Intonation and pronunciation

There have been two comments on the subject of pronunciation and intonation. These both came from Hong Kong from Cantonese speakers who have a high level of fluency in English but who want to achieve as close as possible to native speaker pronunciation.

My advice is as follows.

Do not worry about whether you pronounce like a native speaker or not. By all means try to imitate native speaker pronunciation as closely as you can. It can be fun to try to do so. I will provide some hints on how to do so below. But do not worry if you do not achieve this goal. This may sound like contradictory advice. What I mean is that you can aim to sound like a native speaker but should be satisfied with yourself if you can communicate clearly and effectively. You should not have the slightest sense of being inadequate if you do not achieve this 100% native speaker like pronunciation. I wonder if that is clear.

It is better to use words and phrases like a native speaker and prounounce with an accent than to pronounce like a native speaker but have phrasing that is not natural. So work hardest on your choice of words and phrases.

Having said that I offer the following advice on pronunciation. First of all choose someone whose voice and pronunciation you like. Listent repetitively to that same person. Imitate that person as much as you can. Overload your brain with that person’s voice and intonation.

Get a hold of the text of what that person is saying or transcribe it. Now read it out loud many times imitating the person you are listening to. Record yourself. Identify the differences in pronunciation and intonation between yourself and the native speaker. You will gradually get better and better at doing this.

Isolate the vowel sounds and consonant sounds that you are not sataisfied with. Work very hard on saying those sounds. Record yourself and compare yourself to a native speaker. Do the same with intonation.

It is possible that books explaining the intonation of English can help. By all means buy such books, including the one recommended in the comment below. But even without this book, if you train yourself to listen for intonation and imitate it, you can develop the ability to pronunce with the correct intonation.

I also recommend doing a lot of reading out loud. Do this in a loud voice and exaggerate.

Here is what I said in my book a few years ago.



We are all capable of correctly pronouncing the sounds of any foreign language. All humans have the same physiological ability to make sounds, regardless of ethnic origin. However, mastering the pronunciation of a new language does require dedication and hard work. Chinese at first represented quite a challenge. 

When I wanted to master pronunciation I would spend hours every day listening to the same content over and over. I worked especially hard on mastering Chinese sounds with the appropriate tone. I tried to imitate while listening. I taped my own voice and compared it to the native speaker. I practiced reading in a loud voice. Eventually my ability to hear the differences between my pronunciation and that of the native speaker improved. I would force my mouth to conform to the needs of Chinese pronunciation. I would also work on the rhythm of the new language, always exaggerating and even accompanying my pronunciation with the appropriate facial expressions and gestures. Eventually I was able to achieve a near native quality of pronunciation. 

Once I was able to pronounce individual words and phrases satisfactorily, I would find it easier to understand content not designed for the learner: in other words, authentic material. I would record radio broadcasts to listen to over and over. Much later when I had reached a certain level of fluency, I particularly enjoyed listening to the famous Beijing Xiang Sheng comic dialogue performer Hou Bao Lin, with his colourful


rhythm of speech. In recent years, to maintain my Mandarin, I sometimes listen to CDs of

famous Chinese storytellers, like Yuan Kuo Cheng, narrating classic novels such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The storytelling art inChina

is highly developed and when I listen to one of these CDs I thoroughly enjoy being transported back to a bygone era.




Pronunciation should be a major area of emphasis from the beginning, and throughout the first period of studying a new language. You should commit to spend a certain number of hours per week working on pronunciation, especially during the early stages of your studies. Many learners do not put enough deliberate effort into pronunciation and resign themselves to speaking as if they were pronouncing their native language. 

Any person can learn to pronounce any language, regardless of nationality. Some people may achieve better results than others, but we can all get pretty close if we work at it. The objective should be to be easily understood. It is not necessary, nor possible for everyone, to achieve near native speaker  pronunciation.


Mandarin Chinese, with its four tones, is very different from English. Nevertheless, I was determined to master Mandarin pronunciation, and to learn to speak like a native. I believe I have come pretty close, perhaps because I did not consider the possibility that I could not do so. In fact, I made pronunciation the major focus of my early effort, and I recommend this to you as well. It takes longer to get a feel for speaking in a grammatically correct manner, but you can work on pronunciation from the beginning. 

In order to learn to pronounce correctly you need to develop the ability to hear the sounds of the new language. This takes time. There are four key steps to developing pronunciation accuracy. 

First, LISTEN repeatedly to individual sounds and to material within your basic range of comprehension, concentrating on pronunciation. Listen

carefully to the intonation. Try to become conscious of the rhythm and breathing pattern. Try to identify separate words and phrases. With repetition, this gradually becomes easier. The language sounds strange at first but will become more familiar with repetitive listening. 

Second, REPEAT individual words and phrases out loud, both during and after listening. You will remember certain phrases. Try to say them over and over again to yourself while doing other tasks. You will have trouble with certain sounds. Work especially hard to master them. Then practice repeating phrases and sentences with the proper emphasis and intonation. 

Third, READ sentences and paragraphs out loud, first very slowly and then more quickly, and always in a loud voice. Imagine you are a native speaker. Exaggerate – pretend you are an actor. Have fun with it! You should alternate between reading unfamiliar material, and reading something that you have written and had corrected. 

Fourth, RECORD your own pronunciation and compare it to a native speaker. This will train you to hear the differences in pronunciation between yourself and a native speaker. You have to hear it to be able to pronounce it! Recording your own pronunciation also serves as a record of your progress as your pronunciation improves. 

The sounds, the intonation and even the writing system of your native language can influence your pronunciation of the second language. The more you are able to establish freedom from the influence of your native language, including the influence on pronunciation, the better you will learn the second language. The writing and sound system of the native language can be a significant obstacles for a learner since  there is a naturally tendency to pronounce the words of a new language is if it were a word in your own language.


In Japanese the writing system is based on syllables. So a word like “brother” becomes “bu-ra-za”.In Korean there is no “f” sound. Many North Americans seem unable to pronounce the Japanese Kato or Sato to rhyme with “sat” and “cat” even though those words exist in English. They may hear these names pronounced correctly many times but still insist on pronouncing their names to rhyme with ‘‘say’’ or “gay”.  Cantonese pronounce from the throat, Mandarin speakers speak more with the tip of their tongue, and people from central


do not distinguish between “l” and “n”. The Spanish pronounce “w” as “gu” and the Germans pronounce “w” as “v” , the Swedes say “yust” instead of “just” , the French cannot pronounce “h” and on it goes.


It is important to practice pronunciation while reading the new language to get used to seeing these words as words in that language. You have to force yourself to train the muscles of your mouth to make the new sounds accurately. You may have to breathe differently to pronounce the new language correctly. You must try to imitate the rhythm of the new language. Pronunciation practice is best done on your own, and is a form of play acting. It can be fun.


Learn to be your own toughest pronunciation critic when you are working on it alone, and then forget about it and be relaxed when speaking to others. People are unlikely to comment on your pronunciation, as long as you are easily understood. Remember that perfection is not the goal, just comfortable communication. If you cannot completely imitate native pronunciation do not worry, as long as you can comfortably make yourself understood. I know many people who express themselves very elegantly in English, probably better than most native speakers, and yet still have an accent. This is not a problem. 

Often learning proper “body language” can be as important as pronunciation in effective communication. Easily understanding what is said is essential to good body language. Furthermore, an appreciation for the culture of

the language you are speaking is more important than good pronunciation. If you are genuinely interested in communication, and not just in the vanity of perfection, your pronunciation will quickly cease to be a problem. I know non-native speakers who have almost native-like pronunciation but do not understand the language as well as others who speak with strong accents. As with all aspects of language learning, it is the ability to communicate effectively that has to be the most important goal. 

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