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Improve Your Pronunciation by Humming


Education Tips #14: Practice Pitch Humming

Education Tips #14: Practice Pitch Humming

English learners can improve their pronunciation by working with pitch humming.

This advice comes from Tamara Jones. She works for the English Language Center at Howard Community College in the American state of Maryland.

English learners, Jones notes, often think that they can be easily understood if all they do is pronounce individual sounds clearly.

However, saying or speaking individual sounds, such as –er or th-, is only one element of pronunciation. Other parts of pronunciation include rhythm, intonation, and word emphasis. Together, they form what we call the 'music of English.'

English learners can become more familiar with the music of English by using pitch humming – mirroring the up and down movement of a speaker's voice.

Word Prominence

English is a language that does not always use grammar to show meaning. In English, speakers use pitch -- high or low sounds -- to give sentences different meanings. Grammatically, two sentences can be identical, but the meaning is completely different.

Consider this example:

Example 1

Person 1: How was breakfast?

Person 2: The coffee was good.

In the example, the second person makes a statement about the coffee that was served with breakfast. The meaning is direct and clear.

Now, listen to a second example. This time, Tamara Jones shows how pitch can change meaning:

Example 2

Person 1: How was breakfast?

Tamara Jones: The COFFEE was good.

The second example carries a much different meaning than the first example; yet both examples are grammatically identical.

Tamara Jones explains:

"Because my pitch change is coming on the word coffee, I'm meaning that probably the rest of the breakfast was not very good. But I don't say that using grammar or word order; instead, I am communicating my meaning through pitch change."

What is pitch humming?

Pitch humming means listening to an English speaker and then repeating the up and down patterns that you hear them make. You do not even need to understand all of the words they are saying, just copy the pitch by humming along with the speaker.

By using pitch humming, Jones says, English learners can begin to recognize the up and down movement of the voice and the words that a speaker emphasizes.

Jones gives an example of what this exercise sounds like:

In another education tips story, we gave you an example of the pitch of a voice from Martha Kolln's book, Rhetorical Grammar.

Here is the sentence:

"One of the most important aspects of your expertise with sentences is your sense of rhythm."

In the sentence, you can hear that some syllables are emphasized, while others are not. Overall, the pitch goes down after important syllables, notably at the end of the sentence.

If you were to hum the pitch movement of the sentence, it might sound like this:

An example from Martha Kolln's Rhetorical Grammar

An example from Martha Kolln's Rhetorical Grammar

What can you do?

Jones suggests that English learners start the pitch humming exercise by listening to a brief radio or television broadcast.

Then, the learners should hum along with the speaker, listening for the up and down movement of the voice and emphasized words. In other words, the parts of pronunciation that are not about individual sounds.

Jones adds that English learners do not always need to listen to native English speakers. The learners can also get help by listening to a capable English speaker who has learned English as a second language.

Ideally, she says, the speaker will share the learner's native language. So, for example, an English learner who speaks French as a native language would look for a French speaker who speaks English well. This exercise provides the learner with an example of an attainable model.

Give pitch humming a try, and let us know how it works for you.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

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Words in This Story

pitch – n. the highness or lowness of a sound

hum – v. to sing the notes of a song while keeping your lips closed

mirror – v. to be very similar to (something)

syllable – n. any one of the parts into which a word is naturally divided when it is pronounced

emphasize – v. to place emphasis on (something)

attainable – adj. ability to succeed in getting or doing (something)

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