We all have attended at least one conference, meeting, or lecture in which concentrating on the topic was extremely challenging. No matter how much we tried to maintain that familiar attentive expression or kept our eyes fixated on the speaker in an attempt to find something interesting, we struggled in our seats in vain.
Have you ever wondered what makes a speaker tedious to their audience? It cannot merely be the speech topic because even appetizing subjects lose flavor when conveyed through bland speech.
It has to do with the intonation or how the speech is delivered. What is intonation, and why is it one of the most important factors in making or breaking conversations? Read more to find out.
What is Intonation in English Speech?
Your words convey your message only partially. It is mainly the “tune” or “melody” in your voice that confirms to the listener the real meaning behind your words. This tune or melody is known as intonation.
For example, when you arrive at the workplace and a colleague joyfully greets you “Good Morning!” with a wide smile, do you experience a sense of greeting, warmth, and happiness?
Then you detected ‘music’ in speech.
In a nutshell, intonation is synonymous with clear communication. The following are its main elements –
- Pitch – How high or low your voice goes
- Stress – Giving certain syllables or words more importance than the others
- Pauses – Especially in long statements, pauses allow the listener to absorb the meaning clearly
- Volume – which helps convey emphasis
Why does Intonation Matter in English Speech?
A conversation without intonation would sound just like speaking with a robot. Nonetheless, listed below are strong cases of using intonation in English speech.
Intonation and Confidence
If you had to point out one distinguishing trait of a confident person, what would it be? One would answer - a sense of authority and certainty in what they say. These qualities are best reflected not only through body language but also speech.
Think about an upcoming interview for which you've worked so hard. You may have all the correct answers, but even the right ones can immediately convey your lack of confidence through the tone of voice and speech delivery.
Confident speakers mostly use clear speech and a falling intonation at the end of a sentence, communicating a sense of certainty and decisiveness. Just remember, if you question the credibility of your statement, why would others believe it?
Need help with some impactful phrases and quotes that convey speaker confidence? Check these out.
Intonation and Diplomacy
Reconciliation often require an empathetic, calm, and gentle tone. For example, when joining a new workplace, more than your technical capabilities, your tactful approach and interpersonal skills will ensure smooth sailing.
What if there is a slight debate between two colleagues who (being your friends) approach you for a solution? You would naturally want to create peace and reconcile the two. Making peace requires going beyond judgment. You might need to summon your inner diplomat to offer each the support and truth they need to hear. You can start by calming colleagues down, listening to their individual stories, showing empathy, and providing an answer that supports the larger goal.
Suppose friend A believes friend B is sabotaging their work. In that case, you could remind them that every employee has the same goals as far as the company is concerned, followed by an empathetic, "Let's sit down and discuss why you feel that way about friend B." Such a situation calls for more falling intonation and gentle, low-pitch speech.
Intonation and Empathy
Research from the Public Library of Science ONE journal shows that the higher an individual scores on empathy tests, the more active their brain prosody or intonation-producing areas are.
Picture an empathetic listener who considers someone else's viewpoint during an argument. What is the best way to understand their empathy? The voice tone or intonation! Such an individual would give a balanced answer that considers misunderstandings, realizes faux pas, and strives to make peace. The empathy on one's face should also reflect in their tone of speech.
Humans naturally look for empathy in another's tone of voice, choice of words, etc. Empathy is a major part of the corporate culture. Emotional Intelligence is given much importance in the workplace. After all, an "I am sorry" with a straight face and flat pitch for missing a deadline will confuse your manager and might convey the message that you lack consideration.
Intonation and Engagement
Intonation may be the secret sauce for a highly engaging conversation. Great leaders or speakers have one thing in common – they pay as much attention to their intonation as grammar or pronunciation.
By modifying pitch, volume, and word stress, a bland speech can instantly turn into an engaging one able to hold the audience's attention. On the other hand, 'monotonous' monologues people to the point when they zone out and miss important information.
Intonation and Negative Emotions
The intonation of speech is also vital in conveying negative emotions like grief, anger, disapproval, etc. We can go back to the example of someone responding "I am fine" with a low tone and a steeply falling intonation toward the last content word.
Despite the affirmative statement, such intonation conveyed masked pain or problem. Similarly, in a heated argument, when somebody says, "I do not wish to speak to you again!" the exclamation intonation represents anger and frustration.
However, a bland speech that sounds the same throughout will hardly influence the listener to take those words seriously. In this case, the intonation must be definite. Place a higher pitch on "do not" and stress the words "speak" and "again" for the statement to be impactful.
Intonation and Excitement
The intonation in English speech also helps convey excitement and enthusiasm. Let's discuss the following situation. How would you respond to the news of securing your dream role in a reputed organization?
By saying something like, "Thank you, and I look forward to working in your organization!". Now, that exclamation in written speech conveys excitement as much as a surprise, but what about verbal speech? Just imagine if you were to use a flat pitch or tone, giving every word the same stress. The interview panel would either feel that you're uninterested or, worse, depressed.
Again, if you were to introduce an unexpected pause after the statement, your listeners would automatically assume there's a 'but' coming (maybe there is a negotiation regarding stock compensation or benefits, etc.).
Intonation in Questions and Statements
Questions and statements are one of the most basic uses of intonation in English speech, which has to do with the last content word. In statements, speech intonation first rises and then falls. For instance – when you say, "I am visiting a dear friend today," the intonation of 'today' rises and falls to convey that the sentence is complete.
In questions, two kinds of intonation are used. If you're asking an information question (aimed at gathering more information), the intonation follows the same pattern as the statement. It rises and then falls to signal the speaker that you're ready to hear the answer.
In the yes or no questions, the intonation first falls and then rises. For example – when you ask, "Will you be able to meet this afternoon?" the intonation rises with the word meet, then falls steeply toward the word afternoon to indicate you're seeking a yes or no answer.
Intonation and Stressing the Importance of Something
Suppose there is an important meeting with mandatory attendance. A manager says with a bland tone, "There's an important meeting tomorrow. You all are expected at the conference room by 4 PM."
The lack of energy in the voice will be reflected in attendance. Some colleagues might not take the meeting as seriously as they should. However, if the same message stresses the word "expected" and "4 PM," the impact will be different – team members will likely arrive at the conference room on time!
The intonation in speech helps listeners catch the meaning better.
If you struggle with intonation, check your speech online by recording your conversations and see where you stand out stressing important words and syllables.
Top Ways to Improve Intonation in English Speech
Now that we've discussed the importance of intonation in English speech, let's talk about the different ways to refine it.
Become Aware of It
You can only improve your intonation in English if you know where you're going wrong. The first step is to attune the ears to identify intonation in the speech of native English speakers.
As you listen, here are some things you should note: Which syllables are they stressing? When does their pitch rise or fall? What impact does all of this create on you as the listener? Regarding finding such people, look for those around you or opt for a speech coach. Play a television show or movie and gather from there. The latter can be better since you can pause or rewind as you wish.
Practice speaking like actors, and say the dialogues along with them. The more you hear and practice, the better your ears and mouth become at English intonation.
Record Your Voice
Another effective way to practice and monitor whether you're progressing in English intonation is to record your voice. Pick out a passage that offers different opportunities to convey meaning through intonation – questions, negative emotions, empathy, confidence, etc.
Say it out loud, trying your best to apply intonation of speech. Once you have recorded yourself, hear it and ask any native English speaker or a speech tutor to listen to it and offer feedback. You might make errors initially, and that's good because it helps you remember the key areas to improve.
Keep at it, and soon enough, you'll start speaking more like a native English speaker!
Use Helpful Resources
Several top-notch courses and training resources are available that can help you improve speech intonation in English. There are even niche courses available. For instance, this course is about creating a great first impression through a clear, engaging voice and the right words.
Then, this course covers tackling challenging conversations with tact and diplomacy to maintain peace. When pursued intentionally, online resources and training materials will gradually help you refine your English intonation skills.
Pronounce App to Your Rescue!
Need help improving the intonation of your English speech? The Pronounce app will offer you the support you need! An all-in-one pronunciation and speech checker helps you monitor your progress.
The app records your voice, analyses pronunciation, and gives you speech feedback that is easy to understand and improve upon. With practice and self-discipline, Pronounce can help you master English speaking skills.
Why is sentence intonation so important?
Primarily a matter of pitch variation, sentence intonation is accompanied by rhythm and stress to convey meaning. This meaning can be grammatical or attitude-focused. The real meaning of words is only clearly known if the proper intonation accompanies them.
Intonation helps express emotions like doubt, fear, anger, love, excitement, and much more.
What does rising intonation in a sentence tell you?
Rising intonation often signifies the rising voice pitch at the end of the sentence. This intonation is usually used to ask yes or no questions. For instance – in the question, "Has the doctor arrived?" the intonation first falls in the word 'doctor' followed by rising toward the end with 'arrived' to convey you're seeking a yes or no answer.
What does falling intonation in a sentence tell you?
A falling intonation describes the way a speaker's voice falls toward the end of the last content word. It can indicate a statement or a wh-question. For instance – in the statement, "I am going for a picnic today," the intonation rises first, then falls on today to convey a complete sentence.
Similarly, in the question, "What are you doing today?" the intonation first rises and then falls on today, indicating you're seeking an answer.
How to use falling and rising intonation?
In the case of statements, the intonation always falls at the last content word. However, in wh-questions, the intonation falls toward the end because the question aspect is conveyed through the words what, where, when, which, whom, etc.
Only in the case of a question that needs a yes or no answer, the intonation must first rise to create impact, then fall toward the last content word. You can improve by recording your voice, conversing with native English speakers regularly, etc.
How to intonate like an American native speaker?
Intonation is best learned through conversations with native Americans. You can chat with American friends online while recording your conversations and using an easy pronunciation checker to improve speech clarity and American English pronunciations.
Join an online community or make friends who are native Americans through social media and practice speech intonation with them. Find more guides on Coursera by enrolling in the Intonation Practice: The Music of American English Pronunciation course that can help you brush your intonation skills.