Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is English a tonal languae?

Chinese is a tonal language. That means the slightest inflection changes the meaning of the word. If you pronounce "ma" going down, up, up and down or flat, you have said four different words. English is not considered a tonal language. However......85% of the message is how you say it. Other languages like Russian just change the word order for emphasis. We use focus stress and lots of it. Normally we stress the last important word in a sentence. "I took chemistry in high school." If I say " I TOOK chemistry in high school" and I really apirate that t, that means I don't remember a thing! And I don't!
SO...where am I going with this? I had a job, a paying gig, to teach American people how to speak on the phone. (This really awesome IT firm hires me to help their non-native employees sometimes.) After going over intonation and focus stress, I had them read statements for tone, like sarcasm, enthusiasm, defensiveness, confidence, insecurity, etc.
I asked a young woman to read the sentence "Why didn't you return my phone call?" I assumed since she was a native speaker she would emphasize phone. I asked her to sound concerned. Instead, she said "Why DIDn't you return my phone call?" with did falling down at like a 75 degree angle slam. That sounded angry. She repeated it with the same word stressed, did, but rounded it, like a circle. Then she sounded concerned. The same word was stressed and not even the appropriate word, but that change in inflection completed changed the tone.

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