Intonation adds a thousand different colours to speech. Coloured glass. Image by Simon Jackson on

Intonation Training: From Yam-Yam to Yia Sou

When you meet me, one of the first things you notice is probably my accent. Despite being embedded in Scottish life for over a decade, there’s still an unmistakeable Midlands lilt that persists. The vowels have flattened out to something a little more neutral over the years, it’s true. But it’s in my intonation that you can still hear the imprint of my roots.

Midlands accents get a bad rap. Full-on Brummie, for instance, still battles to be taken seriously after years of parodies and comedy sketches. And the baggage that people attach to your variety of speech can weigh you down. That pressure is one reason many of us subconsciously begin to change our distinctive sounds when we move away from our home regions.

One thing has proven extremely resistant, though – that characteristic rise and fall, up-and-down, sing-song intonation of my West Midlands English. In the Black Country, where I grew up, that particularly strong swinging tone has given us some national fame as yam-yams (most probably from the local form “ya’m” for “you are“). The almost musical nature of it is something it has in common with certain varieties of Welsh English.

But as endearing as it can be to us locals, it can play havoc with your foreign language learning.

Intonation and Learning Foreign Languages

The reason is the same phonological interplay that anchors our foreign language speech to our native phonology. Just as much as our vowel shapes and consonant articulation, intonation is highly ingrained in our oral muscle memory.

The unwelcome interference stuck out like a sore thumb in my recent learning on the mass sentence training platform Glossika, which I’ve been using to improve my fluency in a couple of language projects. The great thing about this platform is the chance to compare your own pronunciation with native speakers’ renditions. But be prepared: it can be very revealing. I realised that my intonation in Greek – especially in questions – was completely off.

What was going on?

Well, it all comes down to my deeply rooted Midlands twang. The tendency I carry over from my own native accent is to go up at the end of a sentence. That’s not just in questions, either. If you listen to Midlands English, you might well notice that our intonation rises at the end of nearly every sentence!

Not so with Greek. Often, the intonation will fall after rising towards the end of a yes-no question. It’s a bit more complex than that, of course, and there is much more detail in studies like this one if you need the nitty gritty. But generally, it is quite a bit different from English (especially mine).

Training It Out

The solution, of course, is more of the tool that shed light on the problem. Plenty of reps later on Glossika, and my question intonation is starting to improve considerably.

Repetition is the key, here. And if you don’t have access to Glossika, it’s not difficult to make your own DIY solution using the mass sentence technique. First of all, you need to source neatly chunked, model sentences in audio format. This can be surprisingly easy to come across. Many phrase books, for example, come with an accompanying CD or MP3 download links. Often, this material is available for download without even buying the book. Audio support for German publisher PONS’ mini courses, like this Croatian introductory text, is one such freely available resource. Multilingual sentence repository Tatoeba also includes many native recordings for its entries.

Once located, you can organise the material as a playlist in the player app of your choice. Having them loop round on a reel isn’t far off doing audio-only reps with a rep tool like Glossika. While it won’t quite follow the very effective, high-frequency high-representation corpus method of that site, it isn’t a bad substitute to give the technique a try in working on your intonation. There’s a plus side to phrase books, too; they tend to include lots of questions, which is ideal if you also struggle with that particular aspect.

Bit by bit, my up-and-downy Midlands intonation is disappearing from my Greek. It’s a lot less yam-yam, and a lot more yia sou. As for my English? I’m older and wiser enough now to stand up for my accent. I’ll carry that intonation with pride – as long as it leaves my other languages alone!

A picture of a mouth articulating. Accurate phonetics gets us close to sound native. Image from

Phonetics Mismatch – Why We Mispronounce Foreign Languages (And Why It Doesn’t Really Matter)

This week, I had the great news of an offer to study towards an MSc in Linguistics. And, keen on preparing well for a good start, I started working through a couple of the set texts. First up: phonetics and phonology.

As language learners, all of us have probably touched this strange world of symbols and tables. Many materials will use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or an adapted version of it to describe how to make the sounds of a foreign language. Some grammars for intermediate learners, like the Routledge Comprensive series, often include whole sections on the phonology (sound rules) of the language.

Phonologists use precise scientific methods to map out all of these sounds and their interactions, a process that can take years. The thing is, as learners, we rarely approach the ‘everyday phonology’ of a foreign language scientifically. Most beginners will not see /a/, and think open front unrounded vowel. Instead, we listen to a model, and make an approximation towards the sound through mimicry.

It really is just an approximation, though. And diving into some phonological descriptions of languages I know (like this technical summary of Norwegian), I got a sinking feeling. I realised just how approximate some of my pronunciation was. How was I getting it wrong for so long? And why did nobody tell me?

The lesson in this is how often even very proficient speakers of a foreign language articulate words differently from native speakers. But how do we get so close – close enough to operate fully and comfortably in the language – without quite hitting the mark?

Best-match phonetics

It is all to do with what articulation tricks are most readily available to us – chiefly the sounds we learnt as children in our first language. They give us a shortcut to make a comparable sound via a slightly different route. And they are so ingrained, that we are often swimming against muscle memory when we attempt to learn a brand new means of producing similar sounds.

The trouble is, our native languages often lack an exact equivalent in the target language, so we draft in the nearest match, often without conscious awareness of it. For example, speakers of English learning Spanish (and vice versa), are a case in point when it comes to the phonemes /d/ and /t/. Most varieties of English realise these as alveolar stops – that is, with the tongue touching the ridge just behind the teeth. In Spanish, on the other hand they are usually dental, with the tongue further forward, touching the teeth.

Try and make both of the alternative /t/ sounds yourself with the word tin. Difficult to tell, isn’t it? So much so, that we barely do tell the difference when we first encounter the foreign language. Instead, we produce the sound using our native inventory, substituting the sound from our first language knowledge without even realising it.

Subtle things like this, of course, are what give us our foreign accent when speaking other languages. And of course, although we can strive to minimise a non-native accent, it is nothing to be ashamed of (quite the opposite, in fact!).

Native issues

Take comfort from the fact that the same substitutions happen in our native languages too. For much of my childhood, I struggled to say the /θ/ in words like thimble and think. In the end, I decided that /f/ sounded close enough (and nobody seemed to mind at first). I stuck with that approximation a lot longer than my peers, until it was finally picked up by a teacher at primary school and normatively squeezed out of me.

However many extra years of give and take, though, the process of initial language acquisition is a fantastic feat of the mind. Children rapidly discover phonetics inventories and the phonological rules that can take academics years to map out – and foreign language learners years to assimilate.

With that in mind, cherish your approximations. They draw upon all the cumulated skills of those early miracle years of language acquisition. And even if the fit isn’t quite perfect, the act of repurposing them in second language learning is still a wonder of brain gymnastics.

Beginner CD resources can help you audit your accent as an advanced learner. Image from

Revisiting beginner resources for an accent audit

We all have languages we are proud of, languages we’ve worked hard at over the years. I count Norwegian as one of those. One I chose, rather than had thrust upon me at school, it’s something I’ve kept chugging away at, always returning to over the years of learning. Via various courses, resources and plentiful podcasts, I’ve worked my way to a fairly decent B1/2. Well, depending on what I’m talking about, of course: I’m probably a C1 when talking about Eurovision!

Bargain Resources: fantastic finds or faux pas?

With those core languages, those labours of love, we never really stop learning. Even today, I am forever on the lookout for fresh resources, particularly audio courses. There is always something new to glean from a shiny new tome or CD. Imagine my delight when, in a Dublin bookshop, I spotted a real bargain: the CD course Keep Talking Norwegian from Teach Yourself, for just €10!

I realised my mistake afterwards. I’d glanced at it, got excited at Norwegian in the title, and assumed it was another title I’d had my eye on for a while: the B1-2 resource from Teach Yourself, Enjoy Norwegian. But the book I’d excitedly snapped up was for upper beginners, barely A1.


Now, a bit of modesty is essential in language learning. There is always something else to learn; we can never say we have completely learnt a language. But as an intermediate learner who already listens comfortably to Norwegian podcasts like Språkteigen, I was initially miffed at my seemingly less-than-useful accidental purchase. It represented a bit of a change of gear, to say the least.

An easy mistake?

Making the best of it

Never one to be deterred by calamity, I got thinking about how to make the best of my mistaken purchase. And it turns out that beginner resources are far from useless, even as an advanced learner.

Audit your accent

Entry-level listening materials represent clear, deliberate pronunciation. As such, they act as a model for newcomers to the sounds of a language. But jumping back into those beginner dialogues is also a great opportunity to audit your current accent habits.

Use that considered speech model to interrogate your own voice. Are there certain sounds that you have fallen into bad habits with? Do you detect any difference between how you pronounce certain sounds compared to the native speaker model? Are there words that you perhaps didn’t realise you were stressing incorrectly?

One remedied niggle in my case was the Norwegian au-sound. Probably due to interference from other languages, I’d fallen into a slightly lazy, un-Norwegian pronunciation of this very characteristic standard Bokmål vowel combination. Lost in a wood of words, it was a problematic tree that I failed to see when listening to complex, flowing, everyday speech. But returning to slow, careful models of speech was enough to give me a push back in the right direction.

Accent awareness

As models for learners, basic resources can be a good reminder of what is considered standard in your language, too. You may well have deviated from this through exposure to multiple varieties, and this is no bad thing: accent and dialect make languages all the richer. But reacquainting yourself with the form designated the norm (and recognising that is a politically contentious idea in itself) will only strengthen your mental map of the language.

As an advanced learner, you have so many more examples to draw on from experience. This enables you to critique and dissect the recordings in a way that would never have been possible in your early days as a learner.

Listening to novice materials, you may surprise yourself by the observations you now make. In Norwegian, for example, accents differ on their pronunciation of the letter r – rolled or guttural. It can be satisfying to spot quirks like this in starter-level resources, and realise something exciting: you have progressed enough not only to understand words and phrases, but actually pinpoint varieties in the world space of your language.

Practise, practise, practise

Finally – and this is impossible to understate – nobody’s knowledge is ever perfect, complete, or even immune to the passage of time. It is sometimes sobering to dip back into these early resources and catch the odd forgotten (or missed) foundation word or phrase.

This utility of revisiting beginner resources is also why a regular wallow in Duolingo can be so handy, even for languages we are supposed to ‘know already’. And embracing that as a tactic is a step towards building a healthy. practical modesty as a language learner that never sees you resting on your laurels!

So, it seems, my accidental purchase wasn’t such a disaster after all. It makes sense to actively seek out these kinds of material for a regular accent audit. And at the point we have eked out all the use we can from them, well, why not pass it forward and donate them to another eager polyglot-in-the-making?

Open mic, ready for your voice

Voice in my head: developing polyglot personalities

If you learn more than one language, there is one question you hear more often than any other: how do you avoid getting mixed up? There are many answers to this. But one key strategy, for me, is developing a distinct voice for each language.

When you think about it, differentiating your languages by voice makes complete sense. Languages have patterns of pitch and tone quite distinct from one another. The voice you developed growing up with your native tongue adapted to fit the phonology of that language. It’s not surprising if the fit is a little less snug in French, Spanish, German and so on – at least without a little modification.

But changing your voice can feel intimidating. Our voice is a fundamental element of the self we project into the world; altering it can feel too bold, too cheeky. It’s no wonder that school students in the language classroom can feel reluctant to really get stuck into a foreign accent out. As adult learners, we face exactly the same fear. So how can we best approach a multiple voice approach to language learning?

Have fun with it

It’s important to remember that language learning regularly challenges us to act counter to our everyday inhibitions. Whether it’s speaking with strangers, supplementing our broken speech with frantic hand gestures, or trying to mimic how others sound, linguists are so often thrust out of reasonable, human comfort zones.

The best learners acknowledge this, and embrace the challenge head on. In short, it pays to be a clown!

It’s something we are naturals at as kids, chiefly because kids feel less embarrassment when they are playing around. For instance, this is one area where you needn’t feel guilty about wallowing in linguistic stereotypes. Have a hoot combining your French with dodgy Allo Allo accents. Watch back old episodes of Eldorado and have a go at your cheesiest Spanish. The important thing is to let go of your fear of sounding foolish through having fun.

It’s all very childish… So enjoy it!

Experiment with pitch

You can create instant results by simply experimenting with the pitch of your voice. Spanish and Russian feel more natural to speak when I lower my voice, for example – something my friends still find hilarious (even though I’m not deliberately trying to make them laugh!). (“Is that your Spanish voice again?” Yes. It is. I’m so glad you find it funny!)

On the other hand, I’m aware that the my voice is higher when I speak Norwegian – perhaps because this is easier with a tonal accent.

A lot of this is also to do with the voices you are exposed to as a learner. I listen to a lot of podcasts, for example. And through those, I hear all sorts of voices at all sorts of pitches. It has become a great, accessible way to ‘window shop’ for voices you are comfortable to use as a model. In fact, there are some well-documented techniques like shadowing, which use audio mimicry to drill your foreign language accent.

Exaggerate differences

Once you have a hook on the aural ‘feel’ of a language, you can focus on those differences as a means to differentiate. This is especially helpful if you study pairs, or sets of similar languages. These present a very particular set of advantages and challenges to learners.

I’ve studied both Polish and Russian on my language travels. As Slavic languages (albeit from different branches), they looked and sounded extremely similar to me as a beginner. But gradually, I found a way to mark the line between them through voice.

For instance, I sometimes find it easier to think of the sound of language in terms of shape. Through this lens, Russian is a language with quite sharp edges to my mind. On the other hand, the sound shapes of Polish seem much softer and curvier. When developing my Polish and Russian voices, I place a lot of weight on reflecting these demarcating characteristics.

(Disclaimer: after lots more study of both languages, I realise how different they can both be, now! Sorry for my previous ignorance, Polish and Russian natives! 🙂 )

Own your language

All this, of course, can greatly add to your sense of ownership over the foreign language. It’s vital to claim a language as your own, if you want a life-long relationship with it. And carving out a voice, even a personality, within it, will help you stake that claim.

It’s about feeling at home speaking it; saying “this is my German / Spanish / Uzbek” and being proud of the speaker you have created. Educational psychologists pore over methods to increase ownership in learning; as a language learner, voice work is a handy shortcut to do just that.

Voice in my head – split personality?

Finally, it’s interesting to see how this phenomenon plays out in bilinguals in the real world. Personally, I’ve found myself intrigued by polyglots who report a personality change when speaking another language. Through playing with voice and accent across my active languages, I think I can recognise that, too. Building up a distinct voice and personality in a language will inevitably create ‘another you’.

There is some research evidence to support this, too. However, the effect could be down to situational, rather than psychological factors (ie., bilinguals use different languages in different situations, and they would naturally act differently in those situations anyway – e.g., with colleagues rather than with family). Environmental or otherwise, though, it’s a fascinating thought, and one you can have a lot of fun with as a learner.

Developing a voice in your foreign languages goes hand in hand with perfecting an accent. Have fun playing around with it. And enjoy your polyglot personalities!