You’ve probably heard the phrase “sounds like a frog” before. It’s a well-known way of describing how someone has the voice of a frog. How? Because frogs croak, they have a particular pitch to their voices. In English, intonation is similar. When you speak in English, it can be crucial that your tone isn’t just clear and understandable and natural and unforced.
For example, if you say something with an artificially high tone or too quickly, it may sound unnatural to others because it sounds unnatural in general. This article will explain what intonation is, how it affects your speech, and how you can improve your English speaking skills with better intonation.
What is intonation in English?
When we speak, the pitch, rhythm, and volume of our voices change. This rise and fall of vocal sound and tone are called intonation. One may even call it the music of speech.
Prosodic systems and intonation in English focus more on how you want it than what you say. Understanding and mastering intonation is essential because it makes it appealing to listen to and more dynamic.
The main English intonation patterns
In American English, you’d typically come across two main intonation patterns:
- Rising: you’d notice this when your voice reaches its pitch at the end of a sentence. Use this intonation pattern to ask questions that require a yes or no answer or to express anger or disbelief.
- Falling: This intonation pattern is prevalent in American English accents. Here, your voice lowers its pitch at the end of the sentence. It would be best if you used this pattern for common questions and statements that don’t necessarily need the respondent to answer yes or no.
This is the most simplified way to explain intonation in English. There are also several ways that your voice and pitch can change, each of which can affect the meaning of what you say.
Tips on practicing English intonation
To help improve your intonation, you must practice the way you speak. You can do this by speaking to yourself or writing down what you want to say. You can also try speaking in a louder or softer tone than you would use in real life. You can also try different ways of pronouncing words, such as enunciating them clearly or slower than usual, as this can dramatically affect how a word sounds.
Intonation is also affected by what you’re saying. If you’re speaking about an exciting topic, it will sound different than speaking about how you hate nether warts. Use English pronunciation apps or an English tutor online on platforms like italki to help you on your journey.
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7 cases where intonation matter in English
There are many ways to alter the meaning of what you say using intonations. Add rhythm and speed, and you would give a truly stellar performance. The cases highlighted below are a good starting point for mastering English intonations.
1. Asking questions
Questions are essential in English, especially if you want to sound natural and clear when communicating with others. Here are some of the most common types of questions:
- Simple questions – These are questions in which you want to find out something, such as “What’s your name?” or “Where are we going?”
- Wh-questions – These are questions that start with “what” or “were,” such as “What time is it?” or “Where are we going?”
- Exclamations – These questions start with “Wow!” or “Wow, that’s amazing!”
For yes or no questions, use a rising intonation and a falling intonation for other types of questions.
2. Making statements
In addition to asking questions, there are also times when you want to make a statement, such as “I love dogs,” “I don’t like nether warts,” or “I want a sandwich.” Statements are also crucial in English. For statements that state facts or information, employ a falling intonation at the end of the sentence.
3. Listing things
When you want to share with others what you have, you can often add a “and so on” or “and so forth” at the end of your list, such as “I have a dog and a cat and a hamster and a guinea pig” or “I want a sandwich and so on.” You can also quickly list things by stating them in a simple pattern, such as “I love dogs, my dog loves netherward, and we love our sandwiches.” When communicating such extensive lists, use rising intonations for all items except the final item. In that case, use falling intonation.
4. Expressing feelings
When you want to show how you feel about something, such as “I feel sad and lonely when my family leaves.” You can use rising intonation when expressing high-energy emotions such as happiness, annoyance, fright, excitement, etc., depending on how you intone the word “believe” in the sentence: “I can’t believe you are here!” It can change the meaning from joy and excitement to annoyance.
5. Stressing the importance of something
Stress can be considered a separate grammar lesson, but it does have a lot to do with your tone. You can make something sounds more meaningful and relevant by correctly using intonation in English. Use rising intonation on words you want to bring your listener’s attention to.
For example: “I want a sandwich.” – using a rising intonation on the word “want” emphasizes your immediate need.
“I want a sandwich” – using the rising intonation on the word “sandwich” highlights your exact need.
6. Contrasting things
Here, you’ll have to use a rising intonation and then place stress on the things you are contrasting. This helps your listener know the things you are contrasting, especially when they are no different.
For example, dogs are cute, but cats are cuter.
7. Using tag questions
Tag questions are questions that end in “right?”, “isn’t it?” or “aren’t they?” such as “Are they good?” or “Aren’t they interesting?” Sometimes you may want to add a tag question to emphasize a point in your sentence, such as “he is coming, right?” or “it is sweet, isn’t it?
When using tag questions, it is better to use rising intonation than falling. Falling intonations can make your comment sound sarcastic. If your intention does not come off as such, then use rising intonations.
This article was full of tips on practicing English intonation when asking questions, making statements, listing things, and stressing the importance of something. You can also use these tips to improve your English speaking skills and make sure you sound natural and clear while speaking.
Whether you are interested in mastering British English intonation or American English intonation, it is always better to have someone you can practice with. Book lessons with italki today.