How to sound like a native speaker – Training Intonation Patterns

“There must be another way,” I told myself, discouraged.

I had spent what seemed like countless hours listening and re-listening to a German language audio track, trying to imitate it as closely as possible.

I could make the sounds, but when I tried to mimic the rhythm, the pitch, and the musicality of the German native speaker, I kept falling short. Things got even worse when I tried to read the text aloud to myself, without the audio as a reference.I wanted to sound like a German, but copying the voice on the tape made me feel like an impostor. Not like a native speaker, but like someone doing a poor impression of one.

I didn’t want to do impressions, and copy someone else’s voice. In my mind, I wanted to be a German native speaker, and find my own German voice.I wanted to speak, understand, and be understood, just like any natural-born German would.So I practiced hard, and did lots of research. One day, I finally figured it out.

The solution was simple. I only needed three things: the audio, the printed text, and a pencil.

By listening attentively, and marking up the text, I was able to develop an intuitive visual system for decoding the phonetic patterns of any language.

This system focuses primarily on intonation—the subtle changes in pitch and tone that occur naturally when we speak, regardless of the language we are speaking in.

These pitch changes are a key part of human communication. In many languages, they can distinguish a question from a statement, a happy statement from an angry one, and the speech of a native from the speech of a foreigner.

Intonation plays a wide variety of subtle-but-important roles in every language spoken on the planet today.   

Why, then, is it so rarely covered in language learning courses and texts?  

There are many reasons for this, but I believe this happens mostly because there's no intuitively easy and consistent system for recording and studying the intonation patterns of languages.   

To learn words, we have written language and dictionaries.   

To learn sounds, we have romanization and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).   

For intonation patterns...nothing. Or at least, nothing intuitive, easy and concrete. There are thousands of academic papers showing all sorts of diagrams, complex sound patterns and erudite explanations and disquisitions on the phonetic fabric of countless languages. This is a treasure trove for academics, but it is of little or no practical use to most language learners.   

That's why I've developed a system to make intonation accessible to language learners, so it can be studied and learned just like words and sounds are.   

Today, I want to teach you the basics of that system, so you can use it in your own learning.

Ready? Let's get started.

preparing yourself

I recommend studying intonation as part of listening and reading, one of the key and most effective activities for acquiring a great accent in any language.

To do this activity effectively, you'll need:

  • A printed copy of a text or dialogue in your target language.
  • Audio of that text or dialogue, as spoken by one or more native speakers.
  • A means to play that audio (usually your computer, smartphone, or mp3 player)
  • A pencil, for marking the text.

Step 1: Listen to Each Sentence Twice

Let's imagine that you're learning English, and you've chosen to practice the intonation of a given text.

Your task here is easy:   

Just read and listen to the entire text twice.

That means pressing play on the audio and following along, reading the words with your eyes as you hear the native speaker reading the words out loud.

October 31 is a night for fun and fright. Children of all ages dress up in costumes. There are little girls who dress up as fairies, princesses, ballerinas and the like. There are little boys who dress up as firefighters, policemen and superheroes. You also have the children who dress up as furry animals or ghoulish ghosts. One thing is certain, no matter what costume you choose, there is sure to be a lot of candy and chocolate involved on Halloween.

I can remember going 'trick or treating' as a child and using a pillow case as my goodie bag. This ensured that I would have plenty of room for the ridiculous amounts of chocolate that I collected. I remember having many stomach aches in the week that followed Halloween. I probably had enough candy to last a month, but I ate it all within a few days. Some parents take their children's candy and will only allow them a certain amount each day. However, my mom wanted to get it over with. She thought it was better to let me eat it all at once than to have to listen to me whine about candy for a whole month.

You might have the impression that Halloween is just for kids, but you would be

wrong. Many adults take part in the festivities as well. For example, there are many parties that take place all over the city. Most people dress up in costumes and often there are prizes given for the best ones. Some adults spend months, and a lot of money, coming up with unique and elaborate costumes. I believe that some adults have more fun on Halloween than most children do.

Furthermore, many adults and teenagers like to set off fireworks and firecrackers. There are often wonderful firework displays at parks and schools. Usually they are put on by firefighters to make sure that nobody gets hurt. October 31 is generally not a peaceful night, so if you think you will be going to bed early, you had better think again. Often there are teenagers setting off firecrackers until all hours of the morning. (*)

While listening and reading, make sure you are seated comfortably, with the text laid out in front of you. The position of your body can impact how you focus and absorb information, so try to sit up while reading, with your back straight.

Do this at least two or three times before moving on.

Step 2: Divide Each Sentence Into Chunks

When sentences are spoken aloud naturally, they often contain a number of pauses, where the speaker stops for a moment before continuing on.

Some of these pauses are marked with punctuation, like a comma or period. Some are not.  

Using these pauses as natural breakpoints, we can divide sentences into "chunks", or smaller pieces.   

For the second step of the listening and reading process, you should locate these pauses between chunks, and mark them on your text.

This simple addition allows your brain to break down complex sentences into shorter, more easily digestible pieces of information.To help me visualize the pauses, personally like to draw slashes where each pause appears in the text. This simple step helps the resulting chunks stand out visually, and it makes them more obvious while reading.

Here's the first paragraph divided into chunks.   

October 31 // is a night for fun and fright. Children of all ages // dress up in costumes. There are little girls // who dress up as fairies //, princesses //, ballerinas // and the like.

There are little boys// who dress up as firefighters //, policemen // and superheroes. You also have the children //who dress up as furry animals // or ghoulish ghosts. One thing is certain,// no matter what costume you choose,// there is sure to be a lot of candy and chocolate // involved on Halloween.  

Step 3: Listen Again, and Mark Variations in Tone

With your text marked and divided into chunks, it will now be easier to identify where important intonation changes happen. This is because each chunk of language will usually end with a change in pitch, either from a low tone to a high tone, or a high tone to a low tone.

In this step, you want to mark the text again, this time with small arrows that are either curving upwards (⤴) or curving downwards (⤵). These arrows represent a rising pitch or a falling pitch, respectively. You will write these arrows above the last word or element of each chunk.

Of course, before getting started, you'll need to listen to the text again, and figure out if each chunk ends on a rising tone or a falling tone.   

If you have trouble hearing the pitch changes, you may want to keep your hand on the pause button and listen to each chunk multiple times. Once you're sure how the pitch changes, you can then write your arrows on the printed page.  

Here's the first paragraph of our text again, this time with the  intonation arrows drawn in. (Due to technical limitations, our arrows appear next to the words they affect, rather than above them):  

October 31⤴// is a night for fun and fright⤵. Children of all ages ⤴// dress up in co⤵-stumes. There are little girls ⤴// who dress up as fairies⤴//, princesses⤴//, ballerinas⤴//and the li-⤵ke. There are little boys ⤴// who dress up as firefighters⤴//, policemen ⤴// and super⤵heroes. You also have the children ⤴// who dress up as furry animals ⤴// or ghoulish ghosts⤵. One thing is cer⤵-tain//, no matter what costume you choose⤴//, there is sure to be a lot of candy and chocolate ⤴// involved on Hal-lo-ween⤵.  

Time to Get a Great Accent

Once you have completed all three of the above steps, you will have a reliable record of the way a native speaker would intone a text while reading.   

You'll know:

  • Where they'll pause (for emphasis, breathing, etc.)
  • Where they'll raise the pitch of their voice
  • Where they'll lower the pitch of their voice.

Enter At this point, you've also listened to the audio of the text several times, so you should have a good memory of things like pronunciation and word stress.

As a result of these steps, you can now use your printed and marked text as a pronunciation and intonation resource, which you can use to practice and improve your skills.

Think of it like sheet music. Any musician can try to play a song "by ear", but that will often result in a lot of mistakes and variations from the actual piece. Musicians who actually want to learn a piece well will usually buy sheet music, or transcribe the piece themselves.

With this listening and reading practice, you are essentially learning how to transcribe spoken language from its audible form into easily readable sheet music.
Once you have your "sheet music", don't let it go to waste. Read it, refine it, shadow it, and practice it, as much as you can. And of course, get feedback, if possible. Use your final text as a refining tool that will get you closer and closer to native-like intonation and pronunciation.

I have trained hundreds of students around the world to approach sound acquisition in a non traditional way, and I can guarantee you that with the right mindset, motivation and proper training, you can accomplish really amazing results.
 text here...

(*)Text from LingQ

Written by Luca Lampariello

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