Let’s hear it for the great Australian speakers
September 1, 2014 – 12:15AM
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Speech is an invisible art in Australia. We pay homage to our great singers – Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Joan Sutherland – and laud successful singers such as Kylie Minogue and John Farnham, but we neglect to celebrate our great speakers. Yet speaking is as intrinsic to our culture as popular singing.
My nominations for Australia’s best speakers are Geoffrey Rush, Jack Thompson, Cate Blanchett, Jack Charles, George Donikian, Kamahl, Robyn Nevin, Richard Frankland, Jim Maxwell and Ellen Fanning.
Each of these professionals are superb speakers for different reasons. All share common virtues as masterful presenters of articulation clarity, personality projection, speech musicality, resonance and listen-ability.
There are, of course, also numerous “regular” Australians who speak superbly. A friend of mine, Noel Cooke, has beautiful speech skills despite leaving school at the age of 13 during the 1940s to work as an electrician. His limited formal education presented no obstacle to his pursuit of knowledge; he has become a captivating communicator. Noel is a self-educated gem from a shrinking treasure chest of wise Australian oracles. I hear Barry Jones when he speaks.
Another truth is that many from migrant families speak better English than the vast majority of Australians. Just listen to George Donikian, Kamahl, Mary Kostakidis, Waleed Aly, Jana Wendt, Penny Wong, Janice Peterson, Lex Marinos, Anton Enus and Mathias Cormann.
Why do many non-native English speakers develop better skills? Because they’ve travelled the hard yards of consciously thinking through each pronunciation; something Australian speakers rarely do.
Yet some Australians are deeply annoyed when foreigners speak English worse than they do. This was central to Joan Sutherland’s stated complaint about being served by Indians and Chinese in post offices. But rather than sneer at Asians, Africans and Europeans, we should look at ourselves.
There really is no excuse for many Australians to speak to a poor standard. A select number of students participate in public speaking, but most are inter-generational victims of an education system that hasn’t successfully trained communication skills and a culture that doesn’t want to. Yet the task of raising their speech and expression levels is minor compared to new migrants.
Migrants have the larger challenge of acclimatising to a foreign culture, learning the difficult and complex language of English, and training the articulator muscles to pronounce thousands of new words. Imagine suddenly having to learn Chinese or Sanskrit.
Those who do embark on improving their speech should not be embarrassed. In an age of superficial adjustments such as cosmetic surgery, teeth whitening, head shaving and beard growing, improving speech skills is far more substantial and confidence-building.
Ita Buttrose is a success story who has overcome a major flaw. She was as famous for her dominant lisp as for being editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly; but that’s no longer the case. Her lisp has diminished and, although it does still emerge, it no longer dominates and on many occasions it is completely gone.
Kerry Armstrong is a shining example of a TV star who has improved before our very eyes. When she began her television career as Channel 9’s weather presenter and an actor on Prisoner, she didn’t speak well. Her speech was characterised by laboured, heavy articulations and intense effort. But hard work with drama instructors and extensive experience in television, film and theatre resulted in her transforming into a highly skilled speaker. In fact, her current persona is unrecognisable compared to her former, and it’s hard to identify anyone else who has made such a leap. She is compelling evidence that significant development is possible for adults.
There is something profound to this. Modern advances in Australian speech have been overwhelmingly led by the arts and broadcasting.
The legendary Australian Lionel Logue brilliantly chose vocal exercises from theatre and applied them to improving the skills of people with various speech problems including, most famously, King George VI.
Doubters about the importance of communication skills may consider the following hypothetical but familiar scenario involving a doctor and patient, both of whom have poor communication skills. The doctor tells the patient confronting news but his manner is clinical, expression is clumsy and delivery is unclear. The patient fails to comprehend the information accurately and, already in a state of shock, lacks the confidence to phrase relevant questions. The consultation is a failure – because of poor communication skills.
Most people have some speech issues – perhaps a few “Achilles words” that repeatedly presents problems, a technical imbalance that sabotages sound, a wrongly pitched voice, or a flawed pattern of breathing. Yet most people can learn to speak well; all it takes is some carefully targeted hard work. It starts with aspiring to speak clearly and remembering to articulate every letter of every word.
Recent Australian history suggests too many of us are willing to accept, even celebrate, mediocre communication standards. It’s not good enough. We need a cultural movement to emerge that promotes the value of excellent Australian speaking.