Intonation in English - English Pronunciation Lesson

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Hi, I’m Kae.

Welcome to Oxford Online English!

In this lesson, you can learn about intonation in English.

How important is intonation?

Let’s see.

Look at a sentence:

Do you need some help?

It’s a simple question, but by changing the intonation, you can change the meaning

completely.

For example, it can be a simple question, where youre really offering to help:

Do you need some help?

It can be a rhetorical question, where you don’t really think the person needs help,

but you want to be polite:

Do you need some help?

It can show that youre annoyed with the person youre talking to:

Do you need some help?

It can be sarcastic:

Do you need some help?

It can show surprise that the other person might need your help:

Do you need some help?

There are other possibilities, too!

You can see that intonation is a very powerful tool.

Controlling your intonation is important for communication in spoken English.

So, let’s start at the very beginning: what actually is intonation?

There are seven possible intonation patterns in English:

rising falling

rising-falling falling-rising

flat high

low

The most important are the first four: rising, falling, and combinations of rising and falling

tones.

Flat tones, including high and low tones, aren’t common and don’t have many uses,

so we won’t talk about them today.

However, rising and falling tones can each have many different meanings.

Keep this in mind: one intonation pattern does not mean one thing.

The same intonation can have different meanings in different situations.

Also, intonation is flexible.

There are rules, but the rules are not one hundred per cent fixed.

Different people speak in different styles.

Let’s practice!

Here’s a word: Let’s try saying the word with different

intonation patterns.

Repeat after me.

Rising: where?

Falling: where?

Rising-falling: where?

Falling-rising: where?

Let’s try one more time, with two words:

How many?

Rising: how many Falling: how many?

Rising-falling: how many?

Falling-rising: how many?

If you can pronounce these four intonation patterns, you can already do most of what

you need in English.

So, how do you use these intonation patterns?

The most basic rule is that you use a falling tone to show the end of a sentence.

For example: I live in Madrid.

She’s a lawyer.

We might be a bit late.

You can use a rising tone to show that your sentence isn’t finished yet.

For example: I live in Madrid, but I was born in Canada.

She’s a lawyer, although she isn’t working at the moment.

We might be a bit late, because I don’t finish work until seven.

That’s the most basic rule, and it’s important.

If you don’t use rising or falling tones in the right places, people won’t understand

whether youve finished speaking or not.

However, there are many other ways to use these intonation patterns.

Let’s look at another.

Did you get some bread?

I thought you were going to get the bread!

How are we going to make sandwiches if we don’t have any bread?

We can go to the bakery and buy some sandwiches there.

But, I think the bakery is closed on Saturdays.

It’s not Saturday today; it’s Sunday!

Oh

Can you work out what was going on in that dialogue?

After the first question: did you get some bread, you heard five sentences.

Listen again if you need to; can you hear the intonation?

Before, you heard that you use falling intonation at the end of your sentence, but here, the

pattern is often the opposite:

I thought you were going to get the bread!

Do you know why this is?

This is our second rule about intonation: you use a falling tone to show that information

is new, and you use a rising tone for old information.

In this sentence, the bread has already been mentioned, so it’s ‘oldinformation,

and you pronounce it with a rising tone.

However, the word you gets a falling tone, because this is the new idea in the sentence.

Let’s look at the next example:

How are we going to make sandwiches if we don’t’ have any bread?

Here, the idea is the same.

The bread isoldinformation, so you pronounce it with a rising tone.

The sandwiches are new information; this is the first time anyone has talked about sandwiches.

New information gets a falling tone.

In the next sentence, which word isoldinformation, and which word isnewinformation?

Sandwiches areoldinformation, because we already mentioned them.

So, pronounce sandwiches with a rising tone.

The bakery isnewinformation, because this is the first time anyone has mentioned

it.

So, bakery has a falling tone.

In the last two sentences, the pattern is reversed, but the idea is the same:

But, I think the bakery is closed on Saturdays.

It’s not Saturday today; it’s Sunday!

In the first sentence, the bakery is nowoldinformation, so it gets a rising tone.

Thenewinformation, with a falling tone, comes at the end of the sentence.

You can see the same pattern in the second sentence: theoldinformationSaturdaycomes

first, and thenewinformationSundayis at the end of the sentence.

If you want more practice with this, go back to the dialogue.

Pause after each sentence, and repeat, trying to copy the intonation.

Pay attention to the way intonation changes on the same word as it changes from new to

old information.

Now let’s look at a very important use of intonation: questions.

Where did you go for your vacation?

I went to Dubrovnik.

Is that in Croatia?

Yes, on the coast.

Have you ever been?

No, never.

Did you have a good time?

Very nice, though it’s quite touristy.

You got back yesterday, right?

Yeah, late in the evening.

Are you feeling tired?

No, not too bad, actually!

In the dialogue, you heard six questions.

Three of them had rising tones, and three had falling tones.

Do you know why the intonation is different in different questions?

Sometimes, when youre asking a question, you have no idea of the answer.

Youre asking a question to find out new information.

In this case, the question has a falling tone:

Where did you go for your vacation? Have you ever been?

Did you have a good time?

Sometimes, when you ask a question, you already have some idea of the answer.

Youre asking a question to check something, or to confirm that your idea is right.

In this case, the question has a rising tone:

Is that in Croatia? --> I think Dubrovnik is in Croatia, but I’m asking to make sure.

You got back yesterday, right? --> I had an idea that you got back yesterday, and I’m

confirming this with you.

Are you feeling tired? --> You told me you got back late in the evening, so I guess youre

tired.

This means that the intonation of a question can change depending on the situation.

If you use a falling tone, this becomes a question to find new information.

This means you really have no idea whether Dubrovnik is in Croatia or not, and you want

to know.

You can ask:

Where did you go for your vacation?

If you ask this with a rising tone, it could suggest that you knew the answer before, and

you just want a reminder.

Youre checking something you already knew; youre not asking for completely new information.

Using this intonation will help you to sound more natural, but it doesn’t change the

meaning of the question.

However, there are many other intonation patterns in questions which do have different meanings.

Let’s look!

What a fantastic film! Wasn’t it great?

Are you insane? It was the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

Why would you say that? It was amazing!

Forget it.

It’s two hours of my life I’m never getting back.

Why don’t we get something to eat? Your pick.

How about we just go home? I’m pretty tired.

Again, you heard many questions in the dialogue.

Can you see what was different this time?

Before we tell you, think about a question.

What does a question do?

Most likely, you thought: “a question asks

for information.”

That’s sometimes true, but actually you can use questions to communicate many other

ideas.

In these cases, a question might not need an answer.

For example, you can use questions to make a comment about something: Wasn’t it great?

You can use questions to criticise someone or disagree with them: Are you insane?

You can use questions to make suggestions: Why don’t we get something to eat?

Can you remember the intonation in these questions?

To make a comment about something, use a falling tone:

Why would you say that? Doesn’t he look smart?

Isn’t it delicious?

To criticise someone, use a rising tone:

Have you lost your mind? Why would you do that?

Are you really that stupid?

To make a suggestion, use a falling tone:

How about we just go home? Why don’t you call and ask what’s happening?

Remember that intonation is flexible, and that’s especially true here.

You can also make a suggestion with a rising tone:

How about we just go home?

Can you hear the difference?

How do you think it changes the meaning?

The suggestion with a rising tone sounds more like a real question, because it sounds more

indirect and hesitant.

The suggestion with a falling tone doesn’t sound so much like a question; it sounds more

confident and direct.

This brings us to our last point: you can use intonation to express many different emotions.

There’s one intonation pattern we haven’t talked about yet: rising-falling intonation.

You can use this to express different feelings: positive or negative.

Look at one word: You can use a rising-falling tone to sound

excited: really?

You can use itslightly differentlyto sound annoyed: really?

You can use it to sound surprised: really?

Can you hear the difference between these three?

Listen once more: Really?

Really?

Really?

You use a rising-falling tone each time, but in a slightly different way.

To sound excited or surprised, you start and finish higher, but to sound annoyed, the tones

are lower: really?

really?

To sound surprised, you often make the rising tone longer: really?

You can also use other tones to express some emotions.

For example, you can use a rising tone to express doubt: really?

You can use a falling tone to sound sarcastic: really?

Let’s practice!

Youll hear the same question with five different kinds of intonation.

Which emotion am I expressing?

Did you?

Did you?

Did you?

Did you?

Did you?

Okay, we hope you learned something useful about English intonation.

We have a question for you: is intonation in your language similar to English, or not?

Let us know in the comments, because were curious!

Remember that you can find more free English lessons on our website: Oxford Online English

dot com.

Thanks for watching!

See you next time!

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