Is it possible to change your intonation?
July 2, 2007 4:51 AM   Subscribe

Intonation (specifically English). Can I change it? Can I flip between them?

I grew up in East Africa where English was my main communication language outside the home. In the home we spoke Punjabi. Using some recordings from that time I realize my spoken English was heavily influenced by the intonation I would use at home.

At 18, I came to the UK and have been here for 9 years. My accent is now more clear and much less heavily intoned as previously. This led me to think, would it be possible to actually learn an intonation and use it deliberately?

Ideally I would like to have a number of intonations and flip between them (american, canadian, british etc). However, from what I read on the Internet, intonation is largely subconscious, so I'm not sure if it's possible.

If this isn't possible, is it at least possible to get rid of my punjabi-esque intonation? Ideally I'd be looking for a flat accent with slightly English intonation.
posted by gadha to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's definitely possible to get rid of your punjabi-esque intonation. You could look up a dialect coach (often used by actors)
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:56 AM on July 2, 2007

Accent training.
posted by TrashyRambo at 5:19 AM on July 2, 2007

Actors will pick up or lose an accent for a role, so it is possible. Not all of them are good at it though. Practically speaking, the first thing you might want to work on is completely adopting the UK accent.
posted by DarkForest at 5:20 AM on July 2, 2007

Yes, it's surprisingly easy to change your speaking voice if you're prepared to put in effort. It isn't chiselled in stone, as some people like to think.

You could make use of a speech or drama coach or, if you can already do a good "impression" of the accent you'd like to use, just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Read books out loud in the voice you want. Reading poetry is good, because you can add drama, and they're usually short.

It might help to take record yourself on a tape recorder. Playing back helps you understand your intonation. It might also help to speak slowly initially, and work up to a faster speed later.

After enough rehearsals (maybe as short as a couple of weeks), your new voice will start to creep across into your everyday speech, and you might start to notice it. You might feel a little self-conscious about this but don't worry too much. Let it into your speech.
posted by humblepigeon at 5:28 AM on July 2, 2007

Accents, A Manual For Actors

Here's an OK book for Anglo/European accents. His Asian/African accents are kind of hokey. There's a pretty good explaination of how you're supposed to hold your tongue/mouth, etc., and short practice words which illustrate things like glottal stops and intonations. It comes with 2 CD's. I don't know how well it'll work for you, but ...
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:32 AM on July 2, 2007

Possibly helpful small tip: If you want to hear some great accents and intonations, check out the BBC World Service, especially the program Outlook, which reports on human interest stories from around the world, and Have Your Say, which is a global call-in show about current events; it's a great cross-section of English-speakers and will probably give you a wider range of speech than you'd get on UK BBC. Also, at the top of each hour, at least on shortwave, you'll here something like, "This is the BBC from Kinshasa...Bucharest...Nairobi...Taipei...Los Angeles," with each of those cities pronounced by someone who lives there; you can really hear the differences. (Being a near-Angeleno myself, the "Los Angeles" one sounds incredibly ditzy/airheady, and I love hearing it whenever I'm outside the US...a reminder of home!)

To me, though, accent is personality, history, education, and is something that conveys not linguistic competence, but culture. And while you might think it'd be "better" to change your speech, keep in mind that intonation and accent are things that come subconsciously from the people you're around, your family and peers. I lived in Indonesia last year, and while I can't speak much Indonesian, I still will catch myself using the word "ya?" ("right?") at the end of a question, or saying something in English in the particular way that I would have heard it spoken by a non-native English speaker there, because I heard that way of saying it so many times.

I guess the best way for you to pick up that "slightly English" intonation, then, is to just surround yourself with people who sound like you'd like to sound eventually.
posted by mdonley at 6:31 AM on July 2, 2007

You might enjoy looking at the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA).
posted by shanevsevil at 9:40 AM on July 2, 2007

I can do that, and sometimes without trying or meaning to I just tend to unconsciously pick up whatever accent is around me. But meanwhile, my ex boyfriend lived in America for 30 years but still sounds like he just came off the boat.

So my impression is that it can be learned by many people but some people just have more of a natural ear & talent for it. And then there are people who just aren't capable of changing their voices even with effort.

For some fun, browse the Speech Accent Archive. I love that thing.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:24 AM on July 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

That Speech Accent Archive thing is awesome. It seems to make a big difference how old you are when you moved to an English speaking country as to how pronounced your accent is. There were two Telugu-speaking men who moved to the USA. One had been here for 4 years, the other for 3. The 3-year US resident had a much smaller not-American intontation, maybe b/c he had been 15 when he moved here, as opposed to the other guy who had been 27.

All of this is to say, I think surrounding yourself with people who speak the way you want to is important. The 15 year old probably went to school where he could talk to lots and lots of people.

Also, I have a friend who is a speech pathologist. She used to make extra money in grad school by teaching immigrants how to lose their accents. She was pretty successful. So you could look for someone like her.
posted by bluefly at 12:02 PM on July 2, 2007

It's definitely possible to change your accent. My family moved to the States from Japan when I was 8; my brother and I had pretty much no accent since we learned english at an early age by pretty much being thrown into the locals (helped that the place was so rural that we were the only kids in ESL). My mother's english still is still a little engrishy.

I've had to move to the southwest for work, and now I have a half-assed southern accent. As in, not enough that the locals notice it but enough that friends from the west coast chuckle about an Asian with a southern accent. It does dissipate over time -- rather, I hope it does.
posted by Muu at 1:10 PM on July 2, 2007

I had a lot of friends in college who switched back and forth between intonations regularly with no trouble. Most notable was one guy from southie in Boston - when he'd get on the phone with his family or friends, you couldn't understand a word he was saying. Dropped "r"s, local slang, completely incomprehensible - think Good Will Hunting times 100. But then he'd hang up the phone and sound perfectly normal. He didn't even notice that he was doing it. My points are (a) it can totally be done, and (b) who you're talking to and the situation you're in will probably influence which intonation comes out, once they both feel natural.
posted by vytae at 6:41 AM on July 3, 2007

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