English intonation, or intonation in any language, can be described as the music or melody of the language. It’s a pronunciation feature that is about how we say something rather than what words we’re using.

English Intonation – The Main Elements

  • How high or low your voice is -the pitch
  • Stress certain syllables or words
  • pauses for where you would expect a comma –rhythm
  • vary volume to convey emphasis

English Intonation- Why It’s Important

English intonation conveys meaning, attitude and sometimes grammatical structures.

Dr Brechtje Post of the Phonetics Laboratory in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics describes intonation as “the melody of language”. “It signals,” she explained, “how the speech stream is structured and what category of statement you are making. See article.

For example let’s take the sentence: ‘I want to come to the party.’

I can say it with enthusiasm, higher pitch emphasising ‘want’ etc, and you would understand that I really did want to come.  If I said it with a flat tone or pitch, and gave all the words the same stress and didn’t emphasise any particular word, you would understand that I am either depressed or really am not that interested.  I can say the same sentence and use rising pitch on party and then pause- ‘I want to come to the party…..” This time you would get a different meaning – maybe there is a ‘but’ coming (but I have an exam etc).

Intonation conveys attitude or how someone feels about something- sad, bored, happy, excited, interested, annoyed, sarcastic, disapproving etc, which intrinsically changes the meaning you make of the words. Conversely, if you don’t incorporate correct English intonation in your speech, people won’t understand you very well.

Grammatically, we change the intonation depending if it’s a statement, question etc.

English Intonation- How to improve it

1) Begin to attune your ear to English intonation. This means listen for it when native English speakers talk. This may be people around you or people on TV or in a movie. You could even get a DVD which is easy to pause or rewind, and literally mimic the melody of how they say something. Keep doing this so your ear and mouth get practise in using good English intonation. You can even do this at the same time as they are saying it so you are getting simultaneous feedback.

2) Listen to English audio training sentences and passages and mimic them. Record yourself saying what they are saying and listen to yourself to see if you are going up where they do (including  which syllable inside a word the pitch goes up); emphasising what they do (make the word slightly louder); pause or run words together where they do. As you practise this, you’ll naturally begin to hear the intonation in the English speakers around you, and it will be easier to copy.

3) Take a sentence someone has said on a video or audio training and exaggerate the intonation so you notice it more in the beginning. Then you can tone it down once you get the idea.

4) Take a sentence and practise it using different intonation each time- emphasise different words, stress different syllables, go up or down with your pitch on different words and pause before or after different words etc. This way you begin to get some mastery of these elements, and also you’ll  get more understanding of how it changes the meaning, and how you can modulate the meaning.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions in the comments below if you need more information. Best wishes, Esther

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