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.