Are you done talking? Have you finished your thought? Can I answer your question now? If so, please let me know – with your voice.
You’re probably really careful with your choice of words, but your intentions might be misunderstood if you use the wrong intonation pattern.
Here’s why you need to confidently choose to speak with rising or falling intonation:
If your pitch rises when it should fall, you may sound uncertain or insecure, or the person you’re speaking with may think you doubt them.
If your voice drops when it should rise, you may sound annoyed instead of curious. Or the other person may not be sure if you’re asking them a question, or telling them what you think.
Native speakers often turn statements into questions by changing their pitch at the end of the sentence.
If your tone always rises at the end because of how you use pitch in your native language, part of your meaning may be getting lost in translation.
If you think that someone has misunderstood you, it may not actually be your language; it may be your tone of voice.
Why You Need to Signal You’re Done Talking with Falling Intonation
The number one reason why non-native English speakers need to master falling intonation is not because it’s the most common intonation pattern in American English, although it is.
As far as I’m concerned, falling intonation is so essential because it lets the other person know that you’ve completed a thought.
Falling intonation invites us to respond.
Without thinking about it, native speakers are listening for a clear signal that you’re ready for us to take over the conversation.
If we don’t hear this clear fall at the end of your statement or information question, we might not know that it’s okay for us to speak up.
Of course, there will always be people who interrupt or jump in when you’re not quite finished, but polite people will wait for a clear cue that it’s okay for them to start speaking.
People who work with international students and non-native English speaking professionals often comment that they’re not sure when the other person has finished speaking.
I encourage you to think about whether your voice falls at the end of your statements: is it easy for a native speaker to hear that you’re done talking?
If not, the other person may not be sure if you’re asking them a question or telling them what you think.
And yes, this is also a problem with native speakers who tend to end their sentences with uptalk, or rising tone at the end of their statements.
People will ask, “Are you asking me, or are you telling me?”
If you are asking a yes or no question, that’s when you want to make sure you use a rising tone at the end of the question.
Choosing the right intonation helps your listener interpret what you’re saying.
Let’s Practice Rising and Falling Intonation
If you’re not confident using rising and falling intonation, please don’t worry – you’re not alone!
After all these steep pitch glides can take some practice. We sometimes need to change our pitch on short, one-syllable words.
In the video, we’ll take a look at some examples so you can hear how the difference in intonation changes the meaning.
The project isn’t done yet.
In this example, I’m using falling intonation, and just stating a fact.
Let’s hear how it changes with rising intonation:
The project isn’t done yet?
In the second example, I’m using rising intonation, and I’m asking the statement as a question. I’m checking and confirming to see if that’s true.
This suggests that the other person has to tell me yes or no. Depending on the tone, this can also show disbelief or frustration.
Let’s try an example with a tag question:
You saw that movie, didn’t you? (with a rise)
In this example, I’m using rising intonation in order to check and confirm with the other person whether or not they saw the movie.
Let’s try it with falling intonation:
You saw that movie, didn’t you? (with a fall)
In this example, I’m saying it as a statement. I’m pretty sure that the person has seen that movie. We probably had a conversation about it earlier. It’s almost like I’m affirming that idea to myself.
One more example:
They’ll be here in an hour.
As you can hear in this example, I’m just giving a fact.
Now, let’s try it with rising intonation:
There’ll be here in an hour?
By asking this statement as a question, I may be checking this information. Perhaps I’m checking to see if it’s really going to be an hour.
If I increase the pitch even more, I may be completely shocked. Maybe they’re running late, or they were supposed to be here three hours ago.
As you can hear that very steep rise in pitch signals that I can’t believe that it’s going to take so long.
Now that you understand how using rising or falling intonation can change the meaning of the sentence, I want you to take a moment to write your own examples.
Try writing examples using words you already use, questions you may ask, or statements that make sense for your life. Then try saying them with the correct tone.
We often talk about the same subjects again and again, so it can be helpful to practice with ideas that are familiar to you.
I especially encourage you to practice this with factual statements you often make about your life.
Learning how to signal that you’re done talking by finishing your statements with falling intonation can really help native English speakers understand you.
Remember, using falling intonation at the end of your statements invites the other person to respond.
It signals to the other person that it’s okay for them to jump in and continue the conversation. That way you get a break, and they have a chance to share their ideas.
If you need more review on how to use rising and falling intonation, as well as how to use different intonation patterns to show emotions, be sure to check out these resources: