Intonation is the change in pitch in a person’s voice as they pronounce syllables, words, and phrases. Intonation can go up (rising intonation), go down (falling intonation ), or stay flat.
Intonation gives a spoken language its music. When intonation patterns are used and repeated by a large group of people (cultural habit), then intonation becomes a melody that everyone is familiar with and accepts (dialect).
Much of your English-speaking accent comes from intoning or singing American English in a way that is different.
Don’t worry. There is more than one American-English pronunciation song, more than one American-English accent. So it is okay to speak American English with an accent.
However, you will have to decide if your accent is “getting in the way” of your spoken communications. Your grammar and your phonetic pronunciation can be perfect, but you will still confuse your listener if your intonation of English words and phrases is different.
And don’t forget, there are two parts to a conversation. Speaking is one part. The other part is listening. You have to be able hear and recognize the intonation of other American-English speakers if you want to understand what they are trying to say.
Americans have the cultural habit of using intonation to change the literal meaning (dictionary definition) of the words and phrases that they are pronouncing. Americans will use intonation to add emotion or attitude to what the say instead of using different words. If you want to understand what an American is saying then sometimes you have to look past the dictionary definition of the words that they are using and instead listen to their intonation.
So in many ways the study of American-English intonation (and rhythm and stress) is the study of American culture. Phonetic pronunciation is physical pronunciation. To improve your phonetic pronunciation you need new muscle learning (your muscles control your articulators). Intonation is cultural pronunciation. To improve your intonation you need new cultural learning.
Click the play button in the video box for a summary of American-English intonation.
Program content & web design by Chris Opall © 2011. Page last updated July 28, 2012