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American Intonation – How to Understand Native English Speakers Better

You know this woman…
a non-native speaker just like you, but something about the way she speaks makes her sound so fluent, natural and effortless?
But you don’t know what it is that makes her sound that way?

Or when you watch a TED talk, and there’s something so powerful and captivating about the way he talks… Something that moves you, but you don’t know exactly what you need to do to get there?

I believe that this missing link is intonation.

Intonation is the melody, the inner ‘feel’, the secret rhythm of the language.
It’s the attitude, the humor, the emotions.

Intonation is a tool to convey a thought,
it’s the ability to distinguish between the important and the unimportant.
Understanding intonation helps you understand native-speakers better,
Because let’s face it, there are no subtitles in real life.

In this video I will talk about the most important elements of American intonation:
Melody (no, it’s not that they’re fake. It’s the melody.)
Stress (what’s important and what you shouldn’t stress over)
Rhythm (the reason why we think all Americans mumble)


Hi. What’s up? How are you? Hey guys, it’s Hadar and this is The Accent’s Way.

Today we are going to talk about American intonation.

Now I know that usually in this channel I talk about pronunciation, but don’t get me wrong. American intonation is not less important, and sometimes more important, than pronunciation. And this is why I figured it is time to talk about American intonation.

So today I’m going to open the wonders of American intonation so you can start listening to English rather differently.

When we talk about intonation we are talking about three things. One is the melody – the music of the language. When I go up in pitch. When I go down – “Ha-dar” – tuh-TAH. If I take away the words and I just play it, it’s just like a song or a tune that I’m playing – Tah ta-ta-dah ta ta-ta-dah-ta-tah.

So when you’re listening to English or when you’re speaking English you also want to consider the melody, the notes that you’re using. We’re also going to talk about stress. Stress is what words you choose to stress in a given sentence. What are you doing? Or, what are you doing? ‘What’ verses ‘doing’.

While there are some patterns and a neutral way of saying things, there’s also a lot of freedom. Of course, it depends on the context, the attitude, and many other things, but you first need to know the building blocks and the basis of what words are usually stressed and what words are not stressed for the most part.

Now, lastly, we have rhythm. Rhythm is the real deal. It’s the feel of the language. It’s really owning it once you start using American rhythm. Now, you have to understand that English is a perfect balance between the long versus short, the high versus low, the stressed versus the effortless, and when you are able to balance between all these things in an effortless and clear way, this is when you become a strong speaker who is able to communicate their message in a clear and confident way.

Now, today, we’re going to discuss all of these elements but in the future I will release more in-depth videos about each and every subject with many, many examples and more explanation.

Before we talk about these elements, I want to talk about the different types of words. So, in English, actually in any language, the words in the language are divided into two main groups: content words and function words.

Content words are words that deliver the content: nouns, like ‘sister’, ‘table’, ‘school’; verbs ‘go’, ‘run’ ‘swim’, ‘think’; adjectives ‘beautiful’, ‘red’, ‘clean’; and adverbs: ‘slowly’, ‘sometimes’, ‘beautifully’ and ‘fast’.

The other group is function words. These are all the small words that connect content words. They’re essential to create a grammatically correct sentence, but when they stand alone they don’t signify anything. We don’t know exactly what they mean. We are talking here about prepositions, like ‘on’,‘in’, ‘at’; verb be – ‘am’, ‘is’, ‘are’; articles ‘a’, ‘an’; determiners like ‘the’, ‘this’, ‘that’.

These are the words that non-native speakers struggle with when they’re trying to construct a sentence because, is it “have been”, “has been”, “had been”? So, when we speak, there is always a strong preference towards stressing content words.

Content words are the important words. If you say “had been” versus “have been” the message is still going to be clear. But, if you say “red” instead of “blue”, that’s something completely different.

So, content words are always more important and that’s how we treat them when we think about intonation. Because content words are the words that are stressed usually, whereas function words are unstressed. And not only that they’re unstressed, they were reduced to a point that it’s even not clear anymore and I’ll give you a few more examples in a second.

Let’s take for example the sentence, and I’m going to say it broken down a little bit, “The glass is on the table.” “The glass is on the table.” And now I’m gonna talk about all three elements: melody, word stress and rhythm.

So, first of all stress. We need to decide what are the stressed words in the sentence. So, let’s first recognize what are the content words. “The glass is on the table.” we have ‘glass’ and ‘table’, two nouns. And these are the words that I’m going to stress in this sentence. Not every content word is stressed the same, but for now let’s agree that these two words are the words that I choose to stress.

This is where melody and rhythm comes into play. Stressed words are higher in pitch and longer. Higher in pitch, so they get a higher note TAH-dah. The first note was higher in pitch – TAH-dah – and they’re longer. Okay. “The GLASSs is on the TABLE.” So notice that I raised the pitch for ‘glass’ and ‘table’. “The glass is on the table.” Okay. So in terms of melody, when words are stressed they’re also higher in pitch.

Now one more thing I want to tell you about melody is that every syllable receives a different note in English. It is not “The glass is on the table” – ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. “The glass is on the table.” It’s not “The GLASS is ON the TABLE.” Its not every word is going up and down, but I choose the stress words and then these are the words that are going to be higher in pitch and from there I either go down or I go up.

Every syllable takes me one step lower or higher. In this case, “The GLASS is on the” – so I keep going down because these are not stressed words – “TAY”, I’m starting a new word that is stressed so I’m gonna go high in pitch. “TAY-ble”. “The glass is on the table. So that’s melody what words I choose to stress and go high in pitch for.

Now, while we choose to shine on the content words, the words that bring the content, in this case glass and table, by going higher in pitch and prolonging them, function words play a smaller role in this show. They are reduced. We kind of want to hide them. We want to reduce them to a point where they don’t interfere or they don’t compete with content words.

So, if we’re going back to “The glass is on the table”, function words are “the”, “is”, “on”, and another “the”. We reduce the vowel in those words to a schwa. A schwa is a really reduced vowel sound. It sounds something like this: “uh”. To make the sound, we just drop the jaw a little bit, the tongue rests on the bottom of the mouth, the lips are relaxed, and we release sound – “uh” “uh”.

So the vowels and the function words reduce through this “uh” sound. Therefore the word “the”, okay we don’t say “thee glass”, we say “thuh glass.” So the vowel there is a schwa sound – “thuh” “thuh” – and we connected it. It feels as if it’s one word “the glass”. “Is” turns into “uhz”.

“On” turns into “uhn”, and again we have another “thuh”. So it’s not “is on the”, its “zun-thuh”, “zun-thuh”. We reduce the vowel and we connect the words together – “zun-thuh”, “zun-thuh”. “Th’glass z’n’th table”. “The glass on the table.” “The glass on the table.”

Now notice what happens, the “is” merges with “the glass” – “the glass’z”. “On” becomes ‘mm’ – “the glass’z’m”. The N and TH connect – “the glass’n’th”. Okay? So we can like took these three words and squeeze them into one utterance “zun-thuh” “zun-thuh”. “The glass on the table.”

So you get a sentence that is a perfect balance between the high and the low – “glass is on the” – between the long and the short – “glass is” – right? “Glass” is long, although it’s one syllable, and “is” is really reduced and also the stress. So I invest more energy and I say a little louder – “GLASS z’n’th” – to be able to connect the words and to reduce them I have to say the consonants softer – okay?

It’s not enough so I have to invest less energy in those function words to be able to go through them smoothly and then be ready for the next content word where I’m gonna go higher pitch and I’m gonna prolong them.

Let’s look at another example, what if I told you that five words can be shorter than one word with one syllable. Five words are going to be shorter than one word with one syllable. How? Let’s look at the next example:

What are you going to do? The “do” is the verb here and that’s the word that I’m going to stress, okay? Stress? Check! I know what word I’m stressing. Then, I know that in terms of melody, this word is going to be higher in pitch because that’s the word I want to stress – “do” “do”. So I already know the ending.

The beginning is a bunch of function words, so I’m going to reduce them. “What” turns into “wh’t”. “Are” turns into “r”. “You” turns into “yuh”. “Going” to turns into “gunna” “gunna”. So instead of saying “what are you going to”, we say “wadaya gonna” “wadaya gonna”. “Wadaya gonna do?” “Wadaya gonna do?” “Wadaya gonna do?”

“Wadaya gonna do?” “Wadaya gonna do?” So the “do” is longer than the entire first part of the sentence. It’s longer than the entire sentence because five words versus one, one word with one syllable is longer than the first five, and this is why it’s important to remember that rhythm is a result of your message – what you’re trying to say. The words that you stress are going to be longer and louder and higher in pitch.

The words that are less important for delivering your message are going to be reduced to allow everything else to stick out. In many languages, every syllable has the same beat. It doesn’t matter if it’s a content word or a function word, if it’s stressed or unstressed, it receives the same length.

So a sentence like this is going to sound something like “what are you going to do”, “what are you going to do.” Okay? So “do” is gonna be super short. “What” is going to have the same length. “To” have the same length as “do” – “what are you going to do” – and then it’s hard to understand what is the important part here.

Okay, of course it’s a simple sentence but if we’re talking about more complex sentences and there is no hierarchy between the words, it’s really hard to get your point. “What are you gonna do” “what are you gonna do” “what are you going to do” “what are you gonna do”.

Let’s take a look at a sentence with several content words: There are three coins in the box. “There are three coins in the box” Here, I chose to stress “coins” and “box”, so these words are high in pitch. “There are three COINS in the BOX.” “There are” “there are” “there are” – that’s reduced – “there’r three coins in the box.” “N-thuh” “N-thuh” “N-thuh” – also reduced.

“There are three coins in the box.” I can also say “There are THREE coins in the box.” And when you hear that you know that maybe someone else thinks that there are five coins. No, there are three coins in the box. Why are you confusing me? There are three coins. Why did you say there were five?  Okay, so it’s the same sentence but stressing a different word means something slightly different.

Now, I want you to listen up here, and this is really important. When we speak with a foreign accent, what we do is we apply patterns that we know from our native tongue on to English. We don’t do it consciously, its just that’s what comes out organically.

Now if we do that, if the patterns of our native tongue are different from English and sometimes contradictory to the patterns of English, the result is that the stress is not going to be clear. The message is not going to be clear, because if you’re applying external intonation and stressing things, let’s say at the beginning rather than the end, and in English you want to stress the ending usually, then what happens is that you end up stressing the wrong words. although you know how to construct the sentence,, the words are accurate, you don’t make any grammar mistakes.

But if you don’t distinguish the right words, if you don’t stress the right words, if you don’t put the emphasis on the words that are stressed then you become unclear then people may get something that is a little different from what you mean.

So understanding that, recognizing your patterns, and listening to how native speakers speak, really helps you understand how English should be spoken and advances you in becoming a stronger, a more confident and a clearer speaker.

Now I want to ask you – what, from everything that I discussed today – melody, rhythm, stress, is the most challenging for you? What are you still struggling with? Please let me know in the comments below and don’t forget to tell me where you’re from and what is your native tongue and I will do my best to create more content and lessons that will help you resolve all the issues that you’re facing.

Thank you so much for watching. Please share the video with your friends if you liked it and you think that they may benefit from it. And don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel and click on the bell to get notifications so you know when I’m releasing a new video.

Have a wonderful week and I will see you next week in the next video.



Liked it? Join the conversation!

Let me know in the comments below what is the most challenging element for you, and how you are planning to work on it.

Don’t forget to tell us where you’re from and what your native tongue is!

Much love,

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16 Responses

  1. Hello Mam..😊🙏
    I belong to you India and native malayalam speaker ..
    Hats off to you mam for giving a vivid talk on the topic intonation.
    I am a hard core fan of your videos. I love watching and learning a lot from you. I dream to be fluent like a native speaker whether American or British …🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words!

      We’re happy you enjoyed the talk on intonation and that Hadar’s videos are helping you. Keep up the great work on your language journey—your dedication is inspiring!

      Let us know if you have questions. 🙂

      Maddy | Team Shemesh

  2. Hello Hadar. I am Dost Muhammad from Pakistan. My native language is pashto but we also speak Urdu as a national language of the country. I like the way you teach. I want to speak English like you and other American speakers. I am working on my English speaking every day. Thank you for your your time, coaching and training
    Regards (Dost Muhammad Feroz)

  3. Hi! My name is Maria and I’m from Ukraine.
    I have been learning English for a very long period of time, but whenever I speak I get the same response from other people – “What?” Or “Excuse me, can you say that again? ” It’s been a real struggle since I’ve failed at least three amazing interviews(the companies required fluent English) because of my unclear pronunciation. Anyways I’m not giving up, practice is the key. Thank you for being very positive and open about your journey!

  4. Hi. My name is Yvonne, and my native language is Spanish. Both the rhythm and the contraction of the words are difficult for me.

    Thank you for teaching me about them.

  5. Hello, I’m Harry and I’m from Venezuela. My native language is Spanish.

    I found your content so engaging and enjoyable that I turned it into my daily routine.

    My daily struggles are all that you mentioned before (stress, melody and rhythm) and sometimes is exhausting and frustrating.

    Anyways, I am following all your content and starting to feel more grounded and confident to keep improving, thanks for all the effort and dedication you imprint in your videos.

  6. Hi Hadar:

    I am from Spain and the most difficult for me is rhythn. I wrote you a few days ago and I have received some e-mails from you and Karen but now I am very busy and I have no time to see every thing you told me. I will see them slowly in follwing weeks.

    You are really good. Thank you

    Best regards

    Rafael Cáceres

  7. Hadar how are you. I like your video they have helped me I want speak ingles fluency. I”m from venezuela, I haved lived in Brasil for 5 yers, I lost a job for not speaking English, for that reason I have the goal of speaking English, I currently speak Spanish and Portuguese, god bless you always. I’m your number one fan. Thank só much.

  8. Hi Hadar,
    I am Fakhrul, I am from Bangladesh. It is south asian country. My native language is Bengali. Thank you very much for your email.
    After all you are great your video is very helpful to me.

  9. Hi Hadar
    I’m from Colombia of course my native language is Spanish. I’m strangle with all words ending with consonants, example charmed, vibes, worked etc, etc…
    Thank you for the vide. I love it !

  10. Hi, I’m jean paul and I come from Rwanda.
    By now I’m clear with stress after differentiating content and function words. But melody and rhythm stay challenging.

    After all, a lot of thanks for all your videos they all helpful.

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