Two people just walked by you, speaking in a foreign language.
You didn’t understand a word, but you still somehow know what language they were speaking.
How can that be?
All languages have their own distinct melody, or music. To know what I mean, take a look at this video. The girl in the video is not actually speaking any of the languages, she’s just using sounds with the right speed, tone and stresses.
This music of languages is called intonation, and it’s something you probably don’t even think about when speaking your native language. Intonation is the rise and fall of your voice when you speak. Many times, it’s just as important as your words in expressing what you want to say.
So to help, I’m going to show you seven situations where intonation matters in English, with examples of each type.
How Intonation Changes Meaning
Using the right intonation can actually change the meaning of your words. Think of your voice as a musical instrument. As you speak, your voice gets louder and softer, places emphasis on certain parts, and goes up and down the notes. The notes of your voice are called its pitch, and the change in pitch is what we call intonation.
For example, say this sentence out loud:
“How you doin’?”
This looks like a simple, very informal way to ask someone how they’re doing. It’s not grammatically correct (it should say “How are you doing?”), but it’s easy to understand.
When you said it out loud, you probably started on a low note and rose up to a higher note on the “doin’.”
Now listen to Joey from the TV show “Friends” say it in this video. He stresses the word “you” instead, which gives the phrase a completely different meaning. His version of this simple greeting is suggestive (hinting at something sexual) and a bit flirtatious (he’s flirting). (Of course, his facial expression doesn’t help!).
And it doesn’t stop there! Something as simple as the word “really” can have many different meanings depending on your pitch. A rising pitch shows surprise, a falling pitch shows disbelief. Not changing your pitch at all can sound sarcastic (when you say one thing but mean the opposite).
So imagine that your friend just told you he won the lottery. How you say the word “really” will influence how he thinks you feel about this (and might influence whether he shares his prize money!).
It can also explain why sometimes people don’t seem to understand you even when you use the right words and grammar.
The Main English Intonation Patterns
There are two main American English intonation patterns:
- Falling: This is when your voice lowers its pitch at the end of the sentence, and it’s the most common pattern in American English. Use this for most regular statements and questions that are not yes or no questions. Hear it here.
- Rising: This is when your voice raises its pitch at the end of the sentence. Use this when you’re asking a yes or no question or to show disbelief or anger. Hear it here.
This is a simplified explanation, and there are a number of other different ways you can change your pitch to change your meaning. But if you can learn these two main patterns well, the rest will follow! You’ll find out more about them in a bit, but first it’s important to learn how to study intonation.
Tips on Practicing English Intonation
To improve your intonation, you will first need to become aware of it. So before you do anything, record yourself speaking. Choose a paragraph that has different kinds of sentences, like the first few sentences in a book you’re reading (here’s one you can see online, just click on the book cover on the left to “look inside”).
Now that you have a recording of yourself speaking, you can listen to it and hear what needs work. Does your voice sound flat? Does it rise and fall in a way that sounds natural? Do you “sound” like a native speaker?
Here are a few tips that will help you get the right sound in your English speech:
- Shadow read with a video. Shadow reading is when you read along with a video or audio clip. Find a video with subtitles on YouTube or choose any of the videos on FluentU (they’re all conveniently subtitled!). Watch a short segment, and then watch it again and speak along with the video. Try to match the speed, stress and pitch.
Mark up your text. Make markings on the text that show where your pitch should rise and fall. You can draw arrows above the words or use lines—whatever works for you.
- Exaggerate. Practice your intonation by exaggerating it, which means making it much bigger than it should be. For example, when your pitch is supposed to go up, go really high! You won’t speak like this in a conversation, but it’s a good way to become more aware of intonation when you speak.
- Use a pitch detector. A pitch detector like the one on Get Instinct is usually used for tuning musical instruments. However, since your voice is an instrument, this is a good chance to see your voice’s ups and downs (and maybe check how in-tune your singing is).
- Try different intonations. Choose one sentence and say it in many different ways. Raise and lower your pitch, put stresses on different words, and just play around with it. Try recording yourself and then listen to how you sound. What makes you sound angry? Surprised? You can learn a lot from just trying different things.
Using these tips should make you more aware of how you’re speaking. But when do you use which type of intonation? We’re glad you asked!
7 Cases Where Intonation Matters in English
Remember that there are other ways to use your voice and pitch to change the meaning of your words. For example, the rhythm and speed of your voice, or where you place the stress in the sentence can also change the meaning. The situations below should give you a good place to start, but always be listening for other ways you can improve the way you speak English!
1. Asking questions
For yes or no questions, use a rising intonation at the end of the sentence.
“Are you going to school tomorrow?”
For most other types of questions, use a falling intonation at the end of the sentence.
“Why are you going to school tomorrow? It’s Saturday!”
Hear it: In this clip the first few questions use a falling intonation, but when the speaker asks “Can I get a tour?” his intonation rises since it’s a yes or no question.
2. Making statements
Most regular statements (those which just state facts or information; not statements which clarify or emphasize anything) use a falling intonation at the end of the sentence.
“I’ve been playing the violin for seven years.”
Hear it: In this clip from “America’s Got Talent,” the young comedian Leo answers questions from the judges with this intonation. When he says how old he is and what he does, his answers are statements, and you can hear his voice lower in pitch on the last word.
3. Listing things
Items on a list use a rising intonation until the final item, which uses a falling intonation.
“I love chocolate, strawberry and pistachio ice cream.”
Hear it: You can hear the rising and falling pitch in this video, when vlogger Estee lists what she likes about the bread and what ingredients it has. Listen to her voice when she says the words “like,” “bread,” Voegels” and the different ingredients of the bread. Every time her pitch goes up, it’s a sign that she’s not done with the list yet.
4. Expressing feelings
High-energy emotions like happiness, excitement, fright and annoyance usually use a rising intonation. The example below, for example, can be joy, excitement or annoyance depending on the situation.
“I can’t believe he gave you a ride home!”
Boredom, sarcasm and disinterest often use a falling intonation. For example, the sentence below would sound very sarcastic if you said it in a low pitch. With the sarcastic tone, it would mean that the speaker actually isn’t excited at all.
“I am so excited for you.”
Hear it: The Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out” is all about expressing feelings and emotions, and this clip is a great example of how your voice betrays your emotions. Twelve seconds into the clip, Disgust says, “Hold on, what is that?” with a falling intonation on “that.” This shows disgust, since it’s not a yes or no question, so it shouldn’t rise in pitch. Later on, at around 00:35, Anger starts talking and his voice rises about halfway through his sentences to show how angry he is.
5. Stressing the importance of something
Use rising intonation on specific words in a sentence to emphasize their importance. The first example below emphasizes the “red” and implies (suggests) there were choices in color. The second emphasizes the “scarf” and implies there were choices in items.
“I hope you got the red scarf.”
“I hope you got the red scarf.”
Hear it: The very first line in this clip is an example of emphasizing something using intonation. The emphasis is placed on the words “name,” “safe” and “what” as a way of getting the point across. (The point is that names make things feel safe, and by naming something a dinosaur it becomes less threatening.)
6. Contrasting between things
Use a rising intonation and place a stress on the two things you want to contrast.
“I thought he liked dogs but he actually likes cats.”
You can also use this intonation to point out things that seem one way, but are another way.
“You should exercise every day, but I know you don’t have the time.”
Hear it: This video explains how to compare and contrast. Start at 0:42, and notice how the speaker stresses the bold words in the following sentence: “When people talk about a book versus a movie made from the book, they are…” to place emphasis on the two things being compared.
7. Using tag questions
Use rising intonation on questions at the end of a sentence which require the clarification or opinion of your speaking partner. These are called tag questions.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Hear it: This video highlights the tag questions in the conversation, so you can see and hear exactly how they work and what they sound like.
Remember, intonation can turn a happy comment into a sarcastic one, or turn a statement into a question. Pay attention to the way you speak and you’ll be understood a lot better!
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