Improving Intonation (Part 2)

In a previous post, we spoke of why it’s useful to better your ability to use various intonation patterns while speaking. We also looked at two common types of intonation, falling and rising.

In this post, we’ll first consider some more intonation types and then give you tips on how to improve your intonation.

Types of intonation

3. Rise-fall intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice and then drop it. This pattern is often found in:

  • alternative questions
    E.g. Would you like tea or coffee?
  • lists (pattern in the example – rise, rise, rise, fall)
    E.g. We’d need milk, sugar, flour, and eggs.
  • conditional sentences
    E.g. If you seeDanny, please ask him to call ➘ Rebecca.

4. Fall-rise intonation
In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice and then raise it. This pattern is commonly used to suggest that something is uncertain or incomplete. Have a look at these examples:

I don’t like drinking tea in the morning.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker enjoys drinking tea at other times of the day)

The first half was exciting.

(perhaps hinting that the second half was boring)

Do you think this is allowed here?

(perhaps hinting that the speaker is not sure if something is permissible)

I can’t afford a car at the moment.

(perhaps hinting that the speaker may be able to buy one in the future)

Ways to improve intonation

Here are some tips to help improve your ability to use various intonation patterns.

  • Listen carefully to short recordings of native speakers of English, paying particular attention to the way their voices rise and fall. Then, imitate their intonation by just humming along, without saying the actual words. Remember to focus on the melody, not the words.
  • Record yourself saying a sentence with absolutely no intonation, just like how a robot would do. Later, repeat the same sentence by using stress and intonation. Listen to both versions to know the difference that intonation can make.
  • Record yourself saying any common word over and over again, changing your attitude each time. For example, repeat the word ‘coffee’, giving it different meaning each time to indicate different emotions, such as enthusiasm, displeasure, surprise, and relief.

Remember, it’s difficult to listen to our own pitch, so working with audio materials is the way forward for improving your intonation.

Improving Intonation (Part 1)

A key pronunciation feature that helps you convey your thoughts and feelings with precision is intonation. In its simplest sense, intonation can be described as the melody of spoken language, i.e. the rise and fall in your voice when you speak. The focus here is on how we say things, not what we say.

It goes without saying that the concept of intonation is common to all languages; yet not many pay attention to this area while they speak, as they are so caught up in choosing the right words to express what they want to say. What they don’t realise is that intonation can be as important as word choice if not more.   

Why improve intonation

Here are a few good reasons why it is worthwhile to work on your intonation:

  • Bettering your understanding of intonation helps you become a skilled communicator.
  • Failing to use intonation could mean that listeners may soon lose interest in what you’re saying and switch off.
  • Getting your intonation patterns wrong might give rise to misunderstandings, with listeners even taking offence.
  • Not having enough awareness of intonation can impair your listening comprehension too, as you’re likely to misinterpret what others say.

Types of intonation

Here are some common intonation patterns found in English speech.  

  1. Falling intonation
    In this type, you drop the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is usually found in:
  • statements
    E.g. I’m going for a stroll on the beach.
  • commands
    E.g. Get your hands off my coat!
  • wh-questions that seek information
    E.g. What’s your name?
  • question tags that invite agreement
    E.g. It was such a lousy film, wasn’t it?

2. Rising intonation
In this type, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. This pattern is generally found in:

  • yes/no questions
    E.g. Do you like my newdress?
  • question tags that seek an answer
    E.g. You haven’t had a fight with Tom,have you?

We’ll be back with more in the next part. Meanwhile, think about whether your pitch goes up and down when you speak in English.

Understanding the IELTS Speaking Section

Being able to speak with confidence and clarity is a reliable indicator of an individual’s language proficiency. Naturally, all language tests have a component that assesses the test taker’s oral skills.  

Here’s an overview of the IELTS Speaking test.

Parts

Part 1: Introduction and interview (four to five minutes)

This part aims to put test takers at ease by getting them to talk on familiar topics, such as home, work, studies, family, and interests. Being the easiest part of the test, it’s a great chance to overcome nerves.

Part 2: Individual long turn (three to four minutes)

The test taker receives a task card with a particular topic. They get one minute to prepare, after which they have to speak for up to two minutes on the topic. They may need to draw on their personal experiences and feelings to do well.

Part 3: Two-way discussion (four to five minutes)

Thematically linked to the previous part, here the examiner asks the test taker questions about more abstract issues and ideas. Since questions tend to be of a complex nature, it gives test takers the perfect opportunity to show off their language skills. 

Skills tested

Over three parts, IELTS Speaking assesses a wide range of skills. Initially, test takers get to communicate opinions and information on everyday topics. Later on, they need to exhibit an ability to speak at length on a given topic without much effort, organising ideas coherently as they go along. Towards the end, they also have to express and justify opinions, analyse situations, and speculate about issues.

Marking

Speaking interviews are conducted and assessed by certificated IELTS examiners, who hold relevant teaching qualifications and have sufficient teaching experience. Tests are marked according to the IELTS Speaking test assessment criteria (Fluency and Coherence, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy, Pronunciation). To do well, test takers have to produce a wide range of language throughout with accuracy. The wider the range you display, the higher the accuracy, the better the outcome.  

Unlike other tests, the Speaking section in IELTS is a face-to-face interview that is as close to a real-life situation as a test can get, so prepare well to make the most of it.

Sounding Polite (Part 3)

So far in our series of posts on politeness, we’ve looked at four different approaches that can be adopted to communicate appropriately in English.   

Read on for more tips on how to sound well-mannered when you speak or write.

5. Question forms

Using question forms is a great way of sounding diplomatic when giving advice or suggestions. One option is to form yes/no questions when requesting people to do things. Another is to use negative questions in order to introduce your views gently. Here are examples of both:

Close the door.

Could you close the door, please?

I want directions to the airport.

Could you possibly give me directions to the airport?

We need a better proposal to win the contract.

Don’t you think we need a better proposal to win the contract?

We should paint the cabin blue.

Wouldn’t it be better if we painted the cabin blue?

6. Qualifiers

If you make a direct statement to express your thoughts, the chances are you’ll upset others. This is particularly true when what you’re saying is something negative. In order for you to sound more diplomatic, you could use qualifiers, such as a bit, a little, or kind of. A qualifier can decrease the intensity of anything negative that you say. Here are some examples of how qualifiers can decrease the intensity of your words when you complain or criticise.

This curry is too bland!

This curry is a bit bland.

Jeez, it’s so hot in here!

It’s a little hot in here. 

Derek is extremely boring!

Derek is kind of boring.

7. Passive voice

We can use the passive voice to shift the focus of a sentence from the doer of the action to the action itself. It’s particularly handy when we wish to avoid blaming people for things that they fail to do. Using the passive structure makes the sentence impersonal, creating distance from the immediate present. Here are some examples:

You forgot to switch the outside lights on last night.

The outside lights were not switched on last night.

Looks like you have made a lot of spelling errors.

Looks like a lot of spelling errors have been made.

Remember, more often than not, non-native English speakers sound impolite unwittingly, because they take the wrong approach. 

Sounding Polite (Part 2)

In English-speaking cultures, great importance is attached to avoiding language that others may find offensive. In a previous post, we considered how using softening expressions and avoiding negative words can go a long way towards helping you sound polite.

Here are some more ways in which you can appear courteous while speaking English.

3. Distancing verb forms

When we ask questions, make offers, or give suggestions, it is possible to use the past tense instead of the present. In such contexts, past tenses indicate ‘distance’ from the immediate present, thereby making what we say less direct. Do note that there’s no difference in the basic meaning expressed when the past tense replaces the present. Here are some examples to help you understand this better.

When do you want to check in, sir?

When did you want to check in, sir?

Do you want more sugar in your tea?

Did you want more sugar in your tea?

In the same way, sometimes progressive (continuous) verb forms are used in place of simple forms to sound more casual or less definite.

I hope you can give me a lift after the concert.

I’m hoping you can give me a lift after the concert. (less definite)

I look forward to doing business with you again.

I’m looking forward to doing business with you again. (casual)

4. Modal verbs

Another way to avoid being too direct is by using modal verbs. The past forms of modal verbs will, can, and may are commonly used in everyday communication to exhibit good manners. When making requests or asking for help, the word ‘please’is often added to make a better impression on the listener or reader.

Will you need my car tonight?

Would you need my car tonight?

Can you please call the security?

Could you please call the security?

May I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Might I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Remember, being polite helps us build good relations with the listener or reader, so it is definitely worth the effort. We’ll be back with some more tips.

Sounding Polite (Part 1)

Communicating in English isn’t as hard as many people think. Once you have a collection of common words and learn to string them together, you can pretty much begin to use English in most everyday situations. On such occasions, poor grammar or diction doesn’t always get in the way of getting the basic message across.

That being said, making sure that you sound polite or appropriate when using English is a lot harder to achieve, especially if you’ve just started learning the language. This is because all our energies go into somehow conveying our thoughts, so we sometimes fail to recognise that what we say might be too direct or offensive.

Here are some tips to help you sound more polite when speaking English.

1. Softening expressions

In some cultures, being blunt or direct is acceptable, whereas in English-speaking cultures, this is frowned upon. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use softening expressions that make what you say less direct. Examples of such expressions are I’m afraid, perhaps, I think, I reckon, maybe, I was wondering if, and to be honest.

Examples:

I can’t help you.

I’m afraid I can’t help you. 

I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

To be honest, I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

You should ask someone else for advice.

Perhaps you should ask someone else for advice.

Could you help her?

I was wondering if you could help her.

2. Avoiding negative words

There’s no doubt that people respond better to positive sounding words, making it easier to manage social interactions. Keeping this in mind, avoid using negative words wherever possible. Instead, use a positive equivalent along with a negative helping verb. Here are some examples:

It’s a bad idea to call her at this time of the night.

It isn’t a good idea to call her at this time of the night.

I find him so boring.

I don’t find him interesting.

I think this project report is useless.

I don’t think this project report is useful.

You will fail the exam if you don’t prepare well.

You won’t pass the exam if you don’t prepare well.

We’ll be back shortly with more suggestions on how to sound polite when speaking English.

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 2)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how it’s important to sensibly utilise the one minute allotted for preparation during the IELTS Speaking section.

 

Read on for more advice on how to do well in the IELTS Speaking section.

2. Generate some main ideas, not many

Test takers commonly but wrongly try to produce as many different ideas related to the topic as possible, which doesn’t always work. After all, thinking up new ideas is a lot harder than extending ideas you already have. What they really should be doing is to come up with a few main ideas and then think of ways to develop them. Wh-words (what, when, which, where, why, and how) come in handy when you wish to elaborate a point. Learn to put them to good use, and you should be able to keep talking until the two-minute time is up.

 

3. Be descriptive

Topics used in the second part of the IELTS Speaking section often encourage test takers to draw on their own experience and feelings. And when doing so, it’s a good idea to vividly describe people and things you include in your talk. If you’ve been asked to talk about your favourite type of food, for example, talk about its appearance, smell, texture, and aroma. That way, you’ll have a lot more to say, meaning that you are less likely to dry up. As well as this, the examiner might also find your response more impressive, as detailed descriptions involve use of precise vocabulary.

 

4. Speak at a steady pace

It’s only human nature to talk faster than usual when we are fairly stressed out, and exam conditions can do just that sort of thing to you. The problem, though, is that the faster you go, the more content you need to produce to last the two-minute duration. Going at breakneck speed can also interfere with your diction, lowering your pronunciation score. It is best to stay calm and speak at a steady pace – not too fast, not too slow.

 

Equip yourself with these sound strategies, and speaking non-stop will be a walk in the park!

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

come in handy
Form : phrase
Meaning : be useful
Example : Some ability to speak European languages will come in handy in this job.

 

draw on (something)
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to make use of skill or experience that you have 
Example : The book draws heavily on the author’s experiences as a tourist in Asia.

 

a walk in the park
Form : phrase
Meaning : something that is easy to do
Example : I’ve been a cop for over two decades, so investigating petty crimes is a walk in the park. 

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 1)

 

Talking about any topic at length, in itself, is never too easy, so imagine having to do it without any prior preparation.

 

Giving an extempore speech, or an impromptu speech, is something that many people find daunting. For one thing, the speaker needs to be able to think on their feet. With zero preparation done beforehand, they have to make up content as they go along. Another challenge is that the speaker also needs to organise the ideas they generate as they speak. If not, there is every chance of the talk becoming directionless, with ideas popping up randomly.

 

An extempore task brings to the fore a person’s ability to think, organise, and talk all at the same time, when little to no preparation time is available. No mean feat, right? No wonder then that B-schools commonly use such tasks to measure the speaking as well as logical thinking ability of applicants. Several international language tests also have a component that assesses the test taker’s ability to speak at length without preparation.

 

In IELTS, the second part of the speaking section, known as the individual long turn, requires the test taker to speak on a particular topic for up to 2 minutes uninterruptedly. Of course, there is the advantage of having a minute to prepare and make notes, but the task is essentially extempore speaking.

 

Here are some ways to perform well in the extempore part of the IELTS speaking test:

1. Use prep time wisely

Test takers do get time to think about the topic and make notes before they start talking, but one minute is not a lot of time. So, do not write in full sentences. Instead, jot down keywords that can help you talk elaborately on the topic. For instance, if you have been asked to talk about an unforgettable meal you’ve had, add words such as ‘exotic’ and ‘flavoursome’ to the notes you make. Once you begin talking, they’ll serve as a reminder to describe the origin of the food and its distinctive flavours.

We’ll be back with more IELTS Speaking tips in the next part. Stay tuned!

 

 

GLOSSARY

at length
Form : phrase
Meaning : for a long period of time
Example : The ministers spoke at length about the need to bring down crime rates.

 

think on your feet
Form : phrase
Meaning : to have the ability to think and react quickly 
Example : Stand-up comedians need to have the ability to think on their feet while doing live shows.

 

no mean feat
Form : phrase
Meaning : not easy to do
Example : He has played in over 300 international matches, and that’s no mean feat.

 

British vs American English (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Mo Riza via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

With well over a billion speakers, English is the most widely spoken language in the world by some distance.

Interestingly though, there are only a handful of countries where it is spoken as a native language by the majority of the population. For the rest, English is a language they’ve acquired.

As a result, different variants of the language have evolved over time – Singlish (Singapore English), Strine (Australian English), and Namlish (Namibian English) to name a few.

However, British and American English remain the most widely recognised variants.

So, just how different is the English spoken in the UK to that in the US? Let’s find out….

 

 

1. Spelling

It’s common knowledge that UK and US spellings differ. One reason for this is that American English has modified the spelling of a number of words to reflect the way they sound when they are pronounced.

For instance, while Britons spell the printed form issued by a bank as cheque, Americans spell it as it sounds, i.e. check. Although there are hundreds of such words that are spelled differently, the difference is often minor, so it hardly ever causes confusion. Here’s a quick comparison:

 

2. Pronunciation

This is a grey area, as there are a wide variety of accents within both countries, making it difficult to clearly distinguish between UK and US pronunciation features.

To take one example, a Londoner and Mancunian (someone from Manchester, UK) may sound radically different from each other despite being from the same country, i.e. the United Kingdom.

That said, one easily noticeable thing is how Americans generally accentuate every ‘r’ in a word, whereas the Brits don’t emphasise that sound, or they sometimes omit it altogether if a word ends in ‘r’.

While it isn’t important which version of English you speak, being aware of how accents differ is always useful.

 

GLOSSARY

Record Your Way to Fluent English

Image courtesy of Ernest Duffoo via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

All language learners want to be fluent speakers, sounding both smooth and natural. Unfortunately, getting there isn’t that easy. Fluency is not just about speaking a language without hesitation; organising your thoughts well and expressing ideas clearly are important too.

 

When you’re working towards achieving fluency, regular feedback is a must. So, if you want to find out how well-structured and clear what you are saying is, you may need a listener, such as a study partner or teacher, to give you feedback.

 

What many language learners don’t realise is using an audio recorder can be extremely handy here. In fact, if you have one (and most smart phones will have one), you may not need help from others to find areas for improvement.

So, what exactly can a recording device do for you?

 

 

1. Assess yourself

When you’re giving a talk or presentation, you don’t always listen critically to what you are saying, because all your efforts go into talking for as long as you can and keeping your head above water! So recording your talk and listening to it repeatedly can help identify any language problems you have.

If your ability to use English is limited, it may be hard to notice all the mistakes that you make, but you could still make out things such as: how frequently you pause, what type of vocabulary you fall down on, and so on.

Intermediate or advanced learners, on the other hand, can discover a lot more about their language ability through such an exercise.

 

2. Chart your progress

Quite often, we’re unsure as to how much our ability to speak a language has developed over a particular period of time. Listening to different recordings of ourselves that are made weeks or months apart can tell us just how much progress has been made in that time. It can really spur you on to work even harder on your language fluency and make a step up.

So, put that recording feature on your mobile phone to good use, and start developing your speaking skills.

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