Community Web Version Now Available
Rising and falling intonation

Hello, guys. I'm an English teacher on an after school course. I'm studying here a content of a more advanced class I have, and it talks a whole lot about rising and falling intonation. I'd like to ask the native speakers if this really noticeable. Like this...

Do you know where we are going? (rising intonation on the end of a Yes/No questions)
Who told you that story? (falling intonation on the end of a information question)
Do you prefer apples (rising intonation of items in a questions), bananas (rising intonation) or papaya (falling intonation on the end of a choice question)?

I mean... It feels odd to teach that. My students intonate questions quite well, but the book we use highlight about this on every single unit, as if this is the biggest deal on the speaking skill.

Is it really that important?

Sep 11, 2016 2:09 PM
Comments · 6
If your student´s goal is to sound more like native speakers, then it is important to learn this intonation and get into the habit.  When it is not a habit, it feels odd.  Native speakers are not even conscious of doing it.  I had to listen to myself saying the things to see if it was even true.   Native speakers understand speakers more easily when they use the right intonation. Although I honestly think learning to stress the appropriate words and reduce the appropriate sounds is even more important.  
September 12, 2016
Good comment from Susan. I'd like to add that the use of rising and falling intonation is *similar* in all European languages, so Portuguese speakers should naturally make the right choice between rising and falling intonation when speaking English. The difference is just one of degree of rise / fall, as well as some minor variations in timing. That being said, you should pay attention to your students’ intonation, since it will sometimes reveal whether or not they understand what they’re saying. If their intonation doesn’t match their words, it means they’re not paying enough attention to derive much benefit from the class, so you’ll need to find out what’s going on in order to help them out. You may also want your students to become consciously aware of their interlocutors’ intonation — this should help their comprehension skills a bit. Personally, I always pay attention to intonation. It’s just a matter of paying attention — it doesn’t really take any additional time to teach. Since it’s impossible to say a single phrase without intonation, it’s clear that a little practice will pay huge dividends.

September 12, 2016

Thanks, guys, I see all of your points.

First, I lived in Australia for a while, and I think I carry a lot of its accent. So I tend to agree with Saikat.

What Phil said, about the European languages having similar intonations in general, is basically what I feel. It's like when a book is teaching the difference of R and L. Okay, it's important for those who speak languages that don't have this sounds, but... Well, it's redundant when our own language already have this sounds.

My point, however, was answered by Susan. So, native speakers do this so naturally that they don't realize, and when they listen to something different than this, they know something is wrong, but not exactly what. Right?

I still don't like this subject (sorry), but you all gave me a different perspective. As a matter of fact, what Alan pointed out, the intonation before comas, is the topic for a next class I'll be giving, and I was unsure on how to approach it. I loved the video Peachey sent, but I think I might use one from an Australian comediant, who exagerates it a lot, so it's easier to see how this really makes a difference. (

Thanks so much, guys, and I sure will come back to ask for help with future classes. :P

September 12, 2016

I teach intonation from elementary level upward, and the students manage it perfectly well (the intonation for the questions you mentioned were part of an elementary lesson I taught about two months ago). When they get it right, they do sound natural.

Yes, it sounds funny because it sounds unfamiliar and sing-song, so why not teach it as something fun?  Even more, I'm pretty sure your students want to sound as natural as possible, so they wouldn't mind training that way.

For your amusement, this is a case of when intonation doesn't go as expected... :D

September 12, 2016

While it's true that "intonation" is much more complex than simply "rising/falling", we can just teach the basics to learners. I think at the very least teaching rising intonation for questions vs. falling intonation for statements makes the learner sound much more natural.

Also, as Phil pointed out, it matters in listening comprehension too. If the learner can hear the rising intonation at the end of a sentence, they can at least guess "Ah, they're probably asking me a Y/N question!", which makes it much easier to contextualise the speech.

Slightly more advanced (but still very teachable) is rising intonation before commas, which leads me to your third example. I don't think it's related to questions, but rather to lists. Whenever we list things we use rising intonation for all the items except the last. The red syllables = rising and the black = falling.

I need a can of cola, a bag of chips, a box of chocolates and a packet of gum.

My number's one-five-two, three-two-three-three, four-four-six-seven.

September 12, 2016
Show More
Language Skills
English, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish
Learning Language
Russian, Spanish