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How to sound more fluent when you aren’t

If you’ve ever tried learning a foreign language, how did you get on?

When you started, what were you aiming at learning? Probably, your mental checklist of things to learn – reduced to a very basic level – would have looked something like this:

  • words
  • putting words into sentences (aka grammar)
  • pronunciation

Now, there are many different language-learning techniques and the ones that suit you might not be the same as the ones that suit me. People vary in terms of the learning styles that work best for them. Nevertheless, we all have similar intent when we embark upon the journey of learning a language: namely, to learn as much of that language as will enable us to meet our goal, whether that be passing an exam, being polite to the locals when on holiday, reading great literature in the original language, living or finding work abroad etc.

If one of your aims is to be able to speak the language rather than just read it, you should really be giving some thought to practising what I call the hidden skill.

the hidden skill

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that language teachers and language courses almost never explicitly mention how important it is to get to grips with the tunes of the language. Sure, they will drill you on pronunciation – but usually only the pronunciation of individual words. You’ll probably be expected to “listen and repeat”, but they won’t actively teach you how to put those words together with a particular melody characteristic of native speakers of the language. And yet, this is the key to sounding like a fluent speaker even if your grammar is still a bit ropey. In fact, just paying some attention to this aspect of language seems to help native speakers understand you better, believe it or not.

In truth, anyone wanting to speak another language well should add this to their mental checklist right at the very beginning, so that it looks like this:

  • words
  • putting words into sentences (aka grammar)
  • pronunciation
  • native tunes

People who study linguistics have a name for what I’m calling “native tunes”: prosody.

it starts young – very young

The prosody of our native language becomes instinctive to us, and usually accompanies us like a shadow when we try to speak another one. What makes an Italian sound like an Italian when speaking English? A Norwegian a Norwegian? A Brazilian a Brazilian? It’s not just the vowels and the consonants and how the pronunciation of these might vary from accent to accent. It’s also about intonation and different patterns of stress and emphasis at the syllabic level.

In 2009, the journal Current Biology reported a study co-ordinated by a team at the University of Würzburg that compared the cries of newborn babies in France and Germany who had been born to monolingual families. From a few days after birth, these babies’ cries were being recorded by enthusiastic scientists. These intrepid researchers were ready to whip out a microphone at a moment’s notice so they could investigate whether there were any consistent differences between the typical cries of French and German neonates.

Astonishingly, they found that the babies’ cries followed the intonation patterns of their soon-to-be native languages. The French babies’ cries tended to rise in melody, with greater stress towards the end of a vocalisation, but the German babies’ cries did the opposite. This reflected patterns seen in the French and German languages too.

At the time this study was conducted, it was already known that babies in the womb could distinguish their native language from some point in the third trimester of pregnancy, but it had been assumed that newborn babies’ cries emerged from simple changes in respiratory pressure rather than being influenced by the brain in a more subtle way. This study offered evidence that this was not the case.

can you give us an example?

Admittedly, this is quite a subtle thing. Anyone who has a musical ear is going to find picking up on these elusive “native tunes” much easier than the rest of us.

Inevitably, it’s difficult to get into what any particular one of these might be in a blog post, but here’s my best attempt at giving you a little example from French. This is a children’s story being read aloud by a native French speaker. The phrase ça va pas non is repeated at the end of each page and is typical of what I like to call the “Woody Woodpecker laugh” native tune that French has. I call it that because that’s exactly what it reminds me of. The old Woody laugh goes something like doo doo doo DOO doo, doo doo doo DOO doo (if you’re not familiar with it, here it is). The phrase ça va pas non has a similar flow: it starts low and rises to a peak with the word pas, then drops back a little for the word non at the end.

It can be tricky to get your ears around it at first, but once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. You’ll start noticing this tune regularly when you listen to native speakers talking in French.

tuning in

One way of picking up on these tunes is to listen to a native speaker of another language speaking your own. It’s not a perfect guide, because they will often be trying to disguise their native accent, but just thinking about what the speaker’s accent in your language implies about how to speak theirs can be a good place to start.

Otherwise, the best approach is just to be aware of the phenomenon, and when you “listen and repeat”, try to copy the intonation as well as the pronunciation of the words. Eventually, you’ll start to notice that some patterns crop up over and over again, and you’ll find it easier and easier to copy them.

And when you do use a few of those tunes in your target language – even just a little now and then – you’ll find that you get through to the native speaker a lot better than you did before, even if your grammar still leaves much to be desired. After all, the “native tunes” were imprinted on the brain of the person you’re talking to even before they learned their native grammar.

Connecting on that level makes you sound more fluent, because then, you’re speaking directly to the heart.


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