Who says intonation doesn’t matter?

Sometimes language learners are so worried about grammar accuracy to think that intonation doesn’t matter that much after all. Personally, I have always felt a bit down when my sentence stress was so influenced by my mother tongue to force my interlocutor to repeat what I had just said, even if everything else was ok.

In a scene from the film Limitless, Bradley Cooper speaks Italian to a waitress in a restaurant. You can obviously guess he is ordering food and then asking something that the waitress finds funny. Still, there was no way I could understand what they were telling each other when I first came across this film a few years ago. I must have watched this scene a dozen times since then. Only yesterday, did I find out!

But why did I not understand straightaway? Was it because of grammar? Well, not really. I have listened to less accurate sentences. Was it because of pronunciation? Yes, a little bit maybe. But it wasn’t just that.

I think the reason an average Italian person finds it so hard to understand what the American actor is saying here has to do with intonation (i.e. the rise and fall of the voice to convey different meanings) and sentence stress. The protagonist is making such an effort to reproduce a sterotypical Italian intonation – and I’m sure he does sound Italian for non-Italian speakers – that he is probably stressing the wrong words at the wrong time. I just don’t know what to listen to, where the information is in the flow of sounds.

Do you think accent and intonation are important when it comes to language learning? Would you like to know what Bradley Cooper is saying? Watch the first 30 seconds of this video and have a guess in the comments below. I’ll tell you if you are right 🙂

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