4:18 pm

Oprah Winfrey Quote: How To Sound Like A Native Speaker of English.

Oprah Winfrey is one of the most influential and popular celebrities in the whole world. You as an English learner, especially ladies, would learn so much about native-like English by modeling your English to Oprah Winfrey's English. Just like we did with Steve Jobs, we will look at a quote from Oprah Winfrey on her very last TV show and touch on the 7 keys to native-like English (mainly American). This time, and in order to avoid confusion, I grouped the 7 keys into 2 main categories: Phonemes and Intonation. The phonemes category contain the vowels, consonants, the schwa sound, the pronunciation of the letter [t] and the features of connected speech (word linking). While the intonation category deals with word stress, sentence stress, rhythm and voice pitch. You can always use the hyperlinks to learn more about every key. Oprah Winfrey's quote is perfect for intonation. I strongly recommend that you play the audio file over and over while looking at my instructions carefully. Although Oprah Winfrey's quote is somewhat short, you will learn a great deal about what to do with your voice to sound better in English. Let's begin shall we!

This is what I was called to do, we are all called, everybody has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it. Oprah Winfrey

The Phonemes

As I already mentioned, the phonemes represent 5 keys to native-like English: Consonants, vowels, the schwa sounds, the [t] pronunciation and connected speech. All of these 5 keys are illustrated (shown) in the image below in a comparison between the natural spoken English and unnatural English (by unnatural, I mean when sounds are pronounced in isolation or at low speed (classroom English for example). Please note that the consonants are in black, the vowels in red, the schwa sound is also red but highlighted in yellow (I also highlighted those sounds that are replaced by the schwa sound in natural English as Oprah Winfrey pronounced them to help you find them), the [t]'s in green and the connected sounds are underlined and numbered (please follow the explanation below).

A-Consonants & Vowels

Ms.Opra Winfrey Quote
Oprah Winfrey: the Phonemes in natural English

B-The Schwa Sound

Looking at the image above, and particularly at the highlighted vowels, what do you notice? Take a moment and come back for a read. Done? Okay, let's see. The vowels we could replace with a schwa sound were mostly/all in "function words". Now what are function words? Function words are grammar words such as auxiliary verbs [be] [have] etc, articles, [a] [an] etc, conjunctions [and] [but] [if] etc. Please note that I have not listed the words that originally contain a schwa sound, but only the words whose vowels are reduced to schwa sound in the natural spoken English. I think you've got the point. The "function" words in the text above whose vowels could be reduced to a schwa sound were:
1-Verb [be]: [is] and [are]
2-Article(s): [a]
3-Prepositions: [in] and [of]
5-Infinitive: [to].
PS: The [was] in the first sentence of the quote was reduced to /ʌ/, not a schwa sound, though the difference between the two is, in many situations, for many native speakers, almost indistinguishable (hard for you to hear a difference).

C-The [t] pronunciation

As I have mentioned several times on this website, it is very important to understand how the letter [t] pronunciation works and how it changes based on the sounds before and after it. In the quote above, you'll see roughly 3 different ways of pronouncing [t].

1-Unaspirated /t/:

Typically at the end of the word when followed by most consonants. I'm going to refer to this /t/ as standard, which is why I did not highlight it in green as I thought it hadn't undergone any changes. For example, in the first few words of the quote, Ms. Winfrey says [what I]. Now if Ms. Winfrey hadn't chosen to stress each word separately, the [t] in [what] would be a "tap" with this IPA /t̬/. In such situations, the /t/ is pronounced as it is in the dictionary, hence the term "standard".

2-The "tapped" /t̬/:

Typically between two vowels but also sometimes between /r/ and vowels. In this quote, you can see the tapped /t̬/ in [that is] and [get about].

3-The "glottalized" ʔ:

That is not a question mark, it's the "glottal t" IPA. It's used as an alternative to the standard /t/ mentioned above by many native speakers especially by some British, Irish and Scottish speakers, but also by Americans, Canadians and Australians. Usually, in American, Canadian and Australian English, the [t] is glottalized before voiced or voiceless [th], stop consonants (such as /k/ /g/ /p/ /b/ etc) and /r/ /l/ /m/ and /n/. In the quote above, you can see the glottal /ʔ/ only occurring before [th] in [what the] and [about the]. Ironically, the glottal [t] before the voiced [th] happens naturally as the speaker does not find it practical to pronounce the standard /t/ and still place the tip between the teeth for [th]. What happens is the speaker places the tip between the teeth and bites gently before releasing [th]. That results in a glottal stop (or something that sounds like the glottal stop).

D-Connected speech

Let's take a look at numbers 1-12 and see why and how the sounds got connected in each case.
1-[called to]: The [d] got omitted (deleted) before [t] in [to]. Why? Because /d/ and /t/ are basically very identical consonants (in terms of how we use our mouth muscles to pronounce them) with one difference. Voicing. Our throat vibrates for /d/ but it doesn't for /t/. It's not practical to voice and de-voice 2 consonants one after the other, so /d/ gets SWALLOWED by /t/, so to speak, it assimilates into it, becomes part of it, so you do not hear it, instead you will hear a slightly stronger /t/.
2-4-5-7-8-9-11-12-Connecting a consonant to a vowel: That is the most common pattern in connected speech. That will SERIOUSLY TRANSFORM your English if you master it. Take a second look at the image below and concentrate on these numbers and you will see that the last sound (not letter) of the first word LINKS with the first sound of the next. Numbers 7 and 8 are a good example, [that is in], the [t] links with the [i] and [s] links with [i]. For second language learners, that may not sound like English when spoken fast.
3-[your real]: Here you have two identical consonants, you have two /r/s. They join each other to form one slightly longer /r.
6-10-[what that] and [about the]: We have already discussed this in the [t] pronunciation section. Please review.


Intonation is quite complex, hence controversial. When researching or learning about intonation, you will hear of the following terms: tone, stress, word stress, syllable stress, sentence stress, prosody, added stress, extra stress, rhythm, melody, music, pitch and so many others. STOP! If none of this makes sense to you, which is probably the case, CLICK HERE, and come back after you read about intonation. Otherwise, stick around and take a look at the image below.

Ms.Opra Winfrey Quote
Oprah Winfrey: Intonation

Okay then. So what are we looking at? What can you see? Here's what you can see.
1-You can see small red circles.
2-You can see big red rings.
3-You can see red lines, some are higher or lower than others.
4-You can see that those red lines are sometimes directed upwards and others downwards, and sometimes, a mix of upward and downward movements.

A-Word stress & Sentence stress:

That is what the small red circles are for. Each one of these small red circles represents the main vowel of the word the speaker chose to stress in the sentence.

B-Added stress/Pitch height:

That is what the big red rings are for. Each one of these big red rings means that the speaker chose this particular vowel in that particular word to emphasize more than the other words. It also means that the speaker wanted this word to stand out and attract more attention from the listener(s) either by raising or lowering the voice pitch. CAREFUL. Pitch is not just volume, despite the fact that they are affected by each other.

C-Pitch movement:

That is what the upward and downward line movements are for. That contributes immensely to tone, melody, music and other terms you might hear.

Oprah Winfrey quote is amazing and obviously a good example to look at the features of native-like English but if you are still a bit unsure and you want more, then don't stop at Oprah Winfrey, why don't you take look at Anthony Robbin!

Oprah Winfrey to Anthony Robbins