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Center for Confident American English Communication

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melody of spoken englishThe Melody of Spoken English: Intonation Patterns

 

Do you ever hear people say that English has a melody? It’s true. Many people think that spoken English has a musical quality. That’s probably because we use many intonation patterns when we speak.

What do I mean by intonation patterns?

Well, intonation refers to the pitch patterns we Americans use when we talk. There are many intonation patterns in American English. These patterns are important because they convey meaning.

While some tonal languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese use changes in pitch to differentiate between words, English uses pitch or intonation patterns over phrases and sentences to convey larger chunks of meaning.

The two most commonly used sentence intonation patterns used in spoken English are: rising-falling intonation and rising intonation.

Rising-Falling Intonation

First I’ll tell you about rising-falling intonation. In rising-falling intonation the speaker’s pitch rises and falls on the focus word in a sentence (you learned about focus words in last week’s lesson). The final falling pitch indicates that the speaker is finished talking.

Rising Intonation

In rising intonation the speaker’s pitch rises and stays HIGH at the end of a sentence. The rising pitch at the end of a sentence indicates that the speaker is waiting for a reply.

Examples:listening activity

Here are some examples. Sentence A below has rising-falling intonation and Sentence B has rising intonation.


A. She wants to buy some SOda.

B. Do you think that’s a good deCISion?

 

Click play below to listen to each sentence.

 

Mini Lesson: Listening for Intonation Patterns

 

 

Rising-falling intonation is the most common intonation pattern in English. The speaker’s pitch rises at the top of the focus word and then drops to indicate the speaker is finished speaking.

 

Rising-falling intonation is found in:

  • declarative sentences
  • commands (very strong)
  • ‘wh’ questions

In rising intonation the pitch rises and stays high at the end of the sentence. When you hear rising intonation it indicates that they speaker is waiting for a reply. Rising intonation is found in:


o yes/no questions
o situations when someone is expressing doubt or surprise

 

 

Listening Activity pronunciation exercises audio

 

Listen and repeat each sentence. Then decide if the sentence has rising-falling or rising intonation. (The answers are below.)

 

1. When is John coming over?

2. Is he coming over this afternoon?

3. No, he’s coming over this evening.

4. Is he bringing a pizza?

5.  No, he’s bringing Chinese food. 

Click the play button to listen:

 

 

 (1. RF, 2. R, 3. RF, 4. R, 5. RF)

 

 

 

Insight: American English Idioms

An idiom is a unique expression in which the meaning cannot necessarily be understood from the literal definitions of the words.

I’ve chosen two of my favorite food idioms to share with you.

first idion The first idiom is: a bad apple

In American English a bad apple is a rotten person who spreads their bad temperament or habits to others around him or her. As you can imagine, if someone calls you a bad apple it is NOT a complement!

For example: If my brother has been hanging out with a mean kid at school my father might say, “Peter, you should stay away from Jimmy, he’s a bad apple”.

second idiom The second idiom is: a bun in the oven

What do you think this idiom means? Hint: it has nothing to do with bread but it has a lot to do with being a woman…. Did you guess? Well, when a woman has a ‘bun in the oven’ it means she’s pregnant.

For example: If my sister is pregnant, I might say, “Did you hear the good news about Katy, she’s got a bun in the oven”.

Listening Activity pronunciation exercises audio

Click below to listen and say these sentences containing idioms.

1. Stay away from that boy; he’s a bad apple!

2. Did you hear the news; Lisa has a bun in the oven! 

 

 

 

Featured Learning Resource: fonetiks.org American English Tones

 

This page has 13 short audio examples of different intonation patterns. Move your mouse over the symbols to listen. The tones are authentic but the website does not explain when to apply each tone.

 

Click on the image to go to the site now.

fonetiks American English Tones

 

Click For Advanced Intonation Resources >> American English Intonation

 

 

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