Listening for Intonation Cues

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  • 0:01 Intonation?
  • 0:31 Questions
  • 1:56 Emphasis
  • 3:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Making sense of intonation cues in spoken English can be tough, especially if it isn't your first language. To help you figure it out, here's a guide to what to listen for.


If you're not familiar with linguistics, you might be wondering what intonation even is, so let's start there. Intonation refers to how high or low the pitch of a person's voice is. It's not the same thing as volume, which is how loudly a person is talking. In some languages, like Chinese, intonation can change the meaning of a word completely. But in English, intonation does not change the meanings of individual words. But it is still important because the intonation of a sentence helps guide you through it and follow the speaker's intended meaning.


One very common use of intonation in English is to mark a question. Typically, English speakers raise the pitch of their voice at the end of a question. Consider the following examples:

Statement: He left the car in the parking lot.

Question: He left the car in the parking lot?

You can imagine how the speaker's voice gets higher towards the end of the question. This is how you know it's a question. The words on the page are exactly the same, but the change in pitch clues you in to the change in the meaning of the sentence as a whole.

You could also phrase this question as, 'Did he leave the car in the parking lot?' Here, the words as well as the intonation are different. But, in real life, English speakers don't always do this. Often, they use the intonation of the sentence as the only clue that this is a question, not a statement.

Here is another example:

Statement: Joe has three brothers.

Question: Joe has three brothers?

Question: Does Joe have three brothers?

Again, the first two sentences have the exact same words in the exact same order, but the intonation lets you know that the second is a question. You could also use the third sentence, but it's not necessary.


Another important way that English speakers use intonation is to mark emphasis. Here, it gets tricky, because there are two things going on - intonation and volume:

Intonation: how high or low your voice is

Volume: how loudly or softly you're speaking

Emphasis involves a change in both intonation and volume. Typically, English speakers will mark an important or emphasized word in a sentence not just by making it louder, but also by raising and then quickly lowering pitch. For example, consider the following sentences:

'I want chocolate ice cream for my birthday.' This sentence stresses 'chocolate,' so the speaker is focusing on the proper flavor: chocolate, not vanilla or strawberry.

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