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Intonation in English

A soundwave between headphones.

How we sound…

Intonation is the system of rising and falling levels, as well as variations in pitch sequences, when we speak. People don’t talk in a monotone (unless they’re very boring) but instead there is rising and falling in what they say.

In other words, intonation is the melody of speech.

Intonation is about how we say things, rather than what we say. It helps us understand the expressions and thoughts that go with words and it helps communication.

Incorrect intonation can cause misunderstandings, loss of interest in what is being said or even taking offence at what is being said. Listen to these examples of someone saying the same thing in different ways and think about the different meaning behind each one:

What do you want?

The first is neutral; the second is angry; the third is happy. This means that the intonation of each utterance has changed the meaning entirely.

By doing something similar in your class you can make your students aware of the importance of intonation.

Intonation and the TEFL Classroom

Intonation is not just about the pitch of certain words in an utterance. There are many factors at play:

  • pitch
  • tone
  • speed of delivery
  • volume
  • rhythm
  • tempo
  • stress

In the TEFL classroom it usually isn’t necessary to go into these factors in any great detail unless there’s a particular problem which needs correcting. However, the most common discussion on intonation is likely to be talking about questions. In English questions usually rise in pitch at the end and this can be shown on the board thus:

Have you got any change?
Have you got any change? ↗

Simple arrows can show the 4 usual patterns of English stress:

Rising Intonation ↗
Falling Intonation ↘
Dipping ↘↗
Peaking ↗↘

And obviously word stress can be shown in other ways:

WHAT did he say? ↗
What did he say? ↗

Useful Links

Intonation in Practice – a simple activity to practice intonation in the EFL classroom

The image comes from the freeware Audacity program which is ideal for recording sounds to playback in class.


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