When intonation overrides tone, part 3

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Mark Liberman's "Real tone" (2/7/18), replying to "Tones for real" (2/5/18), is a nice demonstration of what's happening in real speech.  The question for John McWhorter and all serious language teachers / learners is how much of it can be systematized and regularized?  In other words, how much of it can be taught / learned?

I will be blunt:  I don't think that the discernment and production of speech can be taught / learned at this ad hoc, microphonemic level.  That is why the very best teachers and best students I know do not focus on lexemes or morphemes, but rather on phrases, clauses, or even whole sentences.

My wife used to drill her students on whole sentences, over and over again, but varying the way they were said with different kinds of emphases, emotions, and implications.

This kind of approach works much better than slavish fixation on the phonetics of individual terms and expressions.

I have students from all over the world.  The ones who speak English most naturally think in terms of sentences, not individual words.  Sometimes they don't write particularly well, but when you hear them speak, they can almost fool you as being native speakers of English — and often they really do fool you.

I could name names, but will not for fear of embarrassing people.  I will just mention anonymously one American speaker of Mandarin who has astonishingly good command of written Chinese, including poetry, which has gained him quite a reputation in China.  But when he speaks Mandarin, even after having lived in Taiwan and China for much of the last four decades, and even though grammatically, syntactically, and idiomatically his Mandarin is perfect, and even though his tones are absolutely correct, his speech sounds unnatural, and he unconsciously bobs his head or wags his finger to accentuate the pitch contours of the tones.  Why is he like this?  It is because, alas, he was largely a Mandarin autodidact for the first two or three years he learned the language, and the few teachers he had used the completely wrong method of flash cards, dictation, vocabulary quizzes, repeating words and terms, etc.

So I highly recommend the approach described in this post (emphasis on whole phrases, clauses, and sentences) if you want to get over the hangup of whether or not you've got the tones (or vowels or consonants or whatever) of individual lexemes just right.  Don't worry about it; don't think about it.  Just listen and talk freely.

I've touched upon these aspects of linguistic analysis, especially as they pertain to language teaching and learning, many times on Language Log, but most prominently in posts like these:

"When intonation overrides tone" (6/4/13)

"When intonation overrides tone, part 2" (5/11/17)

"Tones and the brain" (3/3/15)

"'Ni hao' for foreigners" (10/11/16)

"Dissimilation, stress, sandhi, and other tonal variations in Mandarin" (8/26/2014)

"Stress, emphasis, pause, and meaning in Mandarin" (118/17)

"slip(per)" (7/22/14)

"Mandarin by the numbers" (6/8/13)

"Where did Chinese tones come from and where are they going? " (6/25/13)

"Pinyin memoirs" (8/13/16)


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    February 7, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

    Obviously imitating well-pronounced phrases — maybe even memorizing proverbs, famous prose passages, vernacular poems — is the only effective way to approximate native fluency, whether in learning Chinese or Spanish or English.

    But I don't think that the phrase "intonation overrides tone" is appropriate for the cases under discussion. In the first place, the effects of phrase-sized contours, emphasis, etc., don't (usually) "override" tone, they modulate it. In the second place, there are local effects (assimilation and combination) that are not "intonation" at all, but rather phonologically-conditioned phonetic interactions at the level of 2- and 3-syllable combinations.

    No one is fonder of intonation than I am, but we wouldn't say that "intonation overrides vowels" to describe John McWhorter's "and" -> "een"; or "intonation overrides consonants" to describe the fact that most Americans pronounce "latter" the same as "ladder".]

  2. Bob said,

    February 7, 2018 @ 7:38 pm

    Prof. Mair, I was wondering about your thoughts on this article:


  3. Thomas Rees said,

    February 7, 2018 @ 9:49 pm

    I don't speak for VHM, but I think it's rubbish!

  4. AntC said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 12:10 am

    @ Thomas R, you're being generous: it's uninformed, racist codswallop. (I speak only for myself.)

  5. John Swindle said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 4:13 am

    All I can say in Russian is "Слушайте и повторяйте" ('Listen and repeat"), but I can say it quite convincingly.

    Well, that and the first sentence in the first dialogue in the textbook: "Мать, идет почтальон." ('Mother, the mail carrier is coming.'). Curiously, my high-school German textbook had started with "Mutter, wir haben Post." It seemed that either the arrival of the mail was key to language learning or the идиот mail carrier was really getting around.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 6:25 am

    Re The future of Chinese is English, I still do not understand what Mark Derian meant when he wrote "The dissimilarity runs so deep that we cannot compare them to each other, only with each other", where "them" is either the Chinese language and the English language or the Bible and the Qu'ran. What exactly is the difference between comparing something with something else and comparing something to something else ?

  7. David Marjanović said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 6:58 am

    thoughts on this article:

    I got as far as these quotes:

    The main distinction about the Chinese language is it’s symbolic as opposed to phonetic. […]

    Chinese has more than 50,000 pictures, each representing a concept. A picture of a flower means “flower,” a picture of a house means “house,” and a picture of a middle-aged man means “dad.” It’s the kind of language you would come up with if you were an uncreative third grader.

    Then I stopped. I see no point in reading farther: the author has confused the language with his thorough misinterpretation of the script and then squeezed it all into his thoughtless caricature of Sapir-Whorf. I think Prof. Mair can save the time…

  8. David Marjanović said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 7:00 am

    …the article might as well start: "Let's pretend I know anything and understand anything."

  9. Alex said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 7:20 am

    In regard to the use of the language I actually think as the middle class grows and as the newer generations become more educated and as China does more business with the West using English, Chinese as a language will have more issues.

    It is getting becoming increasingly more difficult for the language to incorporate words without awkwardness to the native reader.

    I gave both English and Chinese versions of book "The Nurture Assumption" to several educated local Chinese readers in the education field. They found the Chinese version almost unreadable as many nouns to be awkward / stuttering while reading. They didn't have any issues understanding the English version.

    This is true in IT as well as in the medical field. Once local professionals have the ability to read English papers in their respective fields they rarely go back.

    Furthermore they then prefer to write papers, articles, and essays in using English.

  10. Alex said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 7:28 am

    @David Marjanović

    in a weird way the limitations of the script has an over sized influence on the new words of the spoken language

  11. George Lane said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 10:19 am

    "he unconsciously bobs his head or wags his finger"
    This struck a chord with me, as I've noticed it so many times among learners (and even fairly proficient speakers) of Mandarin and other tonal languages. An Australian classmate of mine, in particular, used to look like he was conducting an orchestra with one hand whenever we did spoken exercises in Mandarin class. Having a musical background I can actually kind of understand why we do this, but I wonder if this "finger-directing" is common and noticable enough to have become a sort of "stereotype" of westerners, among speakers of tonal languages?

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 10:36 am

    As far as I am aware, I don't use hand-gestures when speaking Mandarin, but I do use them when teaching tones to others, and whenever I think of a Chinese word or phrase, I "see", in my mind's eye, the target citation form pitch-contour for that word or phrase.

  13. Alexi said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 11:11 am

    There's also a lot to be said for singing to enhance fluency. We do it with pre-schoolers, and we should really do it more for adult second-language learners.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 12:12 pm


    Thanks for knowledgeably, sensibly combining to the two main themes of the comment thread in your own comments.


    That's an excellent suggestion, and it works well with many languages. The problem with Sinitic languages is that, when you sing them to most modern, popular songs, tune overrides tone. This is something we've touched upon in many LLog posts. Indeed, I'm thinking that I should write a whole series of posts about "When tune overrides tone".

    As for "When intonation overrides tone". this is the third in the series of posts on the subject and nobody ever objected to the concept before, not least because when I write such posts I provide specific instances of exactly that happening.

    [But Victor, if "intonation" meant what your quotations suggest that it means — "the rise and fall of the pitch in speech" — then intonation wouldn't ever override tone, intonation would (mostly) BE tone.

    In discussing the phonology and phonetics of tone languages, most linguists use the term "intonation" more specifically to refer to non-lexical prosodic effects, such as overall phrasal trends, phrase-boundary effects, the effects of anaphora, emphasis or focus, the use of overall "tunes" with particular pragmatic meanings, and so on. The broader usages that you've cited come from discussions of non-tonal languages like English and German, where these are the only reasons for pitch variation. But these non-lexical prosodic influences also exists to one extent or another in tone languages, where they interact in interesting ways with lexical contributions. Applying this (fuzzy) usage in discussions of the phonology and phonetics of a tone language risks the same sort of confusion that arises from talking as if writing systems were languages — the fact that the confusion is widespread is not a good reason to adopt it in better-informed and more careful discussions of language sound structure.]

    I just got this definition of "intonation" directly from a very quick Google search:


    the rise and fall of the voice in speaking.
    "she spoke English with a German intonation"


    From the Cambridge Dictionary:


    Intonation describes how the voice rises and falls in speech.


    From the Free Dictionary by Farlex (citing the American Heritage Dictionary):


    Linguistics The use of changing pitch to convey syntactic information: a questioning intonation.

    A use of pitch characteristic of a speaker or dialect: "He could hear authority, the old parish intonation coming back into his voice" (Graham Greene).


    From Wikipedia:


    In linguistics, intonation is variation of spoken pitch that is not used to distinguish words; instead it is used for a range of functions such as indicating the attitudes and emotions of the speaker, signalling the difference between statements and questions, and between different types of questions, focusing attention on important elements of the spoken message and also helping to regulate conversational interaction. It contrasts with tone, in which pitch variation in some languages distinguishes words, either lexically or grammatically. (The term tone is used by some British writers in their descriptions of intonation but to refer to the pitch movement found on the nucleus or tonic syllable in an intonation unit.)

    Although intonation is primarily a matter of pitch variation, it is important to be aware that functions attributed to intonation such as the expression of attitudes and emotions, or highlighting aspects of grammatical structure, almost always involve concomitant variation in other prosodic features. David Crystal for example says that "intonation is not a single system of contours and levels, but the product of the interaction of features from different prosodic systems – tone, pitch-range, loudness, rhythmicality and tempo in particular."



    David Crystal is so right. When you mix intonation and tone, interesting things happen. They most certainly occur when you mix them in Mandarin, as I've been observing for half a century of serious Mandarin learning and teaching, and as John McWhorter has been noticing in his very serious efforts to learn Mandarin well.

    Here in Honolulu, I'm in a veritable laboratory for the study of the impact of intonation on language: with Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese (various topolects), Hawaiians, Polynesians (various languages), and speakers of many other tongues communicating with each other.

    And I was very pleased to learn a new word with a very interesting history last night: "shaka". Of course, if I were a surfer or a pineapple picker, I would have known it long ago, but I'm neither, so I'm pleased as Punch / pudding / pie to learn it now.

  15. Chris Button said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

    I think it goes without saying that you cannot teach intonation to someone without teaching in whole phrases since intonational tone spans Intonational Phrases (IPs) whether as a variety of different inter-related tonal shifts associated with certain syllables in the phrase or as a complete global shift of the entire phrase itself. Lexical tone on the other hand deals with lexical units (albeit conditioned by their surroundings).

  16. Geoff said,

    February 9, 2018 @ 3:11 am

    'just talk and listen freely'
    I would add, 'and attentively, trying to imitate the model'. There's still the problem of how to help people who seem to be tone deaf for accent. It's possible to talk and listen freely while still having a terrible accent, if there's no feedback to guide improvement.
    I often meet middle aged immigrants, probably in the country for 30years, excellent fluent English in every way except still with a thick accent. They probably learnt by immersion after arriving, so not like your example, but that by itself didn't guarantee a good accent.

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