In past tips we have looked at the pronunciation of individual sounds and at word and sentence stress. The most noticeable feature of a foreign language, however, is often intonation and rhythm. Some languages are described as sounding "like music", other languages as being "flat" and without "melody". If the pronunciation of individual sounds can be compared with the individual notes in a piece of music, the intonation can be compared with the melody or tune.

All languages have their own intonation patterns. Why is intonation important? Intonation conveys both meaning and attitude, so when a non-native speaker gets the intonation wrong, s/he can be misunderstood or sometimes misinterpreted as sounding rude or demanding when this is not intended.

If a non-native speaker is almost fluent in the English language, intonation is often the only way in which one can tell that s/he is foreign. Moreover, if a foreign speaker is advanced in terms of grammar, vocabulary, etc., native speakers will make fewer allowances for intonation problems than they would with speakers who are obviously at a more elementary level.

For example, if an advanced level speaker unintentionally sounds rude or demanding, the listeners will assume that s/he means it.

What can we do to improve intonation?

Listen to as much spoken English as possible (on CD if you are unable to listen to native speakers) and be aware of where the voice rises and falls. When you listen, try to consider the attitude and feelings being conveyed. One word, for example, can be said in several different ways, depending on the meaning you wish to convey.

Are there any rules?

Yes, there are some. For example, most open questions (those beginning with "when", "where", "who", "which", what", "why" and "how" end with a falling tone and most closed questions (those requiring a "yes" or "no" answer) end with a rising tone.

 
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