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Friday, 1 July 2011

Intonation, intonation, intonation

Isn't it funny how an outsider notices odd things that for you are just part of life? I guess this is part of the richness of travelling and mixing with people from different languages and cultures. And the great thing is that both sides, the observer and the observee, get something out of it, whether it's a great experience or an insight into your own way of living. In my case recently though, I felt I was caught out. I like to think of myself as a pretty canny and informed observer of my children's language use, but it took somebody new to our family (and someone also quite switched on to languages) to notice something I had completely missed.

We have a new au pair for the summer (she's fantastic by the way, a real big sister to our kids), another German speaker (see Why I'm smug about language mixing for the logic behind this)She's been making lots of observant comments about the children's language use, and it was her who said to me the other day, "It's funny how Leonard uses English intonation when he's speaking German". I was flabbergasted. I'd never noticed. Probably because it's always just been that way, and there is of course that native speaker acuity that we "near-natives" can get close to but never quite achieve (although I'm reasonably sure that my own intonation in German is also near-native). 

So I started listening, and there is a definite anglo-singsong tone to Leonard's German. Funnily, it's also a very child-like intonation, which is odd because his main English language partner is me, and I promise I don't talk like a four-year-old! I've been wondering how I could illustrate his intonation in words and within the limitations of the blogspot editor (not sure I have the stamina to make recordings or even diagrams at this point - maybe for later). Let's try. Here's a very typical Leonard sentence:

"Can I have a biscuit?"

I've chosen a question because questions have a standard intonation pattern, in this case you go up on "bis-", and then "-cuit" has a fall-rising pitch, i.e. you go down and then come up again (I'm going to have to get a recording of this, aren't I...)

Now in German the question intonation is a bit different:

"Kann ich einen Keks haben?"

You just go up on the word "Keks" and then come down again. (If any German speakers reading this disagree horribly, please do let me know!)

And sure enough, Leonard tends to use the "up and down and up again" pattern in both English and German. Being a mother I of course then immediately wondered whether I should worry about this (to my credit I at least wondered first rather than jumping straight to the worrying). I came to the conclusion that I shouldn't. Firstly I have much more important things to worry about (such as global warming, social justice and where to hang that stunning wrought iron framed mirror I just bought which is a tad too big and heavy looking for the place I originally wanted to put it). Secondly it's not going to impede Leonard in his general language learning and achievement of life goals; put it down as a slight quirk in his accent, which most multilinguals have. Some people (like our au pair) actually think it's cute, so it might even help him socially. And thirdly, he might just figure it out himself as his language skills mature. So I say, more power to his vocal chords. You never know, it might just be a sign that he's a Pavarotti/James Blunt/Freddy Mercury/Frank Sinatra (choose your preferred style and decade) in the making... 


  1. Thanks to a German-speaking friend of mine for the following comment: "Personally I always use a rise-fall intonation with the English question since I always assume that I'll get the biscuit and I just ask the question to seem less impolite. :-) With the intonation you suggest is used with the German question I have to disagree on a more general level: When children (mine included) ask that question in German they will most certainly use a fall-rise intonation pattern since they are actually asking for a decision/verdict on part of the parent."

    So maybe I was closer with my reference to Leonard having a "child-like" intonation pattern, rather than distinguishing between languages. Does anybody else out there have similar observations? What's your experience?

  2. Holy cow!

    Had I not been on vacation, I would have written this up about my own kid!! I will once I'm caught up with work emails, laundry piles and things - but my German friend (who was visiting from Germany as opposed to the local German transplants we hang out with sometimes) whom we saw recently noticed the exact same thing in our eldest, her using English intonation when she speaks German, I mean!

    (And I'm also not worried about it, didn't even think of it as potentially worrisome, but then again I was on vacation at the time, so now that you've mentioned it maybe I should? Nah, there are bigger fish to fry - like article and pronoun confusion, for example. Or global warming and social justice.)

    But funny how those young bilingual brains work things out, huh?


  3. Thanks smashedpea! So although my friend queried my example, it would seem that the general observation is replicated elsewhere. Maybe I just have to get that tape recorder out and start doing some audioanalysis after all (like I have nothing else to do....) ;=)

  4. Jen, Oh but accents are so charming! I'm sure my accents and my family's must be an absolute mess! I was raised bilingual English Spanish in California. I spent 1 1/2 years in Ecuador, speaking Spanish. I learned French and married a Frenchman. Over the years I've had many Spanish speaking friends but all from different countries (different accents, different vocabulary). Now we live in a suburb of Paris. we are raising our children trilingual. Are you getting the picture? And I often have people comment on my accent and have fun guessing where on earth I can possibly be from!!!!! It's kinda fun actually ;)
    Don't worry too much, the most important thing is to understand and to be understood!
    Bises xoxo

  5. Thanks for that Maria! The children have a bit of a French accent when they speak English too (I'm going to do a post on this soon actually) which, fortunately, for English speakers sounds really cute. Apparently in German though it doesn't have the same connotation. I guess our kids are going to wear their international background on their sleeves (or their tongues), which is fine. And honest.


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