American Intonation – what they don’t teach you in school

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You know this woman…
a non-native speaker just like you, but something about the way she speaks makes her sound so fluent, natural and effortless?
But you don’t know what it is that makes her sound that way?

Or when you watch a TED talk, and there’s something so powerful and captivating about the way he talks… Something that moves you, but you don’t know exactly what you need to do to get there?

I believe that this missing link is intonation.

Intonation is the melody, the inner ‘feel’, the secret rhythm of the language.
It’s the attitude, the humor, the emotions.

Intonation is a tool to convey a thought,
it’s the ability to distinguish between the important and the unimportant.
Understanding intonation helps you understand native-speakers better,
Because let’s face it, there are no subtitles in real life.

In this video I will talk about the most important elements of American intonation:
Melody (no, it’s not that they’re fake. It’s the melody.)
Stress (what’s important and what you shouldn’t stress over)
Rhythm (the reason why we think all Americans mumble)

Click to watch : American Intonation – What They Don’t Teach You in School.

Liked it? Join the conversation!

Let me know in the comments below what is the most challenging element for you, and how you are planning to work on it.

Don’t forget to tell us where you’re from and what your native tongue is!

Much love,

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Hi. What’s up? How are you? Hey guys, it’s

Hadar and this is The Accent’s Way. Today

we are going to talk about American

intonation. Now I know that usually in

this channel I talk about pronunciation,

but don’t get me wrong.

American intonation is not less

important, and sometimes more important,

than pronunciation and this is why I

figured it is time to talk about

American intonation. So today I’m going

to open the wonders of American

intonation so you can start listening to

English rather differently. When we talk

about intonation we are talking about

three things. One is the melody – the music

of the language. When I go up in pitch.

When I go down – “Ha-dar” – tuh-TAH. If I take

away the words and I just play it, it’s

just like a song or a tune that I’m

playing – Tah ta-ta-dah ta ta-ta-dah-ta-tah. So when you’re listening to English

or when you’re speaking English you also

want to consider the melody, the notes

that you’re using. We’re also going to

talk about stress. Stress is what words

you choose to stress in a given sentence.

What are you doing? Or, what are you doing?

‘What’ verses ‘doing’. While there are some

patterns and a neutral way of saying

things, there’s also a lot of freedom. Of

course, it depends on the context, the

attitude, and many other things, but you

first need to know the building blocks

and the basis of what words are usually

stressed and what words are not stressed

for the most part. Now, lastly, we have

rhythm. Rhythm is the real deal. Its the

feel of the language. It’s really owning

it once you start using American rhythm.

Now, you have to understand that English

is a perfect balance between the long

versus short, the high versus low, the

stressed versus the effortless, and when

you are able to balance between all

these things in an effortless

and clear way, this is when you

become a strong speaker who is able to

communicate their message in a clear and

confident way. Now today, we’re going to

discuss all of these elements but in the

future I will release more in-depth

videos about each and every subject with

many, many examples and more explanation.

Before we talk about these elements, I

want to talk about the different types

of words. So, in English, actually in any

language, the words in the language are

divided into two main groups: content

words and function words. Content words

are words that deliver the content nouns,

like ‘sister’, ‘table’, ‘school’; verbs ‘go’, ‘run’

‘swim’, ‘think’; adjectives ‘beautiful’, ‘red’,

‘clean’; and adverbs ‘slowly’, ‘sometimes’,

‘beautifully’ and ‘fast’. The other group is

function words. These are all the small

words that connect content words. They’re

essential to create a grammatically

correct sentence, but when they stand

alone they don’t signify anything. We

don’t know exactly what they mean. We are

talking here about prepositions like ‘on’,

‘in’, ‘at’; verb be – ‘am’, ‘is’, ‘are’; articles ‘a’, ‘an’; determiners like ‘the’, ‘this’, ‘that’. These

are the words that non-native speakers

struggle with when they’re trying to

construct a sentence because, is it “have been”, “has been”, “had been”? So, when we speak, there

is always a strong preference towards

stressing content words. Content words

are the important words. If you say “had

been” versus “have been” the message is still

going to be clear. But, if you say “red”

instead of “blue”, that’s something

completely different. So content words

are always more important and that’s how

we treat them when we think about

intonation because content words are the

words that are stressed usually, whereas

function words

are unstressed. And not only that they’re

unstressed, they were reduced to a point

that it’s even not clear anymore and

I’ll give you a few more examples in a

second. Let’s take for example the

sentence, and I’m going to say it broken

down a little bit, “The glass is on the

table.” “The glass is on the table.” And now

I’m gonna talk about all three elements:

melody, word stress and rhythm. So first

of all stress. We need to decide what are

the stressed words in the sentence. So

let’s first recognize what are the

content words. “The glass is on the table.”

we have ‘glass’ and ‘table’, two nouns. And

these are the words that I’m going to

stress in this sentence. Not every

content word is stressed the same, but

for now let’s agree that these two words

are the words that I choose to stress.

This is where melody and rhythm comes

into play. Stressed words are higher in

pitch and longer. Higher in pitch, so they

get a higher note TAH-dah. The first note

was higher in pitch – TAH-dah –

and they’re longer. Okay. “The GLASSs is on

the TABLE.” So notice that I raised the

pitch for ‘glass’ and ‘table’. “The glass is

on the table.” Okay. So in terms of melody,

when words are stressed they’re also

higher in pitch. Now one more thing I

want to tell you about melody is that

every syllable receives a different note

in English. It is not “The glass is on the

table” – ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. “The

glasses on the table.” It’s not “The GLASS

is ON the TABLE.” Its not every word is

going up and down, but I choose the

stress words and then these are the

words that are going to be higher in

pitch and from there I either go down or

I go up. Every syllable takes me one step

lower or higher. In this case, “The GLASS

is on

the” – so I keep going down because these

are not stressed words – “TAY”, I’m starting

a new word that is stressed so I’m gonna

go high in pitch. “TAY-ble”. “The glass is on

the table.”

So that’s melody what words I choose to

stress and go high in pitch for. Now,

while we choose to shine on the content

words, the words that bring the content,

in this case glass and tea bowl, by going

higher in pitch and prolonging them,

function words play a smaller role in

this show. They are reduced. We kind of

want to hide them. We want to reduce them

to a point where they don’t interfere or

they don’t compete with content words. So,

if we’re going back to “The glass is on

the table”, function words are “the”, “is”, “on”,

and another “the”. We reduce the vowel

in those words to a schwa. A schwa is a

really reduced vowel sound. It sounds

something like this: “uh”. To make the sound, we

just drop the jaw a little bit, the

tongue rests on the bottom of the mouth

the lips are relaxed, and we release

sound – “uh” “uh”. So the vowels and the function

words reduce through this “uh” sound.

Therefore the word “the”, okay we don’t say

“thee glass”, we say “thuh glass.” So the vowel

there is a schwa sound – “thuh” “thuh” –

and we connected it. It feels as if

it’s one word “the glass”. “Is” turns into “uhz”.

“On” turns into “uhn”, and again we have

another “thuh”. So it’s not “is on the”, its

“zun-thuh”, “zun-thuh”. We reduce the vowel and we

connect the words together – “zun-thuh”, “zun-thuh”.

“Th’glass z’n’th table”. “The glass on the table.” “The glass on the table.”

Now notice what happens, the “is” merges with “the glass” – “the glass’z”.

“On” becomes ‘mm’ – “the glass’z’m”. The N and TH connect – “the glass’n’th”. Okay? So we can like

took these three words and squeeze them

into one utterance “zun-thuh” “zun-thuh”.

“The glass on the table.” So you get a sentence that

is a perfect balance between the high

and the low – “glass is on the” – between the

long and the short – “glass is” – right? “Glass”

is long, although it’s one syllable, and

“is” is really reduced and also the stress. So

I invest more energy and I say a little

louder – “GLASS z’n’th” – to be able to connect

the words and to reduce them I have to

say the consonants softer – okay? It’s

not enough so I have to invest less

energy in those function words to be

able to go through them smoothly and

then be ready for the next content word

where I’m gonna go higher pitch and I’m

gonna prolong them. Let’s look at another

example, what if I told you that five

words can be shorter than one word with

one syllable. Five words are going to be

shorter than one word with one syllable.

How? Let’s look at the next example: What

are you going to do? The “do” is the verb

here and that’s the word that I’m going

to stress, okay?

Stress? Check! I know what word I’m

stressing. Then, I know that in terms of

melody, this word is going to be higher

in pitch because that’s the word I want to

stress – “do” “do”. So I already know the

ending. The beginning is a bunch of

function words, so I’m going to reduce

them. “What” turns into “wh’t”. “Are” turns into

“r”. “You” turns into “yuh”. “Going” to turns

into “gunna” “gunna”. So instead of saying

“what are you going to”, we say “wadaya gonna” “wadaya gonna”. “Wadaya gonna do?”

“Wadaya gonna do?” “Wadaya gonna do?”

“Wadaya gonna do?” “Wadaya gonna do?” So the “do” is longer than the entire

first part of the sentence. It’s longer

than the entire sentence because five

words versus one, one word with one

syllable is longer than the first five,

and this is why it’s important to

remember that rhythm is a result of your

message – what you’re trying to say. The

words that you stress are going to be

longer and louder and higher in pitch.

The words that are less important for

delivering your message are going to be

reduced to allow everything else to

stick out. In many languages, every

syllable has the same beat. It doesn’t

matter if it’s a content word or a

function word, if it’s stressed or

unstressed, it receives the same length.

So a sentence like this is going to

sound something like “what are you going

to do”, “what are you going to do.” Okay? So “do” is gonna be super short. “What” is going to have the same length.

“To” have the same length as “do” – “what

are you going to do” – and then it’s hard

to understand what is the important part

here. Okay, of course it’s a simple

sentence but if we’re talking about more

complex sentences and there is no

hierarchy between the words, it’s really

hard to get your point. “What are you

gonna do” “what are you gonna do” “what are you going to do” “what are you gonna do”.

Let’s take a look at a sentence with

several content words: There are three

coins in the box. “There are three coins

in the box” Here, I chose to stress “coins”

and “box”, so these words are high in pitch.

“There are three COINS in the BOX.” “There are”

“there are” “there are” – that’s reduced – “there’r three coins in the box.”

“N-thuh” “N-thuh” “N-thuh” – also reduced.

“There are three coins in the box.” I can also say “There

are THREE coins in the box.” And when you

hear that you know that maybe someone

else thinks that there are five coins. No,

there are three coins in the box. Why are

you confusing me? There are three coins.

Why did you say there were

five? Okay, so it’s the same sentence but

stressing a different word means

something slightly different. Now, I want

you to listen up here, and this is really

important. When we speak with a foreign

accent, what we do is we apply patterns

that we know from our native tongue on to

English. We don’t do it consciously, its

just that’s what comes out organically.

Now if we do that, if the patterns of our

native tongue are different from English

and sometimes contradictory to the

patterns of English, the result is that

the stress is not going to be clear. The

message is not going to be clear, because

if you’re applying external intonation

and stressing things, let’s say at the

beginning rather than the end, and in

English you want to stress the ending

usually, then what happens is that you

end up stressing the wrong words.

although you know how to construct the

sentence,, the words are accurate, you

don’t make any grammar mistakes. But if

you don’t distinguish the right words, if

you don’t stress the right words, if you

don’t put the emphasis on the words that

are stressed then you become unclear

then people may get something that is a

little different from what you mean. So

understanding that, recognizing your

patterns, and listening to how native

speakers speak, really helps you

understand how English should be spoken

and advances you in becoming a stronger,

a more confident and a clearer speaker.

Now I want to ask you – what, from

everything that I discussed today, melody,

rhythm, stress, is the most challenging

for you? What are you still struggling

with? Please let me know in the comments

below and don’t forget to tell me where

you’re from

and what is your native tongue and I

will do my best to create more content

and lessons that will help you resolve

all the issues that you’re facing. Thank

you so much for watching. Please share

the video with your friends if you liked

it and you think that they may benefit

from it. And don’t forget to subscribe to

my YouTube channel and click on the bell

to get notifications so you know when I’m releasing

a new video. Have a wonderful week and I

will see you next week in the next video.

Show Episode Transcript

17 Comments on “American Intonation – what they don’t teach you in school”

  1. Thanks Hadar!
    I’ve been studying English for many years, but became fluent is a dream… I come from Brasil and we have a very musical language, but also very diferent of English and I strugle to understand natives and talk confidently…
    Best regards!

  2. I am from Ghana, west Africa and my native language is Twi. I am currently living in USA and love your videos. Thank you so much!

  3. omg Hadar!where have you been? I’m from Mexico city but I’ve been living here in Texas for more the two decades. I’m ashamed of me because I been procrastinating and don’t put a lot of effort into learning English my mother language is Spanish. I’m impressed by your hard work and how you easily pass as a native American. I feel so inspired and now I know I can do it. Thank you so very much for your great lessons and for sure I’m going to follow your channels. best wishes.

  4. Hi!
    I am Argentinian and my major problem is how to pronounce the “O”
    Thanks for uploading your video, I am already improving with my TH and R sounds

  5. I am from Haiti and I am struggling with pronunciation, most of the time when I have conversations with other people whenever I pronounce a word it seems like they don’t understand then I have to repeat it over and over again or sometimes I choose a synonym to make them understand about what I want to say. You can imagine how shameful I can feel in such a situation that’s the reason why I want to work on my pronunciation to get it off this situation. Thank you, teacher Hadar for your peace of advice, they are very useful for learners English.

  6. Thanks Hadar.
    I’m from Brazil, . My mother tongue is
    Portuguese. Your lesson are have been greatly helpful for me.. Thank you so much

  7. Hi, I’m from Argentina and my mother tongue is Spanish. I know the theory of which words to stress and which don’t (as you very well explained in your video) but I still have problems to put that into practice. When I say a word with a specific tone (high rise, low rise, etc) in discourse I generally run out of air, so my fluency “breaks”? How can improve that?
    Please continue uploading videos about stress (may each type of stress), melody and rythm because it’s very useful and there is little research on these topics.
    Congratulations for your work and thanks for sharing.

  8. Dear Hadar,

    Thank you for your work. My name is Olga, I’m from Ukraine. My native languages are Russian and Ukrainian. Firstly, watching your videos I didn’t suspect at all that you weren’t an American. That’s impressive. You inspired me to keep practicing.

  9. Hello Hadar.
    Thank you for you explain, i’m from Colombia, i speack spanish, in this moment in doing a Exchange in Usa but really my english is so bad, i can’t understand anithyng the people tell me. But i try yo listen whit attention your video and i guess i understand the essence of the message.
    I loved it.

  10. Hi Hadar. I love to watch your video. My native language is spanish. I have never pay to much attention to my pronunciation and now I have realized that it is hard for people to understand me
    I believe that intonation is so important
    Thank you for helping me to improve my English.

  11. thank you very much Hadar!!! I am from Argentina, I speak spanish. .
    I am a musician and part of the rhythm and melody that you explain to me are familiar to me and help me to understand better. I think the Word Stress is what costs me a little more, to realize when and how to pronounce them.
    You really know to teach. I love the way you do it, very clearly and easier. It shows that you love what you do. Best Regards

  12. Thank you, Hadar. I enjoy watching your videos. You are very creative and energetic. I was born in the U.S.A., but my mom took me to El Salvador when I was a baby, I came back to the U.S.A when I was twenty. I started going to ESL classes two months after I came, but I use to speak and watch TV in Spanish for almost two years, until I finally got the courage to start talking small sentences with a 8 yrs old cousin. I have a heavy accent and I do not like it, specially when people ask where are you from? and they say you have a strong accent. I want to become fluent and sound softer.

  13. Thank you very much, Hadar.
    This Master video makes a lot of sense to me. I lived in USA over a decade and I understand clear how intonation works now. I moved back to Mexico 8 years ago and I believe your way to teach is the way I always wanted.
    I repeat everyday for 1 hour what I listen, feeling more capable and confident. Please, keep the wonderful work!!

  14. Thanks Hadar.
    I’m from Senegal, West Africa. My mother tongue is Wolf, one of several languages spoken is senegal. I’ve been living in dubai since 2012. My biggest problem is to understand intonation when listening.

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