Katerina Belik harnesses the power of spoken words

Rice lecturer launched program to improve English and pronunciation for non-native speakers like herself.

Katerina Belik

Katerina Belik chooses her words carefully and is fully mindful about how they are pronounced in English, which is not her native language.

“Pronunciation in a second/foreign language is very important,” she says. “Not many realize that pronunciation is the first thing others notice when we speak. If they hear an accent, they unconsciously judge our knowledge of English based on how we sound… Even if we have nearly perfect grammar, impressive vocabulary, and almost impeccable spelling skills, all are diminished by unclear pronunciation or a heavy accent.”

Belik completed her Ph.D. in psycholinguistics at Kuban State University in Russia. Her focus on the psychological aspects of language led to successful results with ESL students, prompting job offers in other areas of communication from a variety of institutions — including Rice University’s Program for Writing and Communication (PWC). As a PWC Lecturer, Belik teaches courses and workshops in both written and oral communication in which pronunciation is one of her areas of expertise.

“Have you ever taken a course or participated in a lecture when it is challenging to fully understand the speaker? It is frustrating for everyone when hard-working, talented instructors and students are not able to deliver their message well because of unclear speech and/or confusing emphasis. Unfortunately, pronunciation remains to be the most ignored area in teaching a second language. It’s why I do what I do.”

Last fall at the request of Tracy Volz, the Director of the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication Program, Belik launched a pilot program for students who wanted to have an immediate improvement in their spoken English. The Intensive Oral Communication Program (IOCP) with an Accent Reduction Component was offered as a supplemental resource for students in Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering. The 8-week trial consisted of group lectures, individualized software-based training, and weekly one-on-one coaching. The IOCP proved so popular that the spring enrollment for the program had a waiting list.

Belik said, “I found myself in this unique position of combining my degree in psycholinguistics with my personal experience of being an ESL learner, ESL teacher, an immigrant with its full spectrum of cultural adjustment as well as an entrepreneur and a business leader. For my students, I am a language consultant, a speech therapist, and sometimes I am a life coach.”

“In my weekly one-on-one coaching sessions, I listen to my students’ speech, take notes of their phonetic challenges, and then we work together on addressing them. Zoom format is very handy as I see their faces better, watch their speech organ movements closer – they see how I articulate sounds and then compare themselves to me. I correct their articulation, explain the intensity of airflow, adjust duration of sounds, give feedback, etc. You will be surprised to know, but we employ muscles of our speech organs when we speak. Those muscles work according to habits, either established by our native language or by our “learned” habits in speaking a second language.

“Learning a second language has a lot of psychological aspects,” said Belik.  “Most Rice students are extremely demanding to themselves wishing to achieve perfection in everything. Having an international student to say, “My English is good,” is a rare exception. Most students say, “My English is not good.” As a result, this limiting mindset hinders their performance and further development. One of the main goals for me here is to boost their confidence. Once they know that they speak English well, they speak it. Once they speak it, they learn faster and better.”

Because she had previously coached Ph.D. students preparing for their first faculty job interviews and presentations, she knew the demand for a program like the IOCP would be high.

“When our international PhD students defend their dissertations and start looking at careers in academia, many face a tough realization that faculty roles mean teaching, and teaching means talking. It becomes very obvious that academic jobs are about more than research. On top of all their qualifications, Rice has equipped them, having effective communication skills and a clear spoken English often become a top priority.”

In addition to the satisfaction of helping graduate students succeed in their interviews, Belik also enjoys teaching undergraduates as their career plans begin to take shape. Surprisingly, her career advice has little to do with her communication background. She feels our current society’s focus on financial success has prompted us to live double lives – the side we show society (our parents, friends and colleagues) and the side we show to ourselves.

“Don’t delay the chance to live your dream life. Don’t set up your own roadblocks, like a specific degree or a certain number of years in a field. Instead of telling yourself, ’Maybe by the time I am 35, I’ll get the position I’ve been dreaming about,’ take steps to reach that dream job now,” says Belik to her freshmen students.

“When I ask my FWIS (First-year Writing Intensive Seminar) students about their majors at Rice and then about their dream jobs, the answers are often drastically different. This is very sad. It shows that something fundamental is broken in our society. Not being authentic, true to your talents and passions are not only a path to a miserable life, but it is also “a crime” to yourself and others. Think of a doctor, who comes to work for a paycheck. Or a teacher. So, I always tell my students, “Find something you love and are passionate about, and work for it NOW. This is life, not a rehearsal.”

Belik not only encourages her students to find and live their passions, but she also walks the walk. Her passions include elevating student communication skills, teaching the power of the spoken word, and most importantly, inspiring others to live happy and fulfilling lives.

“I am a very happy person- I do what I love, I teach others what I am passionate about. I love language, and I am in awe for it.  Language is naturally built within us, and it is easily accessible. We don’t value it because we didn’t pay for it. It is like sunshine. But it is a God-given magic indeed. The power of it is capable to heal us and kill us. We are either use it to our benefit or we fall its victim. Take propaganda, for example.

“In fact, in one of my FWIS courses — Word Magic— we look critically at how we build our lives with language and how words are a mini construct of our reality. “Inevitably, someone asks if there are any magical words. I turn to the class for suggestions of stories or myths regarding words of particular power. One of my favorite examples is ABRACADABRA. It is actually a hypothesis, a sentence based in ancient Aramaic, which means ‘What I say is what I create.’”

This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.