Saturday, July 31, 2010

does the intonation of a word change the meaning?

It's Friday night, past midnight (so technically it's Saturday) and I can't fall asleep even though I got up at 5:10 this morning. Usually after an hour, I give up and get back up.  I don't time it either.  It's just that when I check the time it's always one hour. Maybe I give up too soon. Anyway, so I decided to write this little post, since I was thinking about this anyway.

I went to the Japanese Sign Language Circle meeting tonight, and after it ended, this one member was talking to me. And she says this one word that I didn't understand. It struck me as really interesting and I felt curious to know what it meant.  So I repeated it exactly like she said it. And then when she starts to explain it, I realize it's the name of the store I always go to, which has a supermarket in the basement where she works. And then I'm like, "Ah! セイユウ!" And at that moment, upon hearing myself say it like I always do, I realized that my intonation for the word was different than the way she had said it and I had repeated it after her.

That was weird. It's like, "what am I, Chinese?" Have I become Chinese? I can't even understand a word when the intonation is different than what I am used to. And this is the Japanese language, mind you.

To answer the question in the title of my post: No.  As Dr. J. Marvin Brown wrote in his book, "the words don't carry the meaning – the meaning carries the words."

I believe this is true in Chinese as well. If you have a single word with the wrong "tone," people aren't going to think you said something off-the-wall. It just wouldn't make sense, and so they would try to quickly figure out what you meant from the context of your conversation or your sentence.  If you weren't in a conversation, meaning you don't have any context yet, then it will make it more difficult for them to come up with what you meant. Of course, if all of your "tones" are wrong then it will be just too much work for the listener, and if you have no context as well, then you might as well be speaking a foreign language to them.

Whether your language is tonal or not, it's important to speak with the right intonation because that will make it effortless for people to listen to you. If you sound funny speaking, then people will get tired of hearing you and some won't even try to listen or try to understand you.

The best way to learn how to speak properly is not through speaking, but through doing a lot of listening first and without reading during that time. If you started speaking too early, then you'll need to put in some (or a lot of) extra effort later if you want to speak with the intonation of a native speaker.

You can often see forum posts about whether tones in Chinese are important or not. I read the first page of the thread in the link, but I'm not going to be reading any more. Basically, as usual, a bunch of people say, oh yes, it's important to focus on getting the tones right of Chinese words. However, this is the wrong approach. This is the also the approach the language courses and Chinese language teachers take. Have you ever heard any learner who sounds natural from using such an approach? I have seen at least 5 Chinese dramas where a westerner in the drama speaks Chinese and none of them sound natural at all. They probably all have the wrong "tone" on a lot of words or are missing "tones" on half the words. I don't know how these people get their speaking parts.

The right approach is to get to understanding the language before you begin speaking. And I don't mean some "shortcut" understanding. A natural approach leads to natural speaking. Shortcuts lead to, well, a shortened, cut-up version of a language.

Sentence intonation is one thing I've not seen anybody talk about amongst learners of Chinese.  Sentence intonation is something you can't teach or study, or look up in a book. It must come naturally through the exposure to at least hundreds of hours of the language. I'd like to write more about this at a later date. For now, what I want to say is that even if all your "tones" on words are correct, you still won't sound natural. So focusing on learning the tones of words and practicing pronunciation is not going to make you sound natural. Your speed and prosody have to be natural, not just the tones of every individual word.


  1. Hi! I always watch your video on youtube!!
    I'm a Japanese guy, and I'm studying English for almost 7years, and I still need to learn more.
    In my oppinion, natural and correct intonation and
    pronounciation are very important. If I say "lice" when I want to say "rice", it's totally different meaning, but many Japanese do like that.
    So I also have to improve my intonation and pronounciation. What I have to do is just keep listening.
    Thanks for remind me!!!
    Good luck!

  2. Keith, while I agree with your assessment that learning the tones correctly doesn't automatically result in natural speech, I think it's a huge leap to decide therefore that "this is the wrong approach."

    You don't have evidence that the problem comes from learning the correct tones - it might simply be not enough exposure to natural language. When people misunderstand me, it's usually because I get the tones wrong - so attempts to sound natural, based on incorrect tones, would simply be premature for me.

  3. Whether as kids learning a first language or as adults learning a second one, we acquire a language's phonological system through constant trial and error, copying others, continually building upon previous knowledge. Delay production and you delay acquisition.

    Your brain must learn the consequence of every tongue placement, throat constriction, nasal airflow, airflow intensity, etc. and establish, over time, the appropriate boundaries for each of these factors. It cannot be explained as an absolute system, but only as a relative system; you eventually find the correct placement of each sound in relation to the incorrect sounds you produce. Delay this fine-tuning and you delay accurate pronunciation.

    The fact that you could repeat after the girl and get it right supports this idea. You had created an incorrect habit because you didn't copy a native speaker from the get-go, either because that information was unavailable or because you failed to understand yet the phonetic distinctions that were meaningful. Waiting didn’t help you. The next step in the learning process exposed you to the right pronunciation and taught you that wrong pitch meant wrong pronunciation. Through trial and error. Had you not said the word, you wouldn't know that your idea of the word differed from its actual pronunciation. Delay speaking and you delay understanding your errors.

    You claim that correct pronunciation comes after waiting and reaching a higher level of understanding. However, this is contrary to what I learned about phonological acquisition (both as a teacher and as a Linguistics student), contrary to what children do in acquiring their mother tongue, and contrary to my own personal experience learning a dozen languages. It’s even contrary to the experience you wrote about in your post. Yet, you insist that one must wait to acquire correct pronunciation. I think it would be in your best interest to reconsider that idea.

  4. Out of curiosity, you do know that Japanese has pitch, right?


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