I remember being back in graduate school, meeting with my advisor. I asked her a question, and I was surprised when she answered “Are you telling me something, or asking me a question?” I thought it had been obvious that I was asking a question. Specializing in speech perception, however, my professor was keenly aware of the common pattern amongst young adults of “uptalking”, in which inflection may raise at the end of a statement, making it sound more like a question than a statement; she had wanted to prevent a communication breakdown before it potentially happened by not assuming anything. So why are intonation patterns important, and how do they relate to accent modification?
For many of my clients who speak a tonal language, including East Asian languages like Mandarin and Vietnamese, working on standard American English intonation patterns is an important component of the program. The reason for this is that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it, that contributes largely to the communicative exchange, and how your message is perceived by others.
Imagine an educated and brilliant software engineer presenting at a meeting, saying, “My name is John. I am working on this new project. I believe that XYZ algorithm will allow us to improve our efficiency.” Compare John to equally brilliant Steve, who speaks with a rising inflection because of the influence of his native language on English. “My name is Steve? I am working on this new project? I believe that XYZ algorithm will allow us to improve our efficiency?” It is intuitive to guess that John’s message will be taken more seriously than Steve’s, but there is more than just intuition supporting this claim.
Recent research out of McGill University by Xiaoming Jiang and Marc Pell (On how the brain decodes vocal cues about speaker confidence, 2015, Cortex, 66, 9-34) demonstrates that a conversational partner judges confidence in just 0.2 seconds! According to Dr. Xiaoming, we pay more attention to confident sounding speech, and process it more quickly. So through no fault of his own, Steve’s message is receiving less attention and slower processing by those at the meeting.
And how was it determined what was confident versus unconfident? Among other variables, unconfident speech tended to be higher in pitch overall, and rising in pitch towards the end. Certainly, it is a pattern worth targeting so that a non-native speaker is given the same opportunity for showing his/her skills as a native speaker. It is interesting to think about how such seemingly small nuances of our accent may impact our lives and careers.