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How to ask questions in English so that people understand you | Question Intonation in English

A few years ago, when in-person groups were not a health threat, I talked about intonation with my students at my local studio.

I started explaining the difference between intonation of questions and statements, when one of my students started laughing.

We all looked at him surprised, and I immediately started laughing too, since I have a tendency of catching people’s laughter (something that got me into a lot of trouble when I was in high school).

“NOW IT GET IT”. He said.

“You get… What”?

This guy was a developer at a HiTech company, and mainly worked with their American branch. Even though the team members shared mutual respect and got along well, he couldn’t help but notice that they’re still experiencing some communication challenges.

“I think I understand why whenever I’m done speaking, my American team members never respond right away. There’s always this awkward silence before anyone else starts speaking.
I couldn’t figure out why. Now I get it.”

I smiled.

“Intonation is like code”

“Intonation is like code” I started. “The melody of your sentence tells your listener what it is that you NEED from them” whether you want them to listen, to wait, to respond with a short answer or with a detailed explanation.”
They all looked at me interested. The word ‘code’ grabbed their attention.
(I know how to talk to developers.)
“Every language has its own code, and when we fail to use it properly, it can cause miscommunication. Like in the case you described.”

The following week he came back and shared with us that he’d discussed this “intonation thing” with his American colleagues. They were surprised to hear that there’s a difference in the way we speak, and they spoke openly about it.

“At first it felt a bit uncomfortable” he shared “ but then they said that they never really know when I was done speaking.” He smiled a bit embarrassed. “I guess I wasn’t using the right code. And since they’re so polite and didn’t want to make me feel uncomfortable, they didn’t interrupt.”

“Three months with an Israeli team and that’s no longer an issue” claimed another student from the back of the room, getting us all to laugh at her comment.
You see, Israelis are known for their passionate conversation skills (also known as barging into each other’s words?‍♀️).

He seemed relieved. “So…now what?”

“Now?” I stared at him giving him the ‘you should know better by now’ look.
“Now, we practice”.

Has that ever happened to you when you spoke, but you felt the other person was just not responding the way you’d expected them to?

Now look, when it comes to intonation it’s not black and white, and has a lot to do with context. However, on my mission to making it simple for you, I’ll try to help you understand the ‘code’ so you too will be able to identify the difference between statements to questions, questions that require a simple yes/no answer, and those that require a more detailed answer.

It’s all in the music – believe it or not:)

Watch: How to ask questions in English so that people understand you

TRANSCRIPT

Hey everyone, it’s Hadar. Thank you so much for joining me. Today we are going to talk about intonation of questions. Intonation of questions? Intonation of questions. What is intonation to begin with? Intonation is basically the melody of the language. It’s the notes that you use when speaking – ta-da, tada-ta, ta-tada.

If you want to learn more about intonation, then I’m going to post the link to my intonation video right up here or in the description. But in the meantime, let’s just agree that intonation is a part of the language, and it’s so incredibly important. Because it’s not about sounding American more than it is about making sure that you deliver your message properly. Because think of intonation as code, that when you use a certain type of melody, it indicates one thing; and if you use another one, it indicates something else. It’s cultural and it’s norms that are associated with how people speak in a certain culture or a certain area.

So, sometimes what happens is that when you apply your own intonational patterns onto English, you’re using the code from your own native language, rather than the code that is familiar by native speakers. Not that it’s a bad thing, but sometimes it might compromise your message and people won’t really get what you’re trying to say.

So, this is why I wanted to talk about intonation of questions. Now, again, there’s a lot to discuss when it comes to intonation and differences between different cultures and different languages. So I’m going to share more content around intonation in the description below, so you can learn a bit more and learn how to practice in a way that helps you become more confident and more clear speaker of English.

If you’re new to my channel, then welcome. My name is Hadar. I’m a non-native speaker of English, and I’m here to help you speak English confidently, clearly, and with absolute freedom. And if you want to find out more about how I can help you and subscribe to my email newsletter to get an email with a lesson every single week, then click on the link below.

Let’s get started with understanding how you can control your intonation. So, the melody in your speech is like the melody when you sing – sometimes we go up and sometimes we go down. We’re going to talk about two major international patterns: rising-rising intonation – where you go up from a lower note to a higher note; or rising-falling intonation, where you go up and down, up and down – that’s rising-falling intonation. It’s like a wave, if you think about your sound as a line, right, going up – going up and down. Again, do it with me: going up – going up and down.

Now, in general, intonation that falls down at the end is usually associated with statement. As if you put a period at the end, right? Intonation is like punctuation. It’s like vocal punctuation, right. And if you put that period at the end, usually the melody drops down. And it’s very common to assume that when intonation remains open at the end, it feels like an open statement. Usually, like a question or like you’re waiting for something to happen right after that.

Let me give you an example. “I’m not sure I’m ready” – that’s rising-rising intonation. It feels open, it feels uncertain. “I’m not sure I’m ready. I’m not sure I’m ready” – so that feels more like a statement as if there was a period at the end.

This rising-rising intonation is usually associated with yes/no questions. When you use that and the answer that you expect is either a yes or no, not a long answer. “Are you hungry? Are you hungry? Do you want to go? Are you going to be late? Don’t we turn left here?” So, as you can see, I’m keeping my intonation rather flat until I reach the last word: “Are you hungry?” And sometimes even the last syllable: “Do you want to go? Are we there yet?” Right?

So at the end there was a quite nice rise up: “Are we there yet?” From the bottom of your pitch to the top of your pitch. “Are we there yet? Are you hungry? Don’t we turn left here? Are you serious?” Okay? So that intonation usually indicates questions that the answer to them is either yes or no.

Now, statements, as I said at the beginning, are sentences that are said with a rising-falling intonation: “I don’t think I’m ready. I’m not really hungry. I’d love to go there.” Can you hear that I’m not opening it up? I’m closing it: “I would love to go there.” So I’m ending the sentence with a really low note.

Now, here’s the tricky thing. When it comes to yes/no questions, we go up, we open it up – this is how people ask questions in many other languages as well, with that open feeling, right, like open intonation. However, in English – and probably in other languages as well, but we’re talking about English – when you ask a question that requires more information, more than yes or no, then the intonation sounds like a statement.

“That’s where I’m coming from” – statement, right? “Where are you coming from?” So, did it sound any different? “That’s where I’m coming from.” “Where are you coming from?” So except for the word ‘where’ I did not change the intonation. So in fact, the intonation that we used for WH questions is the same intonation that we use for statements.

“What are you doing here?” I’m not saying, “What are you doing here? What are you doing here?”, right, like I’m not opening it up at the end: “What are you doing here? Why are you so late? Why were you unhappy today? What can I do to help you? Where are the keys?” So do you recognize the pattern?

Now, why is it so important? Remember that intonation is code and the way I ask the question indicates the type of answer that I’m trying to get. Let’s take a simple, typical yes/no question. “Have you seen her recently?” When I use that intonation, it indicates that, you know, I’m probably waiting for a simple answer, like yes or no. “Have you seen her recently? – Yeah.” Okay?

Now, if I switch that intonation around and I move it into a rising-falling intonation, like a question that requires more information, usually associated with WH questions: “Have you seen her recently?” There’s more weight to it. It feels like I’m more serious, it feels like I’m trying to start a deeper conversation. Maybe something has happened. So this is why I’m changing my intonation.

Now, this is not a must, it’s nuanced. But more than I want you to start, you know, thinking about, “Oh, should I go up here or down?”, I want you to use that as you’re listening to people speaking. Because when you want to be clear when speaking, you want to make sure that you understand clearly if someone is asking a question or making a statement. Now, if your brain is used to hearing that falling intonation and associating it with a statement, then it might be loss on you when someone is actually asking you a question.

So, let’s go back and practice it again. Rising-rising intonation: “Are you done? Do you want to go? Have you seen that movie? Can I help you? Rising-falling intonation – WH questions: “What time’s the party? Where did you get that dress? Why are you smiling? What was your first teacher’s name?”

Now, there are many types of questions and it really depends on the context and the interaction with the other person. So, it’s not science, it’s not pure science, it’s not always like that. And sometimes you will hear variations. But once you understand the two fundamental patterns, it’s a lot easier to conduct yourself. And then you’re more aware of the nuances as well.

Now, if you want to practice more, I’ve actually prepared for you a list of questions, yes/no questions with a rising-rising intonation, and WH questions with a rising-falling intonation. So you can practice it because you know, it’s all about repetition and doing it yourself again and again, and again. And even if you can’t apply it right away, you’ll start becoming a lot more aware of it, you’ll hear it more. And when you are aware of it, it’s much easier to start using it. Okay? So download the PDF and audio, it’s totally free. And you can click the link below to get it.

Okay, my friends. I hope this was helpful. Let me know in the comments below, if the way you ask questions in English, like I explained, is the way you ask questions in your native language. And I want you to use the terms rising-rising intonation and rising-falling intonation. And if you’re not sure, then listen to how people speak in your native language and try to detach the words from the melody. It’s really cool when you’re able to just hear the melody and separate it from the words.

Okay, that’s it. Thank you so much for watching. Again, if you want to download the PDF and audio, click the link in the description. And once you get it, you’ll also get my weekly email to your inbox every single week with the letter for me and a valuable lesson. And if you want to connect on Instagram, you can find me at @hadar.accentsway, where we can DM and chat, and you can tell me what you think.

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

 

The InFluency Podcast
The InFluency Podcast
96. How to ask questions in English so that people understand you | Intonation in English
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And since I want to make sure that you always practice too, I’ve prepared for you a practice sheet and audio with different types of questions to download, so you too can practice with us.

And if you’d like to take it even one step further, you can join us at Beyond, our English practice community.

If you also have a funny story about miscommunication in English – I’d love to hear it! You can share it with me in the comments section on the website, or just hit reply and share!

FREE DOWNLOAD: My Intonation Practice Sheet

Learn how to use the right intonation for different questions in English Get it

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Hadar ! I guess I misinterpreted a little bit your superb video. My understanding corresponds perhaps more how you refer melody. I’m not an expert in languages. Nevertheless, INTONATION brings to my mind an analogy to music. (A very little bit, I got some impact from music theory.) A clef (for instance the violin clef or bass clef) determines the value of notes. That is the meaning of units of music and simultaneously perhaps the feelings, emotions the music triggers in our soul.
    Thank you again for the video.

  2. Dear Hadar ! Your video talked the usual high level about features of English language which I should learn much more about. My native language sounds sometimes a bit monotonous. At least, when it is spoken by the layman. Even when the speaker is highly educated. Nevertheless, there are some people, maybe not specifically educated but possessing some sort of artistic talent, who can talk even my native tongue sounding like a kind of music. These people usually have a profession matching to their gifted habit. Usually they work as actresses, actors. I wish I were again younger to learn phonetics like actors in their special school. I like and appreciate so much if I can listen to performing poems by such artists. Thank you so much for flashing from your own great art.

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