Unlearning Pitch Paradigms from our Mother Tongues


If you're a native speaker of English or other European language, count to 10. ...

... Now count to 5 ...

Chances are that you'll notice some subconscious 'Pitch Paradigms' or 'Pitch Envelopes' come into play.

In English when we list things off - like when counting in order or calling off items on a list, there's a tendency to say everything in the list with a 'rising' tone except for the last item which is usually given a falling tone. Subconsciously we have in mind where the last thing is on the list, and then that last 'item' or number gets the falling tone.


You will also notice pitch paradigms subconsciously kick in when we say things like 'Hi!' and 'Thank you' in English, often said with a contour starting out high - holding on for a bit then falling off at the end.

Another time this will kick in in English is if we say something and are looking for validation or confirmation from the person we're speaking where we'll tend to go up at the end to get engagement from the other person.


This wreaks havoc when speaking tonal languages like Thai.

Even though learners of Thai might consciously be aware of the correct pitch contour of Thai numbers or words that they are saying, the muscle memory from mother tongue sound paradigms are often too strong and they superimpose themselves over Thai tones. When native Thai speakers are listening to this, depending on who they are and how much exposure they've had to foreigners speaking Thai, the reaction could be 'that's cute' to outright not understanding what's being said.

One exercise that I've seen help learners of Thai over the years is to just count in Thai clearly, consciously using the correct pitch contours / throat positions (as tones are more about throat positions and actions than just pitch contours). This helps lock in muscle memory in the throat so that it can then go from conscious to subconscious responses in Thai that use the correct contours / throat positions and actions.

You can mix it up - try counting in your mother tongue using the Thai contours. This helps highlight it internally ... but don't do it too much though - you don't want to build bad habits

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