There are so many things to think about when you speak English as a second language. Make sure that intonation and pitch changes are on the top of your list and read through this post to get some great insights into moving away from monotone and into melodic speech.
Is English a melodic language?
After a quick search on the internet, the most melodic languages are French, Italian, and Spanish. Unlike many Romance languages, English, and specifically the American accent, is timed by the stresses of different letters and sounds. However, a common error in English or when trying to speak in an American accent is forgetting about tone and so your voice can sound monotone.
Many assume that when speaking melodiously in English, one might be referring to poetry and features that are characteristic of poetry such as rhyme, meter, and consonance. But in reality, its the small stepa and glides of tone that make for dynamic and engaging speech. The combination of stress and intonation make American English, American English, if you get my drift.
Most literary traditions in English – and in fact in most languages – originated from poetry and songs. Many cultures around the world have a strong oral history in the art of storytelling or poetic verses. The built-in musical devices and rhythm made these stories and conducive to memorization and easier to recount and so they were easily passed on from generation to generation.
Think about it, some of the earlier forms of speech, which I bet some of us could still recite to this day – are in the form of nursery rhymes! It'd be a little difficult for a young child to memorize the lines of a nursery rhyme without a melody. It's the musicality and rhythm of the lines that makes it easy to recite and sing along.
Back in the day, poetry was regarded as the superior literary form. While English theater would stick to poetry and employ its devices for a dramatic effect, common speech, or prose, slowly crept into English drama towards the end of the 16th century. In fact, the most famous playwright of the English language, William Shakespeare, heavily relied on prose in his plays.
Prose, which is defined by the Oxford dictionary as written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure, was used in Shakespearean plays to evoke more conversational forms of everyday dialogue.
With time, prose became the speech that we use in everyday life – in speeches, novels, textbooks, etc. If you are speaking English, chances are it'll be in prose!
English doesn't have a set of rules for stress patterns – compared to other languages in which the presence of accents clearly delineates where we must intonate or stress a certain sound or letter. While we don't speak in poetry or use it as the main form of speech in everyday life – sounding more melodic when speaking in English can not only improve your American accent, but improve your communication skills. It can highlight important information, signal authenticity, and even convey emotion.
You can use melody as an important tool of communication to inform, motivate, convince, inform, or even compel your listeners. You should reflect on a few factors before employing melody as a communication tool.
First, it's crucial to understand the purpose of your communication when using melody. Are you looking to persuade your audience? Are you looking to educate your listeners? Or are you looking to speak calmly and simply engage in a conversation?
Once you're clear on the purpose of your speech, it's easy to figure out how you can adopt different intonation patterns as you speak. For example, when looking to educate or inform your audience, you might take this as an occasion where you lower your pitch and talk slower to emphasize the importance of certain words or lines. Also, you could pick up your pitch again and speak a little faster to grab your audience's attention when you feel a lull in the room.
If you are looking for people to take action, sound animated and project loudly on important lines and words to pitch your ideas with full confidence.
Next, what type of news are you conveying? Is it serious? Or are you storytelling and wanting to evoke emotion? Do you want to make someone laugh?
Similar to your purpose, depending on the content of your speech, you might also want to try differing your intonation to play with your melody. Any serious news, condolences, etc. are often communicated in a a serious tone and thus it wouldn't really make sense to have a high pitch.
On the other hand, if you're trying to make someone laugh out of telling a story, here's your opportunity to raise and lower your pitch along following climaxes and downfalls in your storyline to create suspense but also evoke emotion. Playing with melody and varying your pitch and cadence in this occasion can transmit those emotions to your listeners.
Moreover, another factor to keep in mind is who your audience is and the size of your audience. Is it a small, intimate group? Are you a keynote speaker at a large conference? Or are you conveying memos in your next business meeting in English.
Something important to note here is that the bigger your audience, the more crucial it'd be to use melody and different intonation patterns to project your voice all the way to the listener sitting in the back row. The bigger your audience, the harder it is to ensure that you have everyone's attention. Think about it – if you are watching a presentation in a large auditorium and seating in the back row, if the speaking doesn't do a good job projecting their voice, chances are you will lose interest.
Back to our play and playwrights scenario – sure, sounding melodious might be the figure of speech used in a specific play, but back in the 16th century, that dramatism and projection was also needed to launch an actor's voice to the back of the room and convey the emotion (we didn't have microphones back then!).
You'll find yourself having to intonate and vary your tempo and pitches more in a large crowd as other communication cues – e.g. volume, facial expressions, gestures – can easily get drowned out in a large room.
Now, fast-forward multiple centuries later from our 16th century English references – there is another scenario (apart from plays and speeches with large audiences) in which poor melody is seen as one of the common errors of speaking English as a non-native speaker... and that is... drumroll please.... communication involving technology.
Most of us nowadays, have online meetings, calls, and even presentations that we must give through some sort of phone or video call. While I just highlighted some difficulties when communicating in front of a large crowd, with technology it can be even harder because your listeners can't even look at your gestures and expressions that well. When online, those human cues that help your listeners connect with you and follow along are usually nearly absent.
Have you ever been in a Zoom call or listening in on a presentation where most of the participants start with their cameras on but by the end of the presentation, more than half of the participants have switched of their cameras – and let's be honest – are probably scrolling on their phone and not paying attention anymore?
Unfortunately, while technology has been such an advent in bridging communication and facilitating connection, the loss of that human element in conversations and speeches can cause you to lose your audience and lose meaning in your speech.
When someone is listening to you talk online, your voice will often be their sole focus. This is where playing with your intonation and melody are crucial for effectively communicating. You might find yourself having to dramatize certain words and phrases to highlight their importance or significance. You might have to raise your volume and slow your speech down when describing important key words. Another trick is to give your most important words energy or volume – specifically for that sales pitch – to make them stand out. Try varying the tempo of your sentences to avoid sounding monotonous.
In conclusion, while melody is most thought of as a characteristic of songs and poetry, there is a purpose for melody in your everyday conversations and speeches. It all depends on playing with your intonation, cadence and varying your pitch.
Of course, when thinking about communicating effectively and using melody as a device, identify your purpose, the nature of the news you are conveying, and the type of audience you will face as your melody and intonation style will depend on these factors.
Melody is just one aspect of the various tools in communicating effectively and working on your American accent. Think about it as a device that has historical significance and function but might just be that skill you add in your next online business meeting!
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