Are We Changing Our Tone, If We Write In English?

As a non-native speaker, I am experiencing a curious feeling

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

Some days ago I recorded a voice message to a friend of mine. As I am Italian and my friend is English and he doesn’t speak my language, I sent it in English. I am not sure if it is common, but I always listen back immediately to every voice message I have just sent. Generally, I check if the communication is clear and if I have been able to translate my thoughts into the right words and tone. And, that’s the point: our tone of voice. Your voice, as you certainly know, is defined by: your volume, your timbre (I might be a contralto, which means my voice sounds a bit deep) and your tone (it can be: happy, professional…)

Listening to my message, for the first time, despite I have been studying English since I was 6 years old, I realized that my timbre in English is different than in Italian. My son lives in an English-speaking country and he told me that his timbre has lowered. I think this happened because living alone, and getting more independent, he feels more mature, maybe even older. His timbre of voice has matured too. This should be normal: every language has its own sound and fluency.

French has a lovely rippling tone, which makes every sentence like short waves. German has a specific rhythm, due to nouns which are generally composed and very long. Spanish seems to be spoken at a faster speed than the other European languages, with a soft slowdown at the end of the sentence. Fluency and timbre are the two faces of the way of speaking, although they might seem the same feature. Anyway, your tone of voice should not change, whether you speak your native language or not.

While fluency defines how good is your way of speaking a non-native language, and it is near to the accent of that language, the tone of voice identifies who you are behind that words. More precisely, it shows how you feel and how you wish to feel. By your tone of voice, you say: “I am very professional, and I know what I am talking about”, or “Hey! I am super cheerful, let’s enjoy some time together”.

As a foreign language is not only a mere translation of words, it also reshapes your way of thinking. In Italy, we love long, complicated sentences, with many subordinate clauses. My English teacher described it as “spaghetti writing”; she said we speak and write with the same articulate skill we use to wind up spaghetti with one hand. You cannot write or speak English in this way. English is much more immediate, pragmatic and it is much easier to summarize your ideas in short incisive sentences.

When a friend of mine told me that she likes my articles, I was very happy of course, but I was also surprised she used the adjective “brilliant”, which is something no one has ever told me about my Italian writing. So, my question is: are we changing also our tone, when we write in non-native languages? We certainly get into the groove of that language with its idioms, but we also change the way we think. We have to reshape our writing using a tone that is appropriate to that way of thinking.

I am sure many of us have experienced the same curious sensation of speaking at a different timbre and tone. And I am sure we love the idea of having more than one voice to express our ideas.

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