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Learning English Intonation

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English Intonation and Rhythm

(Teacher Joe originally wrote this article for College English Magazine in Beijing.)

Chinese is a "tonal" language with four differnt "tones". In standard Chinese the words "soup", "sugar", "recline", and "burn" are all pronounced as "tang". The first tone could be represented as a straight line, like this: - which is a high, flat sound. The second tone could be shown like this: / which is a rising sound. The third tone could be written this way: \/ which goes down first before going up. Finally, the fourth down could be represented this way: \ which goes from high down to low.

English doesn't have special tones for each word, but important syllables are stressed using a certain kind of "tone". In particular, the "tone" of ordinary strong vowels (a, e, i, o, u) is very important in English. Some vowels are strong, for example, the first vowel in YESterday, or the second vowel in toMORrow. The unique "tone" of these vowels could be represented in this way: /\/\/ which goes up and down and up and down and up and down! Try listening to a cassette tape from your favorite textbook so you can hear how this sounds. Many students don't do this, then when they try to speak fast, they cannot be understood!

Pronouncing stressed vowels in this way will not only make your language easier to understand. Sometimes it can also change the meaning of what you want to say. For example, you may have read my article on "Numbers" in the October issue of College English. If so, you will remember that numbers such as 13 and 30, or 14 and 40, have different stress patterns. "Tens" such as 30 and 40 have one strong vowel, the first. So we say THIRty and FORty. However, "teens" such as 13 and 14 are pronounced with two strong points. We would say THIR TEEN and FOUR TEEN. When students want to say they are 19 years old but say NINE teen, I often wonder how they can look so young! They certainly don't look like my great grandparents!!

Many other words can change meaning because of stress. One example is REcord and reCORD. The first is a noun and the second is a verb. The form of a word is also important, for example consider psyCHOlogy and psychoLOgical. The noun is stressed on the second syllable but the adjective is stressed on the third. Phrases such as WHITE house and white HOUSE are very different. I have lived in a white HOUSE, but I have never lived in the WHITE house in Washington. Actually, I also lived in a green HOUSE when I was a boy, but since I'm not a plant, I have never lived in a GREENhouse!

A common problem students have is in distinguishing the difference between "can" and "can't". Although there is a "t" in "can't", it is often hard to hear in fast speech. Instead, the stress of the vowel determines the meaning. For example, I would say that I can SPEAK French. (Actually, "I" and "French" will also be stressed here.) The important part for us is "can SPEAK". The word "speak" has the important meaning, so it is emphasized. But if we cannot speak French, then the negative is more important. So, we would say "I CAN'T speak French. The "a" in "CAN'T" is much clearer, using the up and down "tone", than in "can"!

Within a sentence, the stress pattern can change the meaning completely. Consider the following four sentences. The bold, underlined words would be stressed the most, using the "tone" I described at the top of this article.

1. I will go now.

2. I will go now.

3. I will go now.

4. I will go now.

The first sentence means that it is not someone else, but truly I who will go. The second sentence means that I truly WILL go, even if you don't believe me! The third sentence emphasizes that I will leave, not come or stay. And the fourth sentence emphasizes that I cannot wait any longer, I must go NOW.

All of the examples so far use the special up and down "tone" I mentioned above. Sometimes, however, the tone is different. For example, there is a big difference between "Really?" as a question and "Really!" as an answer. The stress is always on the first syllable, but "Really?" as a question is similar to the second tone in standard Chinese, starting low and going up. However, if you don't believe something, you can go up and down first, like this: /\/\/ which starts by going up and then down but finishes by going up. That REALLY shows doubt! Of course, if you are very sure, the tone would go from high to low, like the fourth tone in Chinese.

Another different tone is for showing anger. Then we use a downward tone similar to the fourth tone in Chinese. (I remember when I first came to China, I mispronounced the expression "bu hao" by saying "bu" with a second or third tone. When people corrected me by saying "bu" with a fourth tone, I thought they were angry at me!) Now, if you are very angry, you can say every word of a sentence with this downward tone. This is how mothers speak in English when they want their children to do something: "GO CLEAN UP YOUR ROOM RIGHT NOW!" It's quite frightening, so be careful how you use it!

Besides saying the examples in this article, listen to all kinds of English to hear what I mean. Cassette tapes and DVDs are a great way to learn this way of speaking. DVDs are especially good, because you can match the expressions on a person's face with their stress patterns.

Good luck with improving the "tones" of your English!

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