The Importance of Inflection and Tone When Learning a New Language

So you’re learning a new language? Wonderful! But the technical aspects of learning new words and phrases is just half the battle. The other half involves knowing what syllables to emphasize and how to use just the right amount of inflection and tone when speaking. Let’s go over some nuances of pronunciation when learning and speaking a new language.

First off, let’s review what inflection and tone are. Inflection is a change in the pitch of your voice, while tone refers to the quality and strength of your vocal sounds. Words would be pretty boring and uninteresting without tone and inflection, and virtually every language on the planet uses both of those elements within the constructs of their conversations. It’s hard to learn inflection and tone in a book, which is why it’s so important to immerse yourself in the country in which you’re learning a new tongue. Also, educational aids like those offered by BRIC Language Systems can help you learn these elements by conversing with teachers in their native lands.

Tone and inflection can represent some of the hardest challenges when learning a new language. Take Mandarin Chinese, for example. Getting the tones wrong can make it nearly impossible for others to understand you. Get the tones right, however, and you will be able to enjoy clear expression and understanding by the other party. Using the concept of tones between English and Mandarin is particularly hard because they mean different things.

Inflecting your tone upward (called a rising tone) in English could indicate a question, while a decreasing one (called a falling tone) can emphasize what you are saying. If you change up the tone in Mandarin, you could drastically alter the underlying meaning of your intention. This is made even more frustrating when you consider that the exact same written sentence could mean one thing with one tone, and an entirely different thing with another.

Delivery, content and structure make up the main parts of communication. WHAT you’re saying is important, of course, but HOW you say it is just as crucial – if not more so. Body language comes into this as well, as it’s tough to ask a question or emphasize your words without shrugging your shoulders or using some kind of gesture to express anything from anger to confusion to happiness.

Pauses for emphasis are also a part of communicating in a given language. Pauses can be used to dramatic effect, and when used correctly, can add a whole new meaning to what you’re saying. Just as a well-placed comma in the written word can change the entire meaning of the sentence, so too do pauses, inflection and tone.

So, in addition to learning the technicalities of your chosen language, it’s also important to practice inflection and tone for appropriate delivery.