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Practice American English Intonation with America Ferrera

Download the script with notes.

Being good at telling a story is a skill. And that skill can be learned. In this episode, we’ll watch a clip from a TED talk by America Ferrera, an American actress whose family is originally from Honduras. Ferrera masterfully builds her speech about identity and how she came to realize that her identity was not an obstacle but her superpower.

What makes Ferrera’s TED talk so compelling and engaging is not just what she is saying but how she’s saying it. Her speech is a great example of how different elements of voice come together to really make an impact:

  • Operative words – Ferrera is emphasizing important words that drive the meaning forward and indicate her attitude about what she is saying. Operative words are the key to any good speech.
    Pitch & placement – lower pitch indicates more conviction, while higher pitch is used when telling a story that supports the main point.
  • Pauses – Ferrara adds a pause usually before operative words, and that supports the fact that those words are important. It also creates anticipation.
  • Rhythm – Her rhythm keeps changing, and that makes her speech more interesting and not repetitive and monotone.

Watch the video below to learn all of that as I analyze her speech:

TRANSCRIPT

Hey, welcome to the InFluency Podcast. I’m Hadar, and this is episode number 176. And today we are going to talk about intonation, rhythm, stress, phrasing and pauses with America Ferrera, the actress. And no, we’re not going to really talk to her, but we’re going to sort of talk to her, as you’ll see.

Hey, hey, everyone. Thank you so much for coming back to the podcast. So I’m back in my studio, recording this after visiting Rome for a few days. It was amazing. I’m just mentioning it because I mentioned it the last time I recorded a podcast and I thought it would only be fair to let you know that I’m back home, safe and sound.

And I’m super excited to share with you today’s episode. Because in today’s episode I talk about one of my favorite things. And yeah, I know I always say that. Because, you know, the schwa is one of my favorite things, and talking about mindset is one of my favorite things. But analyzing the intonation of great speakers is definitely a part of my top three.

So, today we are going to listen to a TED talk by America Ferrera. She is an actor and director, and an activist. And she gave this incredible TED talk that I highly recommend for you to watch. And I took a part of it and analyzed it. And through this analysis, I was discussing the idea of pitch, which ultimately affects the melody of your speech, and how that has served her. How she uses her voice, and in particular, the tone of voice, like how she changes the voice to let us understand her attitude and feelings towards what she’s saying. And also, phrasing and pauses – things that we don’t really think about, but they’re so powerful and impactful when we speak.

So, this is a really good lesson about great communication skills. Because understanding all of the things that we discuss in this lesson is important not just when you go to give a TED talk or a speech or a presentation, but also when you talk to pretty much anyone, who is not just you. Because we want to make an impact, we want people to listen to us, we want to get what we want. And these tools, like knowing what words, distress and how to stress them and how to use the voice to get people to feel is so incredibly important in any language.

So I hope that what you will learn today will help you with English, of course, but maybe even, you know, with things in your native language. Because we also communicate in our first language too, after all.

Okay. So I hope you enjoy this. And thank you so much for being here. And by the way, I have a free PDF attached to this episode, where you can download a part of the script of the TED talk, but it’s a phonetic script. So, I actually highlight the stressed words and I incorporate reductions into the text. So, it’s a good way to practice this specific speech with all those intonation notes, because it’s a visual representation of what you’re hearing. And sometimes, we need it.

So, just click the link in the show notes and get the script. And you can look at it as you’re going through the episode, whether it’s listening or you can also watch the video, I’m going to link to that as well. And I think it would make this experience a bit more powerful. Okay?

So, that’s it. And afterwards I invite you to share your story using the technique that you’ve learned in this episode, on video in the InFluency community – it’s our community for connecting and practicing English through video mainly. And it’s absolutely free. So I’m going to link to that in the show notes as well. So, I hope to see you there. And for now let’s enjoy the episode.

America is an actor, director, and a social activist. And in her TED talk, that is very inspirational – and I highly recommend for you to watch it afterwards – she talks about her journey going from a young girl, aspiring to become an actor, and how she faced all these different obstacles and challenges.

Because when she grew up, people like her were not seen in important roles in Hollywood. America is an American Latina, and she used to only get offers to play roles or characters that are very stereotypical, like the poor immigrant or someone with broken English. And she did not want that. She wanted it to portray a real character, like the people that we are in real life, no matter what our skin color or background is. And she wanted to do something meaningful and interesting.

So, in her TED talk, she tells her story and how she went from thinking that her identity is an obstacle and preventing her from reaching her dreams, to this point where she understands that her identity is in fact, her superpower.

Now, when it comes to English, what we’re going to listen to is how she builds her speech, how she uses operative words. Operative words are the keywords that drive the meaning forward. So, we’re going to listen and see how she emphasizes those operative words, how she’s using them. How she’s using her voice to make you understand something about the text and how she feels about the text. And of course, we’re going to talk about intonation, and stress, and rhythm, and how all of that is played out in a very good speech and an excellent delivery.

Let’s listen to the first few seconds of the talk.

On the red tiles in my family’s den I would dance and sing to the made-for-TV movie “Gypsy,” starring Bette Midler.

(Singing) “I had a dream. A wonderful dream, papa.”

I would sing it with the urgency and the burning desire of a nine-year-old who did, in fact, have a dream.

Okay. So let’s just listen a little closer to that last sentence. And I want you to pay attention to the words that stick out the most. Right? I want you to think about what words pop up when you listen to her speak.

I would sing it with the urgency and the burning desire of a nine-year-old who did, in fact, have a dream.

I’m sure it was pretty clear. And let’s listen to the first part again. Listen.

I would sing it with the urgency and the burning desire.

‘I would sing it with the urgency and burning desire’. ‘sing’, ‘urgency’, ‘burning’, right? Every time she emphasizes one of those words, she goes higher in pitch: ‘I would sing it with the urgency’. Right? She goes higher in pitch, but she also adds this emphasis, right? More volume, more intensity in her voice, especially when she gets to the word ‘burning’. It feels like the word is almost exploding out of her mouth. ‘And burning desire’.

This is how we use consonants to express how we feel and think about what it is that we’re saying. Right? It’s not just the choice of words that we choose to say. It’s also how we say them and how we use our voice and our pronunciation to express our attitude and thoughts and feelings about what we’re saying.

So let’s it together. ‘I would sing it with the urgency’ – even higher in pitch – ‘and burning desire of a nine-year-old’. Let’s listen to it again.

‘I would sing it with the urgency and the burning desire of a nine-year-old who did, in fact, have a dream’.

Okay. So that second part: ‘who did, in fact, have a dream’. A lot of words are stressed here: did, fact, have, dream. Right? So, first of all, the words that she chooses to stress, they emphasize her point, or they deliver the point of, you know, yes, that girl had a dream. But she could have easily said, “who had a dream”. But she chose to say, “who did, in fact, have a dream”, right?

So she added the word ‘did’ to emphasize the action, and she added the word ‘in fact’, and stressed it too, to emphasize the action. Which is a clue to me, as a listener, that this is an important point and I need to pay attention.

“who did, in fact, have a dream”.

It’s also like she’s using it to slow down her message right before the main point: ‘had a dream’. Right? Now why is it important? First of all, these are clues for us, as listeners, to understand what we need to pay attention to, to get the best out of the experience of listening to someone. But also, it’s great for us to see it as speakers. Because we’re all speakers, right? You don’t have to give a TED talk to learn how to use language to get what you want or to influence people. Right? So it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it on a TED stage or in the doctor’s office or when you’re speaking to your child’s teacher. If you want to express something that is important to you, these are important tools for every conversation.

So, emphasizing the action by saying ‘did’ and ‘in fact’ is a great tool to recognize, and then to replicate when you are speaking. This is why I love analyzing TED talks, because it gives us all these new tools to improve our communication abilities and speaking skills. Let’s continue.

“My dream was to be an actress.”

So, all the part right before that has led to this point: ‘my dream’ – rising-rising intonation, pay attention to what I have to say. Pause. Right? And that pause is really important cause again, it draws back my attention and it tells me, “Pay attention because something important is coming.” Something important IS coming.

“My dream was to be an actress.”

‘was to be an actress’. And she goes all the way down in pitch, right? Which shows me that, first of all, there is a period here – and – full stop. But also, when you go to the bottom of your pitch at the end, and you’re not rising again with your pitch, it gives you a sense of certainty and conviction. ‘was to be an actress’, right? And she’s adding a little bit of passion into her voice to emphasize how important that was for her. Right?

And again, like, I want you to think of your voice as such a versatile tool that you can use, not just in one way, but you can actually explore it in so many different ways. And again, it’s not because she’s on a TED stage that she’s doing it. The reason why she’s doing it is because she is bringing her words to life. And this is something that I’m doing right now, as I’m speaking with you, trying to convince you why it’s so important to use your voice and to have that freedom, and to give yourself this opportunity to express yourself more than, you know, the bare minimum.

But also again, I think it enhances your experience as a listener when you pay attention to those nuances and you understand more about the texts. It’s kind of like having an additional reference to the text. And I think it enhances your experience as a communicator as well. Let’s continue.

“And it’s true that I never saw anyone who looked like me in television or in films, and sure, my family and friends and teachers all constantly warned me that people like me didn’t make it in Hollywood.”

So what happens here? Notice that something happened to her voice. Notice how she goes up in pitch all of a sudden, her placement changes. It’s kind of like her attitude from being this convicted, you know, passionate speaker to, “Um, yeah, you know”, like you go up in pitch when something is a little uncertain or maybe it’s a little less important. Or maybe, “Yeah, I didn’t pay attention to it.” Right? So we change the voice in accordance to what we’re saying. So here she’s saying something like, “Yeah, I saw the reality, but I didn’t care.” Right? So let’s listen to it again, a little more closely.

“And it’s true that I never saw anyone who looked like me in television or in film.”

‘And it’s true that I never saw anyone who looked like me in television or in film’. Right? ‘true’, ‘never’, ‘anyone’, ‘looked like me’, ‘television’, ‘film’ – these are the operative words. So when you’re practicing it, pay attention to that, you’re kind of like punching those words. Now again, we’re using that higher placement, that head voice.

And by the way, this is a good example of why English doesn’t have a particular placement, right, if you’re trying to go lower in pitch to sound more American. No, because placement keeps changing based on what it is that you’re saying, whether you’re a man or a woman. And this is exactly what she’s doing here, going up in pitch. ‘And it’s true that I never saw anyone who looked like me in television or in film’.

“Sure, my family and friends and teachers all constantly warned me.”

So what happens here? What is the word that she’s emphasizing?

“Sure, my family and friends and teachers all constantly warned me.”

‘And it’s true that my family and my friends and teachers constantly warned me.’ Right? ‘constantly’ – three syllables. She’s like chewing on every single syllable here. Because she wants to emphasize the fact that people kept telling her, “Don’t do it. It’s not possible. It’s not going to work for you.”

“People like me didn’t make it in Hollywood.”

So pay attention to the words that people emphasize and pay attention to the words that you emphasize. Right? And how does she do it? She goes higher in pitch. Listen again.

“Sure, my family and friends and teachers all constantly warned me that people like me didn’t make it in Hollywood.”

‘that people like me’ – pause – ‘didn’t make it to Hollywood’. Right? And then she goes back to her low pitch, like from that, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know, like this is not possible. And actually, wait a minute, they didn’t make it to Hollywood.” Right? So here, she’s closing again with that rising-falling intonation, and going all the way down in her pitch on the word ‘Hollywood’.

‘Didn’t make it to Hollywood’. ta-da-TA-ta ta-TA-da-ta. Right? Pay attention to the rhythm, it keeps changing. It’s like drums or, you know, jazz music. You keep hearing the changing sounds or the changing rhythm. ‘Didn’t make it to Hollywood’.

“But I was an American.”

‘But I was an American’. Listen to what happens to her voice here. All of a sudden, it becomes this really passionate, you know, enthusiastic voice with more air, right, what makes this tone of voice sound enthusiastic. All of a sudden, there is a lot of air, right? It’s a little breathy or raspy even: ‘But I was an American’. Right? ‘I’, ‘American’. ‘I, American’, right? That’s the key point. In America everything’s possible. ‘But I was an American’.

“I had been taught to believe that anyone could achieve anything regardless of the color of their skin.”

Now she’s bringing it home. She’s really talking about her aspirations. And let’s pay attention to what she’s stressing here. ‘I have been taught to believe that anyone could achieve anything’, right? ‘anyone’, ‘anything’. The American dream, right? Anyone could achieve anything. And there’s like this gradual escalation in her pitch. ‘regardless’, until she gets to that next operative word. ‘regardless’, that’s even higher in pitch. ‘of the color of their skin’, right? ‘color’, ‘skin’. So, we really want to pay attention to what words stick out. So let’s do it again.

‘I had been taught to believe that anyone could achieve anything regardless of the color of their skin’.

“The fact that my parents immigrated from Honduras, the fact that I had no money”.

‘The fact that my parents immigrated from Honduras’. Right? ‘fact’, ‘parents’, ‘immigrated’: key words. ‘The fact that I had’ – pause – ‘no money’. ‘The fact that I had’ – again, notice how parts that are repetitive or kind of like swallowed and reduced. ‘The fact that I had’ – pause – ‘no money’ – stress, stress. She’s emphasizing each word here because she is not trying to downplay it. She really wants to say that, you know, “I had been taught to believe that I get a fair chance. I can succeed, even though I didn’t have any money growing up.”

“I didn’t need my dream to be easy, I just needed it to be possible.”

Now, listen to this beautiful sentence. ‘I didn’t need my dream to be easy’. And again, she’s slowing down here, she’s going to this lower placement, right? More conviction, more certainty. ‘I didn’t need my dream to be easy’. Right? Because again, it doesn’t matter how hard you work. If it’s not possible, then what’s the point? This is why she needed it to be possible.

So, again, there was this pause before the main point, before the key point here. ‘I didn’t need my dream to be easy’. Pause. ‘I needed it to be possible’. So let’s try it again, one more time.

“I didn’t need my dream to be easy, I just needed it to be possible.”

‘I didn’t need my dream to be easy, I just needed it to be possible’. So when you’re repeating it, I want you to be close attention to the rhythm and the stressed words. Okay? And that is the thing about intentional practice. And that is the thing about improving your speaking skills. Because first, you need to hear the differences or you need to perceive those nuances in the speech. Because if you can’t hear it, you can’t make it.

And then you want to repeat it with intention. So you’re not going back to old habits. Old habits would keep you safe. You would probably do the bare minimum, you would probably not emphasize the words the way they’re used to be emphasized in English. Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re speaking a different language, then you want to understand what are the elements in that language that make your speech more impactful and convincing, and persuasive, and passionate, and compelling – all of these great adjectives. Right?

So, you want to understand what gets you to feel things or what gets you to think about things. And then gradually start using it when you are speaking. So, one of the things that we’ve seen here in this small part of the talk is the use of operative words. Right? The key words that drive the meaning forward, or at least, they indicate the attitude of the speaker about what she’s speaking about.

The second thing is pitch and placement, right? When we’re using lower pitch, it shows more conviction and certainty and like serious talk, maybe direct talk. And sometimes, when we use our head voice, it’s just like we’re telling a story or it’s kinda like a part of what we’re trying to say, but it’s not the real thing.

We also noticed how pauses are used to help us get to the main point and create anticipation when we’re speaking. And usually, we use pauses before, you know, getting to the main operative word or the most important part in the sentence. And also, we noticed how the rhythm keeps changing, and how that keeps the conversation interesting and in motion, and not monotone and repetitive.

I have created for you a PDF with the script and intonation notes. So, I marked the stressed words and the reduced words, and organized it in a way that would be easy for you to practice it effectively. So if you want, it’s totally free. You can click the link and download it. And I also included a part from the end that I think is extremely powerful. We didn’t get to do it today.

So, I recommend for you to download it and even memorize it, and think about the words that she’s saying there. Cause I think that especially for speakers of English as a second language, understanding that who you are and your identity is indeed your superpower. And your story is so important, even if you don’t sound like what power sounds like, right? Like what people on YouTube or in Hollywood or on TV or in the news sound like. It doesn’t mean that you’re less worthy, it doesn’t mean that your voice doesn’t deserve to be heard. And I want to encourage you to understand that your story is important. And again, your identity is your superpower.

So, once you download the PDF and practice it a bit, I highly encourage you to send me a message on Instagram at @hadar.accentsway and share with me what you think and how that made you feel. And if you’re really courageous, then you can post it to your stories and tag me, so I can see it and even share it on my stories as well.

Okay, that’s it. You can download the PDF right below this video. And if you want more resources and practice your intonation even more, go check out my website at hadarshemesh.com. It has a ton of resources for you to get started and improve your communication skills in English.

Have a beautiful day. And I’ll see you next week in the next video. Bye.

The InFluency Podcast
The InFluency Podcast
176. American English Intonation: How To Use Stressed Words, Pitch, And Pauses To Make An Impact When You Speak
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Download the script with notes

See the stressed words, the reductions, and the connected words, as you practice the speech with America Ferrera and me.Get it

If you want to learn more about intonation, check out this episode.

You could watch America Ferrera’s TED talk here.

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2 Responses

  1. Hו Hadar, thank you very much for your support and endless ideas for the right way to speak English, i appreciated that.
    Thank you
    amira

  2. Hi Hadar ! Thank you so much for sending this video.
    The ideas and thoughts you are looking into and emphasizing in your exciting video are evidently right. The expression capability of human language would be terribly poor without these vocal means. The impact of our talk depends so far on its musical appearance. (Perhaps the music itself has some roots in that area.) Sure, theater art wouldn’t exist without using this musical dynamics of the human languages. You are certainly right if you say the American English may be the best paradigm to show that.

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