Why are Some People So Hard to Understand?
Learning a foreign language can be a daunting task. But you have persevered and learned the grammar and pronunciation of American English perfectly. However, you are finding that people don't seem to understand you despite your good grasp of the language. Find out why some people continue to be difficult to understand and the important role of intonation.
Copyright (c) 2008 Lynda Stucky
The difficult task of learning another language is no small feat! There are new sounds to make, different tones and melodies to learn and differences in sentence construction. Many people, when learning a new language, take their native language and transfer what they know onto the new language they are learning.
One of the most difficult tasks for foreigners to learn is the stress patterns and melody of English. Stress on words and in sentences can be inaccurate to the point of making the message completely unintelligible. When we were babies, we listened carefully to the speech patterns of the people in our environment. We began babbling by imitating the melody of speech we heard the adults around us use. Learning pitch patterns as a child is easier than learning new patterns as an adult. However, mastering intonation will greatly benefit the non-native speaker's intelligibility in conversation.
Our inflection rises when we ask a question and falls when we make a statement. Intonation is the part of speech that creates emphasis, tone, variety and new meaning by making changes in pitch and loudness.
Consider the following sentence. Try to say it in a very staccato way by giving each syllable the same amount of time. Make the sentence in a monotone voice (no changes in pitch or loudness).
"The issue was discussed."
Now, say the sentence and lengthen the vowel in the first syllable of "issue" (ISsue) and the second syllable in "discussed" (disCUSSED). Really exaggerate the length of those vowels. Increase your vocal pitch as you speak the words. You have just modified the melody of speech!
No matter what country a person comes from, there will be differences between languages. Here are some other examples that often create challenges to overcome for non-native English speakers.
1. Mandarin Chinese relies on tone differences to make different words. One word may have four different tones and each tone has four different meanings. In English that happens some but not as often. (Consider PROject and proJECT.)
2. Some languages have more pitch changes on individual vowels in words to indicate different word meanings.
3. In Japanese, some tone differences signify a change in the grammar of the sentence.
4. Some languages place equal stress on every syllable with limited variation in loudness or pitch so it is more of a monotonic language.
The task of learning the melody of American English comes easily to those of us who grew up speaking it. But for a non- native speaker, it takes time, practice and perseverance. In order to be better understood in the workplace, on the telephone or giving presentations, the melody of speech is a critical piece in order for the listener to understand the speaker's message. It is even considered to be more important than pronunciation of sounds. Being able to modify a few characteristics of melody of speech will improve your intelligibility and will improve understanding in the conversations you have with others.
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