by Alysia Bartley

The Secret of Intonation for ESL Learners – Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

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How many times have you heard someone say, “Hi, how are you doing?”

Did they have enthusiasm and did their pitch go up at the end of the sentence? Or did they mumble these words just out of habit with a more monotone voice, or even express these words with disinterest or irritation and use a falling pitch?

This is a perfect example of what intonation is all about. Hopefully this article will help you to see the importance of intonation as an ESL learner and help you to improve your overall ESL conversational skills.

Intonation – in·to·na·tion noun \ˌin-tə-ˈnā-shən, -(ˌ)tō-\ Definition:  the rise and fall in the sound of your voice when you speak – Merriam Webster Dictionary

All About Intonation – Further Explanation

In phonetics, the melodic pattern of an utterance. Intonation is primarily a matter of variation in the pitch level of the voice (tone), but in languages such as English, stress and rhythm are also involved. Intonation conveys differences of expressive meaning (e.g., surprise, doubtfulness). In many languages, including English, intonation serves a grammatical function, distinguishing one type of phrase or sentence from another. Thus, “it’s gone” is an assertion when spoken with a drop in pitch at the end, but a question when spoken with a rise in pitch at the end. – Merriam Webster Dictionary

What is intonation?

Did you ever stop to hear how people’s voices rise or fall over a group of words?  Just take a few minutes and close your eyes when someone is speaking, and you will know what I mean. This pattern of rising and falling in your voice is called intonation. Intonation is described as the music of language. You hear some words that are said in a low pitch, in the middle pitch, and high pitch… just like you hear musical notes that are low pitch, in the middle pitch, and high pitch.

What does intonation do?

Without intonation, our voices are flat and monotone. There is little interest generated to the audience. As a listener, the voice is bland to listen to. You tune it out. You may even fall asleep. Even if the speaker has great content, there is little desire to listen or to get passionate about the speaker’s message. Without intonation, you cannot understand the speaker’s feelings and the speaker’s attitudes. Are they really happy or are they very angry? Is there something exciting happening or perhaps a surprise of some sort? Is the person confident in what they think or say, or are they unsure of what they are thinking or saying? Without intonation, the listener does not know that a question was asked.  He/she would miss it and not respond at all. You would not know when the person is finished speaking either.  You might wait in silence thinking that the speaker has more to say as there would be no clue that the group of words spoken ends the thought of the speaker. So you can see that intonation is very important in speaking English. For ESL learners, it is a skill that needs to be acquired.

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What types of intonation are there?

There are two different patterns of intonation: falling intonation and rising intonation.

What is falling intonation?

Falling intonation is characteristic of patterns in your voice that fall to a low pitch by the end of a thought group or statement. By doing this, you communicate certainty. You tell a fact. And/or you believe you are right in what you have to say. Falling intonation signals to the listener that you have finished speaking. It signals the time for your listener to respond with words or possible action. The speaker might command someone to do something so falling intonation triggers action of some sort.  The speaker might give directions to do something. In these examples, their final words drop. So naturally this is called falling intonation.

In your native language, you don’t necessarily think about intonation. It comes naturally for most speakers.  But, when you are acquiring ESL fluency, you might need to practice your intonation when speaking English. Listen to others and how they speak in casual conversation, in more formal settings like a business meeting or lecture, and when people announce on the radio or act on television, etc. Try to first recognize the falling intonation pattern. Then ask yourself why the speaker is using intonation this way. What is the intent? What are their feelings and attitudes?  Are they sad, angry or indifferent?  Are they disinterested or lethargic? Are there other feelings and attitudes involved? Are they asking a question or giving a command? Are they ending their thoughts? Then try to mimic not only what is being said, but how it is being said. Try role-playing different situations where you might use English.

What is rising intonation?

Rising intonation is a pattern in which your voice rises to a high pitch at the end of a thought group or statement. Its use is to communicate uncertainty. The speaker is unsure if something is truthful. Or he/she might be asking the listener a question to be answered. There is lack of finality. There might be a pause and the speaker is thinking of something to add to what he/she is saying. Using rising intonation tells the listener that there is more to be said. It does not signal the end of a thought pattern or statement. Just as you were asked to listen to falling intonation, now it is time to listen for rising intonation. What is the reason for the rising intonation?  Is there excitement? Is there surprise? Is a question being asked or a command being given? Is there a pause in thought?  Can you determine the speaker’s feelings and attitudes? Then try to mimic not only what is being said but how it is being said. Can you think of situations where a person’s voice would naturally use rising intonation? Can you think of a time when you were really excited about something? Do you remember what you said and how you said it? How about a time when you were surprised? Do you remember the pitch in your voice?

If it is hard to remember, think of a simple situation. Let’s pretend that you just won the lottery of one million dollars. What would be your response? Hooray! Yeah! Wow! (Scream), I can’t believe it!  These responses all illustrate rising intonation.

Examples of Intonation

For example, if someone said, “I’m so happy to finally meet you”, and it is spoken in a monotone voice… you would probably notice that the meaning behind the words does not really match the words that are spoken. By having a flat voice, the listener interprets the intent behind the message as negative or disinterest. The listener feels the speaker is obligated to be polite so these words are uttered. There is no power to the words.  On the other hand, if the speaker says the same sentence, “I’m so happy to finally meet you” or even embellishes on this sentence to add more descriptive and personal words, plus the speaker uses rising intonation, then you can hear a message that is genuine and positive. You feel welcomed.  You feel the person’s happiness. It is genuine.

Similarly, if the speaker says with excitement and with a smile, “The mayor’s house burnt down!”… you would know that the tone needs to be serious, yet the speaker was upbeat and enthusiastic. You would question the intent. Something just does not sound right. Why would someone be happy that the mayor’s house burnt down?  You would wonder… does the speaker not like the mayor? Is the speaker jealous of the mayor? Does the speaker know the mayor well enough that he/she believes the mayor wanted his house to burn down? Or there might be additional reasons you would come up with of why this sentence was said the way it was. Yet, if you say the same sentence with falling intonation, the listener is led to believe that it was a sad event and you feel empathy towards the mayor and his tragic situation.

These few examples show the importance of intonation. Speaking English is more than pronouncing words correctly. You need to say what you mean in a way that others know your intent. Some linguistics believe that intonation is as important as pronunciation. They believe that this topic is often overlooked in ESL instruction and in ESL study. They also think that it does not come naturally for ESL speakers so it is an important skill to learn on your journey for ESL fluency.

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So how can you practice intonation?

1.     View the short film clip – role play a tour guide

The sketch, although comical, is a good example of why intonation in the English language is so important. Think about the film clip. Can you hear the flat intonation of the tour guide? Do you see the facial expressions and the reactions of the tourists? Do you hear the laughter in the background of an audience watching the clip?

Now read each sentence as if Carol were speaking in her monotone voice:

Hello, my name is Carol. I am your rep. Welcome to Spain. (Does she sound welcoming to you? Does she make a good tour guide?)

I’m here to make sure your holiday is fun, fun, fun. (pause) Fun. (Does it sound fun to you?)

Overall, do you think Carol likes her job? Is she effective?  How do you know? How would you act if you were a tour guide?

Now, reread the sentences with the appropriate intonation. Keep practicing until you are satisfied with your intonation. What did you do to sound like an enthusiastic tour guide?

2.     Try one-syllable word variations with creative scenarios

Another suggestion is to take a simple one-syllable word like “Yes”, “Sure”, or “Hi”. Now see how many different ways you can say this word and then attach some possible scenarios of when you would say that word that way. Try to list as many reasons as you can. Did you hear the different intonations? Did you see how intonation changes the intent of what is meaning said?

3.     Put new vocabulary and grammar into sentences to match feelings, attitudes, and intent

Yet another suggestion is to put newly acquired vocabulary and grammar into sentences. Use feelings of anger, excitement, amazement, etc. Repeat the sentences out loud and listen to how you say the sentence. You will gain a better perspective of intonation and how it shapes what you say.

4.     Read short poems, recite, and listen to intonation patterns

Reading short poems (of about 4-8 lines) helps you develop appropriate intonation. Practice reading these out loud. Commit them to memory. Continue to recite these poems and listen to the intonation. Are you matching how you say the thought groups and sentences to the intonation in your voice?

5.     Listen to books on tape or a news channel; predict the intent of what is being said

You can listen to books on tape or a news channel, and review the falling and rising intonation patterns you hear. Can you predict the intent of what is being said?  Can you see that the meaning behind words is equally as important as the words themselves? Perhaps that is how the English expression came about, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

6.     Take an English class or join an English discussion group

You could take an English class at a local college or community organization, enroll in an ESL course online, or join an English discussion group to practice speaking English. In any of these learning environments, you can listen for intonation in people’s voice and you can practice your own. Soon it will be natural for you to use rising and falling intonation in any of your English speech. You will have achieved more fluency. Your audience will better understand your communication. You will also better understand what is being said.

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So what are your thoughts about intonation or about this article? And as always I would be glad to help you as you move forward on your journey to learn ESL. Write to me in the comments section below.

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About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.