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“Intonation” means the use of pitch. Or, it’s the way you raise or lower your voice when you speak.
If you compare it with the other languages of the world (perhaps even with your own native language), you might find that American English has a different intonation.
In general, English questions have a rising pitch at the end:
Are you a student?
On the other hand, sentences such as:
You’re a student.
They're working now.
I haven’t been to China.
they have a falling pitch.
This is something very basic and we must all remember.
Because of this, American English has very unique patterns of sound and melody. I said “unique” because it’s different from the intonation of other languages in the world. For example, an Asian language like Mandarin might vary the pitch between words. On the other hand, English does that in much longer chunks, over phrases and sentences.
The problem with some non-native learners is that, they try to speak English but -- whether consciously or unconsciously – they’re actually still using the foreign intonation of their own native language. So, even though they know and speak the right words, sometimes it’s still difficult to understand them because of the way their English sounds.
To give simple illustrations, some books have demonstrated the changes in English intonation as something similar to a staircase:
In reality, intonation is more complicated than this image and it normally involves more gradual shifts.
Not all questions in English will follow a rising intonation. To further divide our questions, we need to learn the two most common intonation patterns in English:
- First, the Rising Intonation
= the speaker’s pitch rises and stays high at the end. The rising intonation indicates that the speaker is waiting for a reply.
This is usually found in:
Yes or No Questions
“Yes” or “No” Questions are questions answerable by “Yes” or “No.”
Do you often travel?
Have you ever been to France?
Can I borrow your book?
- Second, the Rising-Falling Intonation
= the speaker’s pitch rises at the top of the key (important) information in the sentence. At the end, it goes down to indicate that the speaker has finished talking.
This is usually found in:
Wh+ Questions are questions that start with the words “Who,” “What,” When,” “Where,” “Why,” “How,” etc. They can’t be answered by “Yes” or “No.”
Where are you from?
What time did you arrive?
Why are you learning English?
“Or” Questions introduce at least 2 alternative answers to the listener. The falling intonation is normally used at the end of this type of question.
Do you prefer tea or coffee?
Which country are you going to visit -- France or Italy?
Would you like to walk or take a taxi?
*Note: Sometimes, there are more than 2 alternative answers for the listener to choose from. In this case, there will be a rising intonation for each choice, and a falling intonation for the final one.
Would you like tea, coffee, or beer?