunciation. We have a special team of about five voice and speech experts. A lot of them trained actors and we pull them in for this special work that we do with our clients as needed.
Accents have to do with how you shape your mouth, right? [29:03]
Yeah, yeah, definitely. We also find that a lot has to do with listening. If you can’t hear specific sounds, you can’t make them yourself, which I’ve learned I’ve learned just as a language student, I have to hear the Italian or the Spanish in order to make the sound myself. Listen, repeat, listen, repeat. It’s not repeat, listen. A lot has to do with recognizing the sound in your ear before you can make it yourself. That’s the kind of work that our voice or accent coaches do.
I’d say our main B-Speak! coaches can probably do everything from the grammar and a little bit of pronunciation. But if someone comes to us and primarily wants to work on their public speaking and pronunciation and pace and intonation, then we have this team of voice and speech experts who also do public speaking. That could be anything from your elevator pitch, to your interview, to presentations. It involves all that public speaking, or acting if you will, technique that’s very useful.
What are some of the challenges that Americans face in learning to speak another language? [31:07]
I love this question. Of course it’s changing a lot, luckily, with all the influx of different cultures and language groups to our country, since the past 30 years in my adult lifetime. I would say it’s definitely not a cognitive challenge. We’re not any different in our ability or our anatomy or cognitive ability than Europeans. As you say, it’s more of a cultural thing, and the fact that we’ve historically been this monolingual American culture. Now we have the ability, you walk around the streets of New York or even go to the supermarket in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live, and I might hear three or four languages. Of course, I go up and ask them where they’re from, and try to practice if I speak it.
Even my small town is very diverse in terms of the language. We’re a refugee town, so we have the IRC here. In the next few months there are Afghans coming to resettle here, so a lot of Dari and Pashtun speakers in any case. I would say that the challenge is more that just historically we have been monolingual, and we haven’t had a chance to practice. Let’s say the Germans or the Dutch are notorious linguists for speaking English better than many Americans because they value language learning. They live in Europe, so if you want to go across the border, you’re going to have to speak Italian or French or Spanish. But in their schools, they really stressed, at least in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, learning multiple languages.
In the United States, we tend to just do it maybe in high school and college and that’s it, not as adult learners. I love getting a lot of our students who are in their 60s and 70s learning a language for the first time, or brushing up on a language that they studied in college. I just love that. A lot of people in healthcare and non-profit work tell us, “I want to be able to communicate with our clients.” Even here in Virginia, wherever they work they speak Spanish or Dari. That’s just the beauty of our melting pot culture that’s slowly helping us become multilingual, I think.
Also historically, as it’s coming to the light now with the Indigenous Native American population that were forced to learn English and stop, they were punished for speaking their tribal languages. I think also institutionally, our government has forced people to think only English is good. If you want to be American, speak English.
My mom was raised, of course, by her Italian immigrant parents speaking the dialect of Gaeta, which is between Rome and Naples in southern Italy. It has the cadence of the typical Italian immigrant but it wasn’t proper standard educated Italian. Regardless, my mom never spoke Italian to us. She didn’t want us to have a dialect, so we would hear our grandparents speaking it, but we didn’t really learn it. We were around it. But in college, I had to learn Italian as an adult in college, because my mom wanted us to be American. She was embarrassed speaking Italian. In fact, I married an Italian, and my husband’s Italian from Tuscany, which is where the standard Italian grew out of, writers like Dante, so it’s very proper Italian. When I got married, my mom was communicating with a lot of my husband’s family, my in-laws and was very embarrassed to speak her Italian dialect, so she’d cover her mouth. She was raised thinking English is good and if I want my family to be American, I’m not going to really speak Italian.
Hopefully that’s changing. It’s not changing educationally. We work with some children as well and the parents are often frustrated by the local schools in our area because so many of them minimize language education, especially in elementary school. If you don’t get into a bilingual Spanish-English program, which is very hard to get into, then the kids have to wait until late middle school or high school to start learning. That’s surprising to me. If I were younger, I would start some kind of language elementary school that’s all about learning languages and cultures.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [38:33]
Well, I loved all of your questions and the last one, especially where we could share some of our own personal upbringing. But I think there would be two things. One would be what language would I love to learn and why, and another one would be how is what we do at Speak! and B-Speak! different from Babbel and Duolingo learning programs.
Okay, great. Answer both of them, please. You’re making my job very easy. [39:11]
Well, I speak Italian, Spanish, and French. I would love to become more fluent in Spanish, first of all. I was just listening to a Clubhouse Spanish conversation before we got on. I’d like to develop more fluency in Spanish. I really want to learn Arabic. I find it’s a beautiful language and culture. I love the history and the poetry. There are just a lot of people who are resettling here from Syria and other countries and they are much malaligned in some areas, in some ways. I want to show them, even if I can just say some basic things to them when I meet them here in my town, I think it would be a nice gesture. So, Arabic would be the language I want to learn next.
For my second question, Babbel is a little bit more conversation focused. Those are apps and they’re great for supplementary practice. You can do Duolingo while you’re waiting in a waiting room before your doctor’s appointment or your COVID test. You might build vocabulary and your child will learn to say the colors, but you won’t actually learn how to speak the language. I could develop an app or something for Speak!, but I don’t really see the benefit of that. What we and other schools like us do that have human teachers teaching either small groups or one-on-one is we really teach you the language and we teach you how to converse. We incorporate your interests, your skills, your weaknesses, your goals into the process, and also incorporate lots of culture to make it interesting and relevant. It’s not just some colors you can learn on your phone and numbers. That has nothing to do with the culture and really the human aspect of language/ That’s what we really believe in.
You have individual tutoring, but you also have small group instruction? [41:54]
We focus on the one-on-one, but here in Charlottesville is the only place we do the groups. We also have customized online groups. Sometimes we’ll get a group from a business school that we’re working with and we can do a workshop for them. However, especially for the B-Speak!, we find that people are so different and they’re also shy to make mistakes. I talked about the circle of trust that we create in our sessions, and they won’t want to make mistakes in front of their colleagues or classmates. But we do have groups in Spanish, Italian, French, just here in Charlottesville at our center where I’m joining you from today.
Where can listeners find you and your courses and also learn more about, B-Speak! and Speak! Language Centers? [42:51]
I’ll make it easy for our listeners, speaklanguagecenter.com is where you can find information about all of our foreign language programs online, of course, and in person in Virginia. And bspeakenglish.com is our one-on-one English coaching program for professionals, grad or business school students, and applicants.
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