What is intonation?
Imagine this: you’re at a party, you see an attractive partner across the room, and you muster up the courage to walk up and ask them: “Want to dance?”
They respond: “Sure?”
Now imagine that a second person caught your eye and you asked them the same question. Only this time, they respond: “Sure!”
Who would you rather dance with?
If you chose the second person, that’s because of intonation. They both said the same word, but the intonation of “Sure!” inspires a lot more confidence than that of “Sure?”.
So what is intonation, really?
Intonation, also referred to as “pitch” or “tone”, is the rise and fall of the voice we hear when someone speaks a language.
Why is training intonation important?
Most language learners never practice intonation, but that’s a huge miss.
Training intonation helps you communicate more clearly, connect better with native speakers, and learn languages faster.
There is a common misconception that you can classify languages as either “tonal” or “non-tonal”. But that is not the case.
Intonation is meaningful in all languages—it just has more of an influence in some languages than others.
In Spanish, like in English, using the wrong tone can result in a minor loss in communication.
If someone comes up to you and says “quieres bailar” in an inquisitive tone, it would mean “do you want to dance?”. But if they said the same words in a declarative tone, it would mean “you like to dance” and might feel kind of strange.
In Mandarin, however, changing the intonation changes the meaning of the word altogether.
There’s a well-known joke about a foreigner at a restaurant.
He means to ask the waitress for dumplings, or “shui jiao”.
But “shui jiao” can also mean ”sleep” when said with a different intonation.
So instead of asking for dumplings, he messes up the intonation and accidentally asks her to sleep with him. She immediately smacks him across the face.
And I don’t think he ever got the dumplings.
If you’re learning Mandarin and just want to get your dumplings, you’d better start practicing intonation now.
Connecting with native speakers
We relate more easily to people who sound like us.
Think about it—when a stranger comes up to you and speaks broken English with a thick accent, no matter how hard you try, it can be difficult to really connect with them.
But when you take the time to mimic the way native speakers sound, they start to look at you differently, and accept you as one of their own.
When I was traveling in Brazil, I practiced mimicking their Portuguese intonation and accent as much as possible. So I was able to fit in and make close friends much more easily than my friends who still spoke with a strong American accent.
More than once, someone made a joke about foreigners in front of me. When I would say “Hey—I’m foreigner!” they would respond “No you’re not, you’re one of us.”
Increasing learning speed
So how does training intonation help you learn languages faster?
First, you must understand that your brain has evolved to conserve energy by automating repeated behavior.
Take this guy who I saw on the street juggling a basketball, a tennis racket, and a bowling ball ALL while talking on the phone and doing a two-step.
He didn’t learn to do that all at once. He practiced each individual piece over and over until he barely had to think about it at all—and now it’s second nature.
When you first learn to play the piano, for example, it can take all of your energy and focus just to get your fingers in the right spots.
But after much practice, playing the keys becomes automated, and you can start to focus on other things—like learning to sing along to the music.
When you’re first learning a language, most of your mental energy goes to hearing and physically processing the new sounds. So you don’t have much bandwidth to focus on learning the meaning of the sounds.
But once you train intonation, physically processing those sounds becomes automated, and you have more capacity to focus on learning the meaning of words.
So training intonation actually frees up space for your brain to learn the language faster. And isn’t that the goal?
How to Train Intonation
I like to think of training intonation like training posture. At first you don’t think much about it. But when someone points it out, you develop an awareness of it. It’s that “a-ha” moment when someone mentions posture and then everyone in the room suddenly sits up straight. Then over time, if you train it, it becomes something you do automatically.
I suggest training intonation with the three exercises below:
EXERCISE 1: Focused Listening
The first exercise will help you develop an awareness of intonation by listening to people speaking and paying close attention to the rise and fall of their voices. I like to trace the intonation patterns with my finger.
STEP 1: Find an audio file of people speaking your target language naturally
Rhinospike.com allows you to download audio of native speakers. It’s best to use real, non-musical speech.
Here are some examples (just focus on the intonation and note the differences). Can you pick out which sentences express questions, declarations, surprise, or doubt?
STEP 2: Import the audio file into Audacity
Audacity is a free audio editing program. Think of it like Microsoft Word for sound, a place where you can upload and edit audio files.
STEP 3: Slow down the recording with the “Change Tempo” effect in Audacity
Listen to the audio at approximately 50 percent speed—any slower and it’s usually too choppy.
STEP 4: Select a section of audio between 2 and 8 syllables in length
Notice how the voice rises and falls throughout the clip. Do your best to ignore the elemental sounds of the language and focus your ear on the intonation of the voice.
STEP 5: Ask yourself these questions while listening to the clip:
- Does the pitch go up, down, or stay the same from one syllable to the next?
- How does the pitch at the beginning compare to the pitch at the end?
- What are some other sentences that fit in this intonation pattern?
Once I learn an intonation pattern, I love trying to think of other sentences that fit this intonation pattern.
EXERCISE 2: Repeated Listening
This exercise is about listening to the intonation of your target language over and over again until physically processing the sounds becomes automated. It might seem repetitive, but you’ll immediately start to hear the music in the speech, I promise.
STEP 1: Select another section of audio between 2 and 8 syllables in length
STEP 2: Loop the section with the “Repeat” effect
If the section you chose is greater than four syllables, repeat it 8 times. But if the section is less than four syllables, repeat it 16 times.
STEP 3: Export the audio as a .wav or .ogg file, add it to your smartphone or other device
STEP 4: Listen to audio while doing other things
I like to put my headphones in and play these audio loops when I’m doing things around the house. Then later, I can never get the tune out of my head.
EXERCISE 3: Mimicking
Now that you’ve developed an awareness of intonation and you’re accustomed to hearing it, the final step is to develop your tonal control by mimicking native speakers.
STEP 1: Trying humming only the intonation of the two files you created
STEP 2: Try adding in the vowels first, and then the consonants
I suggest doing both types of mimicking everywhere you hear your target language. When I’m walking down the streets of Portugal, people must think I’m crazy because I’m constantly mimicking the conversations around me under my breath. But you know what they say: Always Be Mimicking.
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below, and if you want more where this came from, download our free intonation drills below!