The Power of Pitch: Change Your Tone for Better Stress and Intonation in English

Want to speak clearly and express your emotions and attitude like native English speakers?

Then you need to learn to control your voice, change your tone, and use pitch variation for better stress and intonation in American English.

In short, you need to embrace the power of pitch.

The Role of Pitch in Spoken English

Before we get started, let’s talk about what we mean by the word “pitch.”

Pitch is the highness or lowness of your voice, and it’s incredibly essential in American English.

Have you thought about how you use pitch when speaking English? If not, that might be one big reason why you don’t sound natural – yet!

We use pitch in order to express our emotions and attitude through a change in our intonation, or the tone of our voice.

We also use pitch in order to express stress, or when we make certain syllables longer, louder, and higher in pitch.

(If you’re not familiar with word stress and how it works, please sign up for the free five day email course: Sound More Natural in English in Just Five Days.)

But here’s a quick review: word stress is when we make one syllable of a word l-o-n-g-e-r, LOUDER, and higher in pitch.

Extremely important: don’t forget this – higher in pitch.

A lot of non-native speakers get the longer or the louder – or both – correct, but they completely forget or ignore the higher in pitch.

Why is this? Well, English has different pitch variations than other languages. Some languages have more pitch variation than English, and others have less.

Why You Need to Control Your Pitch

To sound more natural in English, you need to be able to control your pitch. Here’s why:

Many non-native speakers sound a little robotic when speaking because they don’t have a lot of pitch variation in their voice.

Their tone tends to be pretty flat and they sound a little bit mechanical, like a robot. This is what we call a monotone voice: not expressive, not interesting, not clear.

Non-native English speakers often have this flat pitch because pitch variation is not a big part of the sound of their native language.

Pitch is created and used for different purposes in each language – and unless you’re a singer, you probably produce pitch unconsciously.

In English, we use pitch variation throughout each and every sentence – both women and men.

(If you listen to native English speaking men, you’ll hear the same variation that you hear in my voice. For clear examples, listen to videos by male comedians like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert.)

If you’re not creating this pitch variation in your speech, the person who is listening to you is going to have trouble understanding you.

A native speaker’s ear is expecting to hear this pitch variation, especially on stressed words and stressed syllables.

How to Practice Your Pitch

So here’s what you’re going to do: start practicing pitch. No vocal coach needed.

I want you to start thinking about your pitch and how you can use it more effectively.

As we start to explore different stress in words, different stress in sentences, and different stress in intonation patterns, you’re going to create this pitch variation.

Let’s start with a quick exercise that I use with my clients to help them identify and practice their own personal pitch variations.

At first, changing your pitch and varying the sound of your voice might feel a little stressful, forced, or even challenging.

This is because you’re not used to doing it, especially if your native language doesn’t have that much pitch variation.

Be sure to practice pitch before or as you continue to go deeper into word stress and intonation and reducing your accent.

You need to start including this pitch variation whenever you’re speaking.

If you’re having trouble with it, or you’re feeling like it’s not possible for you, you need to break out of that mindset and realize that you absolutely can practice your pitch variation.

Let’s get started – it will help to watch my explanation in the above video!

First, think about your baseline pitch.

This is the pitch that you have when your voice is resting.

Use a nonsense sound like “da” and repeat it at your baseline pitch.

Then go a step higher, and repeat the sound “da” one step above your baseline pitch.

Continue to go as high as you can, just to see the possibilities in your voice, and then come back down to your baseline pitch.

You don’t have to go as high as I show you in the video – you just want to be sure you identify a noticeable difference in pitch one and two steps above your baseline.

Next, try going one and two steps below your baseline pitch.

Familiarize yourself with the possibilities of pitch in your own voice. It should feel natural, not forced.

Even just going one step above and one step below your baseline pitch will help you create a noticeable pitch variation that you can use in order to produce word stress.

Spend 3-5 minutes each day “stretching” your pitch, going a step up and a step down, so that you start noticing how consistently you can vary your pitch.

Controlling Your Pitch for Word Stress

Taking control of your pitch in this way will help make it easier to produce pitch variations when you’re speaking English and working on natural-sounding word stress and intonation.

For example, let’s look at the word “education”: ed-u-CA-tion. The third syllable is stressed, which means the vowel is longer, louder, and higher in pitch.

You only need to go one step above your baseline pitch to produce noticeable word stress (together with making the syllable longer and louder).

When you start emphasizing those pitch variations, other people can follow what it is you’re trying to say and they’re able to understand which syllables and words you are stressing and emphasizing.

Your Turn

In future articles and video lessons, I’ll talk more about how you use pitch variation in order to express yourself, but I want you to start right now with this exercise so that you’re prepared!.

I hope this tip helped you understand why it’s so important to learn how to vary your pitch and how to control your pitch to sound more expressive in American English.

For the month of May, I’m running a daily challenge: 30 Days of Intonation. Click the link sign up to receive daily motivation emails with links to videos that help you understand intonation in words, phrases, and expressions.

Yes, pitch is essential to producing clear, expressive intonation!

Any questions? Leave a comment below and let me know how you did with the exercise.

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Learn to Ask Great Questions to Create Conversations in English

What makes a good question great?

Earlier this year, I watched a live workshop with Tim Ferriss, an American entrepreneur who is famous for his podcast where he has fantastic, fascinating conversations with his guests.

He’s known for being an amazing interviewer, so when the audience had a chance to ask him questions, someone asked him, “What makes a good question great?”

Tim had to sit with this deceptively-simple question for a moment. Here was his advice:

A great question comes from listening to the other person and responding to what they said, rather than moving on to the next question on the list.


If you’ve been following my series of articles and video lessons on essential conversation skills, you’ve heard me mention time and again that it’s important to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and respond to *that*.

When we worry about how we sound when speaking another language, we get distracted from what’s going on right in front of us: the conversation!

Listen to Hear and Understand, Not to Respond

A significant part of improving your communication skills in English is learning to listen to hear and understand, rather than listening to respond.

(And let’s be perfectly honest – native speakers also need to learn to do this, myself included. It’s a process.)

Believe it or not, you are much more likely to be seen as a good communicator based on your ability to listen to other people and respond accordingly.

When you just say whatever you’ve prepared in your head without acknowledging the other person’s ideas and opinions, you may actually sound impolite, too direct, or too demanding.

When you ask thoughtful questions in response to what another person has said, you show that you’re a good listener.

Learn to Ask Great Questions in Conversation

This is excellent news for you: you can learn and practice good questions ahead of time.

You can also learn to listen carefully and respond appropriately.  (This is often called active listening and is a skill that native English speakers also have to practice!)

When you put the two together, you are able to ask great questions.

I want to encourage you to practice these good questions (you can download 17 examples of more interesting questions here).

When you practice good questions in advance, these questions become part of you and your communication style.

Many English learners find making small talk stressful. Using better questions can significantly help.

When you don’t really know the person you are talking to, you may feel more self-conscious about your accent, using the right words, or choosing appropriate grammar. We’re more relaxed with friends.

When you learn great questions, you already know what you could possibly ask in these casual conversations.

That means you can focus your attention on listening carefully so that you are able to choose questions that are interesting and that are in response to what the other person has to say.

This enables you to create the conversation, rather than control it.

Asking great questions enables you to create a deeper, more interesting conversation with the person that you’re speaking with.

What’s even better? If you’re having a fascinating conversation, the person that you’re talking to isn’t even going to notice your mistakes.

After all, mistakes are a natural, normal part of a spontaneous, engaging conversation.

When your conversation involves asking and answering great questions, the other person is going to be paying attention to what you’re talking about, the questions that you’re asking, how to respond to them, and how to keep the conversation going.

Your Turn

Remember, the whole reason you are speaking English is to connect in conversation with other people!

I want to encourage you to focus on asking good questions, and learning to be a better listener.

When you strengthen both of these skills, you’re going to notice that it’s much easier to have better conversations in English.

How do you feel about asking questions in conversations in English? Have you learned any great questions to use when making small talk? Let us know in the comments.

Don’t forget to enter your email below to receive your free small talk guide – with plenty of interesting questions for you to practice!

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Focus on Interactional Language If You Want Better Conversations in English

Here’s a concern I often hear from English learners: “Kim, I have no trouble expressing myself in my native language, but when I try to speak in English, I don’t know how to get started. I can’t jump in, I feel tongue tied, and the words don’t come, so I decide to stay silent. What can I do?”

If you’re struggling to have a real conversation in English, you might be missing interactional language.

Many English classes focus on transactional language, or predictable, formulaic exchanges between two people to accomplish a specific goal.

On the other hand, interactional language helps you keep the conversation flowing by enabling you to handle a wide range of situations.

Keep in mind that both types of language are important in order to confidently and fluently speak English and connect in conversation with native speakers.

The problem is that many English textbooks and teachers focus too heavily on transactional language without providing insight into the more culturally specific interactional language.

In this video and article, I describe the difference between transactional and interactional language, explain why you need to focus more attention on interactional language, and give you suggestions about the language you should start with.

Transactional Language

Let’s start by defining our terms. Although you don’t need to remember the words “transactional” and “interactional,” they can give you insight into how these types language are different.

Transactional language is the language that you use in order to complete a transaction. A transaction usually involves achieving a simple goal by speaking with another person.

For example,  when you go to a store and you want to buy something, you head to the checkout area, the cashier rings up your purchases, and then you pay with your credit card. In fact, this exchange of money for the items is called a credit card transaction.

Although you can avoid speaking with the cashier entirely, you will probably exchange a few predictable words with him or her. This conversation will follow a consistent formula that you can study in order to have a smooth, short dialogue with the cashier.

This type of transaction is basic and enables you to achieve certain goals. Another example is when you go on a trip and have to check into a hotel. This is a simple transaction between you and the attendant at the front desk.

Similarly, when you go to the airport, you need to know certain language to check in, check your bags, go through security, and board the plane. These are more examples of transactions: specific language you need to achieve specific goals.

The reason you learn transactional language in lower-level English classes is that these conversations follow a formula that you can easily study and learn in order to produce the language in situations when you need it.

Because transactional language helps you survive, or get things done, in situations where you have no choice but to speak English, it is an excellent place to start practicing speaking English.

Interactional Language

But when you progress beyond the beginner and intermediate levels, you need to start focusing on interactional language.

Interactional language is the language that you use in order to interact with other people.

An interaction is a more in-depth, more involved conversation, where the language is less predictable. So you need to learn how to navigate this type of conversation using interactional language.

At times, the other person may say something that you didn’t understand, so you have to respond and tell them that you didn’t understand.

Or you might really like what they said and want to show them approval.

Or you may decide to give them a compliment and then the other person will need to receive the compliment.

Interactional language is language that helps facilitate these conversations, or make them easier.

The conversation skills and communication strategies that I teach are forms of interactional language. The language helps you keep a conversation flowing.

Here are some examples:

(There are many more conversation skills you can gain to strengthen your interactional language. For more ideas, take a look at my Conversation Anatomy workshops.)

Without Interactional Language, You Sound Demanding

What I want you to understand is that as you become a more advanced English learner, you need to focus on gaining more interactional language.

It’s one thing to be able to express your thoughts fluently and confidently by stating your particular opinions, or the things that you want or need.

But if you truly want to sound fluent, interactional language helps smooth the edges of conversations.

When English learners speak fluently but don’t use any of this interactional language, the conversation can actually feel forced and a little robotic.

Culturally speaking, a person that only uses transactional language without interactional language sounds pretty demanding.

It sounds like this person is just trying to tell you what they feel, what they need, what they want.

This kind of conversation doesn’t feel like a true conversation; instead, it feels like someone giving you orders.

To avoid making this impression on native speakers, you need interactional language to help the conversation flow a little bit better.

Interactional language connects ideas like transitions do when you write an essay or an email. You need to use it so that your ideas sound a little bit better.

Your Turn

To improve how you sound when speaking English, I want you to start practicing more interactional language. If you think about it, you probably already have some of this language in your vocabulary and feel comfortable using it.

But to go a little further, think about situations where you feel like you probably just needed “a little something” in order to make the conversation go better.

Once you’ve identified some situations where you know you need interactional language or expressions that can help you smooth the edges and make the conversation flow easier, leave a comment below and share.

To get a sense of the language you need, start with the five most essential conversation skills and move onto the other communication strategies I’ve linked throughout this article.

For more guidance on how to express yourself in conversations in English, be sure to check out my Conversation Anatomy workshops.

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