English intonation rhythm

Gibberish can teach us a lot about an accent.

Certain skilled speakers of gibberish are able to cleverly mimic the sounds of a language by using the right tricks of intonation, rhythm and pronunciation. These elements of speech combine in specific patterns to create a general melody of each language. An excellent recent example of this is from Sara Forsberg from Finland. Listen to how she speaks non-sense as she changes from one accent to the next, each time varying intonation, rhythm and pronunciation to match the general melody of the target “language”:

At 1:12 in the video Sara targets American English. Two tricks she used that helped create a convincing American sound was a falling intonation pattern at the end of her “statements” and elongating the vowel sounds. By elongating the vowels, the rhythm of the language sounds slower and more drawn out than the other accents.

Adopting the right rhythm and intonation of American English can go a long way to having a more natural sounding speaking voice to native speakers.  In 1972, Italian pop star Adriano Celentano released a song that intended to mimic the way English sounds to non-native speakers. The lyrics have no meaning but the song catches the rhythm of American English:

Granted, this example wouldn’t be considered a standard American accent. It has more of a southern “Elvis” quality to it but, nevertheless, it does sound distinctly American. What is the secret sauce that makes this song sound “American”?

One reason is it captures the falling intonation pattern of standard American English. The words at the beginning of a phrase tend to start at a higher pitch and fall to a lower pitch at the end. There is variation in the pitch between words in a statement, depending on which words are stressed, but the general pattern of a statement ends in falling pitch.

The other trick used in the video is to elongate the vowel sounds. This can be heard in one of the only real words in the video, “alright?” The vowels in the first and second syllable were stretched out to sound like “ahl-rai-ee?” While there are a variety of American accents across the states, in general, Americans tend to stretch out their vowels slightly longer than other languages or dialects.

It takes more than just a falling intonation pattern and elongating one’s vowels to capture standard American English but using these tricks gets you to a fairly close approximation. All languages have their own patterns of intonation, rhythm and pronunciation. Understanding how to vary these patterns is how you improve any accent. Mastering all these elements at the same time can be challenging without proper feedback. A certified accent trainer teaches people the skills to combine all the speech elements to an improved dialect so they can be understood by the locals whenever they want.

English Intonation, Rhythm and Gibberish
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