How to ask questions in English so that people understand you | Question Intonation in English

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A few years ago, when in-person groups were not a health threat, I talked about intonation with my students at my local studio.

I started explaining the difference between intonation of questions and statements, when one of my students started laughing.

We all looked at him surprised, and I immediately started laughing too, since I have a tendency of catching people's laughter (something that got me into a lot of trouble when I was in high school).

“NOW IT GET IT”. He said.

“You get… What”?

This guy was a developer at a HiTech company, and mainly worked with their American branch. Even though the team members shared mutual respect and got along well, he couldn't help but notice that they’re still experiencing some communication challenges.

“I think I understand why whenever I’m done speaking, my American team members never respond right away. There’s always this awkward silence before anyone else starts speaking.
I couldn't figure out why. Now I get it.”

I smiled.

“Intonation is like code”

“Intonation is like code” I started. “The melody of your sentence tells your listener what it is that you NEED from them” whether you want them to listen, to wait, to respond with a short answer or with a detailed explanation.”
They all looked at me interested. The word ‘code’ grabbed their attention.
(I know how to talk to developers.)
“Every language has its own code, and when we fail to use it properly, it can cause miscommunication. Like in the case you described.”

The following week he came back and shared with us that he’d discussed this “intonation thing” with his American colleagues. They were surprised to hear that there’s a difference in the way we speak, and they spoke openly about it.

“At first it felt a bit uncomfortable” he shared “ but then they said that they never really know when I was done speaking.” He smiled a bit embarrassed. “I guess I wasn’t using the right code. And since they’re so polite and didn’t want to make me feel uncomfortable, they didn’t interrupt.”

“Three months with an Israeli team and that’s no longer an issue” claimed another student from the back of the room, getting us all to laugh at her comment.
You see, Israelis are known for their passionate conversation skills (also known as barging into each other's words?‍♀️).

He seemed relieved. “So…now what?”

“Now?” I stared at him giving him the ‘you should know better by now’ look.
“Now, we practice”.

Has that ever happened to you, %FIRSTNAME%? When you spoke, but you felt the other person was just not responding the way you’d expected them to?

Now look, when it comes to intonation it’s not black and white, and has a lot to do with context. However, on my mission to making it simple for you, I’ll try to help you understand the ‘code’ so you too will be able to identify the difference between statements to questions, questions that require a simple yes/no answer, and those that require a more detailed answer.

It’s all in the music – believe it or not:)

Watch: How to ask questions in English so that people understand you

And since I want to make sure that you always practice too, I’ve prepared for you a practice sheet and audio with different types of questions to download, so you too can practice with us.

And if you’d like to take it even one step further, you can join us at Beyond, our English practice community.

If you also have a funny story about miscommunication in English – I’d love to hear it! You can share it with me in the comments section on the website, or just hit reply and share!

FREE DOWNLOAD: My Intonation Practice Sheet

Learn how to use the right intonation for different questions in English

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Want to know more about Intonation?  Watch this video:

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2 Comments on “How to ask questions in English so that people understand you | Question Intonation in English”

  1. Hi Hadar ! I guess I misinterpreted a little bit your superb video. My understanding corresponds perhaps more how you refer melody. I’m not an expert in languages. Nevertheless, INTONATION brings to my mind an analogy to music. (A very little bit, I got some impact from music theory.) A clef (for instance the violin clef or bass clef) determines the value of notes. That is the meaning of units of music and simultaneously perhaps the feelings, emotions the music triggers in our soul.
    Thank you again for the video.

  2. Dear Hadar ! Your video talked the usual high level about features of English language which I should learn much more about. My native language sounds sometimes a bit monotonous. At least, when it is spoken by the layman. Even when the speaker is highly educated. Nevertheless, there are some people, maybe not specifically educated but possessing some sort of artistic talent, who can talk even my native tongue sounding like a kind of music. These people usually have a profession matching to their gifted habit. Usually they work as actresses, actors. I wish I were again younger to learn phonetics like actors in their special school. I like and appreciate so much if I can listen to performing poems by such artists. Thank you so much for flashing from your own great art.

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