English intonation: The challenge for speakers of tonal languages

by | 14 February 2024

Last year, we spent three months rethinking and reworking the Intonation section of Clear Pronunciation 2, a process described here. The next step was to examine the particular challenges English intonation presents to speakers of tonal languages such as Chinese, Thai or Yoruba. We chose to focus on Thai.

First a word or two about tonal languages. Unlike English intonation, where tone can be grammatical (e.g. Yes / No questions have a rising intonation) or can be used to show emotion or attitude, in Thai tones are purely lexical. The tones (mid, low, falling etc.) simply distinguish two or more words which have the same vowel and consonant sounds.

In other words, our starting point is that tones are used in a completely different and mutually exclusive way in English and Thai.

The problem of unknown unknowns

Let’s pursue that point. Sometimes, as a teacher, you’ve probably found it difficult to understand why a student has a particular pronunciation problem at all. For example, Thai speakers find it difficult to pronounce the final phoneme of the English word ‘make’. But why? The exploded /k/ sound exists in initial position in plenty of words in Thai, and they have no problem pronouncing it in English at the beginning of a word, so why can’t they produce it at the end? Consonant clusters in final position can be tricky, but surely not a single phoneme.

To throw some light on this, let’s listen to a word in Thai, which in Roman script might be represented as ‘loo’. Actually, we’re going to hear four words.

If your L1 is not tonal, you might not be able to hear any difference between these words at all, especially the last two. In fact, the pitch (or pitch change) within the word varies enough for a Thai speaker to instantly recognise them as four completely different lexical items.

The challenge, then, is that learners may not perceive or detect a sound at all if it is outside the phonology of their L1. Even if they understand, cognitively, that it is there, they may not be able to hear it. And if they can’t hear it, there’s no model to copy, and they can’t produce it. In this respect, the /k/ in final position for an L1 speaker of Thai is no different from tones for an L1 speaker of English.

Intonation and L1 interference

What does this mean in practice? When we teach intonation in English, we tend to prioritise helping learners to produce the sounds accurately – although in the new version of Clear Pronunciation 2 we changed that around to focus on intonation as a receptive skill. Rightly so: when you study a tonal language, you realise just how much meaning intonation in English conveys when you hear it – often without you realising it. So for example, listen to these two dialogues.

A: What would you like for breakfast?
B: Fried eggs, please.
A: Fried eggs. (low tone, confirming)

But how about:
A: What would you like for breakfast?
B: Prawns, please.
A: Prawns. (high tone, surprised / questioning)
The intonation on the final word says: Wow, that’s a bit weird. Are you sure?

The word for prawns in Thai (goong) begins with a high tone, similar to the surprised or questioning intonation in English. So when you have a conversation like the second one above in Thai, the intonation on the final word is very similar – but the affective or attitudinal meaning is absent.
A: What would you like in your rice porridge?
B: Prawns, please.
A: Prawns. (starts high)
An L1 English listener naturally brings meaning to the final word that simply isn’t there. They might think there must be something adventurous about their choice, or even risky – but actually, it’s just a word that begins with a high tone. Conversely, we can understand that a Thai speaker would completely miss the meaning that the intonation has brought to the final word in conversation 2 above. (Incidentally, the prawn thing actually happened to me – it’s a true event.)

As teachers, we kind of know this anyway. The reason we teach phonemes in minimal pairs (ship / sheep) is that learners may not appreciate cognitively that these are two different vowel sounds. After all, if you can physically pronounce one, you can pronounce the other. But to apply this insight to the area of intonation is a far more complex matter, and one which requires a lot more thought.

Further reading

Read about Clear Pronunciation 2.
If you are interested in learning Thai, I’d highly recommend the podcast You Too Can Learn Thai, available on Spotify and other podcast platforms.

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish