16 Intonation: Overview

Intonation is used by L1 English speakers to produce meaning at the phrasal level. While consonants, vowels, and word stress errors can cause a loss of intelligibility at the word level, errors in intonation rarely cause a loss of intelligibility at this level — that is, listeners can understand the words being spoken, but the meaning of the words can be mistaken depending on intonation (especially if there is no intonation pattern at all). When we talk about intonation, we are talking about communicated meaning, which can be either categorical or gradient.

Speakers of many languages around the world do not indicate grammatical meaning or attitude through intonation, but rather some other language feature (e.g., the grammatical and attitude-marking “suffixes” of Mandarin Chinese). Therefore, many L2 English speakers may have a perception about how much emotion they can appropriately express. Furthermore, since many L2 English speakers’ pitch range is narrower than what L1 American English listeners may expect, these listeners could potentially interpret students’ relatively monotone L2 English as expressing boredom, coldness or even hostility. L1 listeners may also become irritated with certain L2 speakers’ “sing-song” intonation, which would fail to communicate meaning to an L1 listener.

On the other hand, students might interpret the broader pitch range of L1 English speakers as excessively emotional or melodramatic when compared with their L1. This leads to some students being delighted with how changes in their intonational patterns can lead them to sound more like a native speaker, while others find it difficult to break past the norms of their L1.

Pitch Range Usage  
4 extra high used to express emphasis/contrast focus and strong emotions, e.g., surprise or enthusiasm
3 high used to express default focus and/or the end of a thought group |
| Intonation range
| for normal
| conversation
2 middle used as the baseline or "neutral" pitch from which the intonation contour rises and falls
1 low used by default to express the end of a thought group

Note: It can be helpful pedagogically to present the intonation range of English as characterized by 4 levels of pitch – though musical pitch differs from phonetic pitch in that 1) speakers each have their own baseline or “neutral” phonetic pitch, 2) a certain degree of variation is acceptable in how wide or narrow one’s intonation range is, and 3) speakers glide from one phonetic pitch to another instead of jumping from one distinct note to the next, as in music.

When we think about intonation, there are three aspects which are important for intelligibility: range, tune, and relative prominence. Range refers to the musical chart above, which has four different levels ranging from 1 (low) to 4 (very high). Tune refers to the direction of the intonation pattern, and is typically said as falling, level, rising, or fall-rise. Finally, relative prominence refers to the word which is receiving the focus, and is typically either weak-strong or strong-weak.

Relative Prominence
Weak-strong Strong-weak
Tune Falling






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Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Kochem, Monica Ghosh, Lily Compton, and Elena Cotos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.