I am delighted to welcome again Elena Mutonono as guest writer on this blog. Elena is a Pronunciation expert and is your go to trainer if you want to work on your accent and pronunciation especially if, as a professional, you need to make your message clear to your peers and clients.
Having followed a recent webinar she gave for teachers on how to teach pronunciation, I’ve decided ( and we’ve agreed) that from now on, I will stick to what I’m good at – Business English Skills Training and Communication and she will refer her clients who need my expertise and I will, in turn, refer my clients to her who need her expert pronunciation training! It’s what we call a win-win situation. You know what I mean, don’t you?
In today’s post, she addresses the issue many non-native speakers often find tricky which is how to use intonation to sound polite in the English Language and shows you what to do. Take it away, Elena.
The British and Americans are very polite. You probably know that, but you never pay attention to this because you think that you’re polite, too. Maybe you grew up in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, India or Singapore, and your parents raised you to be a polite young man/woman. Then one day you learn English and you travel to the USA or the UK for the first time, and for some reason people think you are rude. How can that be?
Politeness is different in different countries and cultures. I was raised to be a polite girl, but I was raised in Ukraine, and when I came to the USA, first as a student, then as a professional, I realized that my politeness was different, and people did tend to think that I was a bit… rough.
What’s the first giveaway of your different manners?
Believe it or not, before you do something that might be considered impolite in the UK or the USA people may already think you are a bit rude. Why is that?
It’s all in your language, and more precisely – in your intonation.
Your intonation is the first giveaway of your different manners. You may not know that, but intonation patterns (the melody of the language) are not the same for all the languages. Each one of us, non-native speakers, grows up with a different intonation pattern that we absorb as children and then use as a “default” whenever we learn any other language.
The lucky few who are truly bilingual from their childhood (like Shanthi) or those who mastered another language and speak it with the near-native fluency, will sound differently in any of the languages they speak. Why? Because they have learnt different intonation patterns and apply them accordingly.
At the same time people who are just starting to learn English or have been learning it on their own, may not be aware of its intonation pattern, so they speak with (what we know as) an accent. Surprisingly, your accent isn’t just the way you pronounce sounds, it goes back to the intonation. As I wrote above, wrong intonation can make you sound rude.
How is the English intonation different?
In this post I will briefly highlight 3 most important elements of English intonation. I will have short drills for you to work on each point, and then at the end of the article you can sign up for my free e-book and a course to continue practicing these elements even more.
In this post I will focus on the British English intonation. For training purposes I will also be exaggerating it so you can know what to focus on when you repeat.
Element #1: The stress.
English words have stressed and unstressed syllables, and we can see which syllable is stressed by looking up the word in the dictionary. Stressed syllables are always longer, louder, higher and clearer, while unstressed are very difficult to hear. The vowels in the unstressed vowels don’t sound the same – they are reduced to what’s known as a schwa [ə] – the neutral sound.
Non-native speakers may not know this and still pronounce unstressed syllables as though they are stressed. Listen to the way I pronounce the word “famous,” first, as a non-native, secondly as a native, pay attention to the pronunciation of the unstressed suffix –ous.
Few students realize that English phrases and sentences have stressed and unstressed words. Usually the words that carry meaning are stressed, while those that are functional (like prepositions, pronouns, etc.) are unstressed.
Practice the following phrases:
in the PARK.
without the COMPUTER.
he STAYED at the HOTEL.
What happens if you don’t use stresses right or stress every word? You sound unnatural and even robotic. You may sound as though you’re upset about something or angry with the person you’re talking to, so stresses matter.
Element #2: The Descending Scale
A lot of non-native speakers, even those who have lived in the UK for a long time sound flat when they speak English. What does that mean?
If you listen to the BBC news you will hear that the voices of the news anchors go up and down. Usually at the beginning of a statement the voice shoots up, and then it gradually falls down, ending each sentence with a falling tone (generally speaking). This is what is meant by a descending scale.
Non-native speakers don’t realize that, so they tend to have a flat intonation. Their voice doesn’t go up in the beginning (which is called a pitch) and then it doesn’t go down, it just stays flat. It may also be flat and then drop abruptly in the end, which isn’t that great if you want to sound polite.
Such speech is very monotonous and may even sound as though you are not interested in what you’re talking about.
Listen to the way I read the following sentence, first, as a non-native speaker (with a flat intonation) and then as somebody from the UK.
Some of the immigrants spend months looking for a job.
Element #3: The tone.
Each sentence has a tone, which basically means the movement of the voice up or down on 1 word in the sentence (generally it’s the last word that carries meaning).
English tone is never abrupt, it’s always smooth. It takes some practice to get the English tones right, but in the end you’ll be able to hear whether they go up and down and know when each tone is used.
Non-native speakers of English don’t have such tones, so they either drop the voice down or raise it unnaturally.
Because today we’re focusing on being polite I’ll work on your rising tone. You see, if you want to be polite you must use the rising tone in your requests for help, in some of your sentences and questions. Most likely, if it’s a request, it will end in a “please,” which must be pronounced with a rising tone.
Listen and repeat the following examples of rising tones. In order to pronounce them correctly you need to start at the bottom and gradually raise your voice:
- Are you looking for me?
- Would you tell me the time, please?
- Close the door, will you please?
- Could you pass me the napkins, please?
Finally, I want to teach you how to say “thank you” in a way that sounds polite. If you’re truly thankful your “thank you” must never sound flat. Use a falling tone, but make it a high-pitched one.
Listen to the way I pronounce thank you:
- Formal- rising tone (a person who’s not really thankful, just saying it for formality sake, e.g. a clerk at the bank).
- Truly grateful – falling tone.
I hope these tips were helpful to you! If you wish to get more practice on how to sound more natural in English be sure to sign up for a free copy of my e-book and a bonus e-course, Sound Like a Native.
Elena Mutonono is an accent coach. Originally from Ukraine she now lives and works in the USA helping her online students achieve phonetic accuracy and near-native fluency. Elena is the author of 2 online pronunciation courses. She has recently published an e-book “Sound Like a Native,” which you can download for FREE here (http://elenamutonono.com/sound-like-native/).
Thank you so much for this, Elena. Can you hear my falling tone in that ‘thank you’?! Your tips are always invaluable and very clear. My fellow readers, if you feel you need Elena’s assistance with your intonation, then do please check her e-book out.
It’s a long weekend here in the UK this coming weekend and I believe it is Memorial weekend in the USA. I don’t know about you but that extra day makes a huge difference in how relaxed I feel. Whether you have a long weekend or not, I hope it is filled with fun, rest and relaxation.
Ciao for now.
I’m sitting in a café as I write this. I finished my meal and my waitress picked up my plate. As is my custom, I said “thank you” and she replied with “you’re welcome”. As I thought about this ritual, I realized I always say “thank you” in this situation by lengthening the word “thank” and kind of descending in tone, then say “you” very staccato and higher in pitch. She responds with a stretched out “you’re” at about the pitch of my “you”, then drops down to a staccato “wel-” at a lower pitch, then up to a staccato “-come” at a higher pitch. It all sounds very friendly but the more I thought about it the more I wondered why we all but sing this formality to each other.
Well now you have me listening to her and I realize that almost all her interactions with customers (especially the boiler-plate parts) are very sing-songy. Is that just friendliness? Is it some kind of recognition that even though we’re strangers, she’s trying to adopt a non-threatening, friendly disposition? Is it related to how we talk to babies? That seems possible.
Hopefully you’re still listening to these old posts. 🙂 Any thoughts
Yes, I am still listening.
Thank you for commenting here and giving a detailed description of the sounds. I could almost hear them.
You’ve really got me thinking as to why we use the sing-song approach and I agree with you. It’s friendliness, but not only that. It’s a way of engaging and connecting with people. The sing-song creates warmth and draws the other person towards us and adds colour to our personality as our accents do.
I have also found that when we notice a person and show them kindness and courtesy they reciprocate through their intonation.
What do you think?