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English Intonation: Knowing When to Rise and Fall

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Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.
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Today we’re going to talk about English intonation. Intonation is the use of correct tone of voice and pitch when you speak a language.

Let me give you a big idea about intonation in English: it’s all about two pitches. To emphasize important words or information, English speakers use a rising pitch and then a falling pitch. Let me give you an example, by reading the preceding sentence out loud:

Many of my students ask me how they can know when to stress a word with a “rise-fall.” There is no one right way to do this. Instead, you must decide which words you want to emphasize. The meaning of a sentence can change slightly (and sometimes greatly) depending on which words you emphasize. You can see this in the comic strip below (originally created for Jon Pierrel’s WordStress.info website):

ei-kwtraf_img1

As you read that comic strip, how did you imagine the conversation sounded? You may have imagined that the bold, underlined words were spoken more loudly. However, you don’t need a louder voice to emphasize words in English. You only need to be able to make your tone of voice rise to a high note and fall to a low one. I’ve made a cartoon video of the comic strip you just read. You can play it below. I’ve given the characters exaggerated, cartoony voices so that you can easily hear their changing pitches.

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Hopefully, you were able to recognize the rise-fall on the words that were emphasized in the characters’ speech. Now, let’s listen to the male cartoon characters’ words again. In the video below, I will speak the sentences slowly, but my voice will be more natural and less cartoony. As I speak, you can watch me mark the rising and falling tones with red lines.

The man in the comic made some very simple choices about word emphasis. Each time he said “I never said she stole my money,” he was responding directly to the woman’s accusations. The choices speakers make in the TOEFL are usually more complicated. In TOEFL Listening, it’s important to understand why speakers make the choices they do. In TOEFL Speaking, you must have the skill to make good intonation choices of your own.

 

Practice Activity

Listen to the sound clip below. It’s a line from an TOEFL Speaking task audio track in Clemmonsdogpark’s free practice TOEFL test. Below the clip, I’ve posted the words that are being spoken. Above the words, the emphasizing “rise-falls” are marked with red lines. Why do you think the speaker made the intonation choices he did? (For extra context, you may listen to the whole clip here.

English intonation diagram

Now try saying the same sentence yourself. The first time you try this, say it exactly as the speaker did, intonation and all. This kind of shadowing will help you become more comfortable with English intonation. Then, say the same lines in a different way, making your own intonation decisions. Can you give the lines a different meaning or attitude by making different intonation choices?

 

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