Anyone who has successfully improved intonation in a non-native environment?

I consider myself as an expert of English grammar as well as when it comes expressing myself in speaking. At least that is what most of the native speakers I have been lucky to have a chat on Skype say. The area of improvement I am constantly suggested is 'intonation'. I do realize that my voice does not go up and down like it should. It's rather plain and dull. I figured it's partly due to the fact that I get nervous and start speaking faster. When I speak slower the intonation is relatively good but still not good enough.

Now I have my IELTS academic exam next month and I want to work on this aspect of my speaking. I am no the way to come somewhere near a native level. I just want to improve enough to not sound so bland as I do now.

The only possible way to improve intonation I have come across are YouTube videos where you repeat what is being said in the video. Has anyone tried that?

If you have any other suggestion to improve intonation, please share.

  • 4
    That in fact is what I recommend here - it is how, as an actor, I used to learn dialects. Jun 10, 2014 at 16:02

4 Answers 4


I would rather suggest you to 'imitate'

If you go by the book, you have to study and practice too.

Intonation is the later part of syllable stress, which talks about the smallest units of sound in a word. Which is way harder learning until you get here.

Imitating the native speakers is the easiest way of learning an accent and this is exactly the way you learnt your own language.

Here are a few things to learn and have fun too.

Watch Movies, Listen to the narrators on National Geographic (I love Morgan Freeman), find yours. Sing English songs. Talk to people who speak better than you. Last and the most important 'love this language' it's fun.

  • That Morgan Freeman imitation turned out great. I have a heavy voice and I realized I had a much better time imitating Morgan Freeman than imitating the ones I had tried to in the past. <www.nerdist.com/pepisode/nerdist-podcast-morgan-freeman/> Jun 11, 2014 at 2:01
  • The above link to nerdist.com is no longer valid. Find this audio recording at: hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/c/7/7/c77f063fec574def/…
    – user19179
    Jun 26, 2021 at 13:09

If you have only one month, and your goal is improving this only for the mentioned exam, and assuming that all other aspects of your English speech are adequately good, there are a few quick fixes that I can think of.

Method 1: Enunciate (which is to pronounce every word clearly) and exaggerate (which is to overstress the words you'd normally stress, well, normally :-).

One month is perhaps too short a time frame that you can really fix your accent. (Well, I believe that you could if you are willing to do it, but it's hard work and it's very demanding.) So instead of trying to imitate native speakers (which is actually the ideal, in the long run), keep doing enunciation and exaggeration could help you find your own pace when you speak. Naturally, enunciate each word crisply will force you not to speak too fast, and exaggerate the words you want to emphasize will naturally improve your intonation. The catch? This process will mend your accent. If you keep practicing this long enough, it will be much more difficult in the future to correct (or lose or reduce) your accent.

NOTE: It is okay to ridiculously overstress and over-enunciate when you practice. Once you're used to it, your normal speech is easier to understand and has better intonation.

Method 2: Intonation analysis

I call it "analysis" because it is the main idea of this method. Usually, learners work better with eyes than ears. So it's a good idea to use visual aids to improve your speech.

This method is rather easy, but tedious. Here is what you will need to do:

Find a good video clip on YouTube. (As a side note, those English teaching clips usually speak too carefully, and might be less natural sounding. It might be better to look for a clip that has a native speaker talking about anything you find interesting.) In that clip, find a few sentences that you think you might say. Then for each sentence, try to duplicate it. Try to say it yourself exactly the way they say it.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. So, we need visual aids. You can create visual aids yourself like this. Write the sentence you chose down on a piece of paper (anything you can write on is fine), then mark each syllable you think they (the speaker) emphasized by drawing a circle around it. Draw a line under each syllable you think it's in a very low tone (in short, underline it). Draw a line over each syllable in a very high tone. Cross every word that you can notice a change in its tone (e.g. rising, falling, rise-and-fall, or fall-and-rise) with a diagonally upward arrow, or a diagonally downward arrow, or an up-then-down arrow, or a down-then-up arrow. These are your visual aids.

Then try to speak the sentence again, with your visual aids. Repeat the sentence until you think you get it right. Then, move on the the next sentence. You can choose any sentence from any video clips you can find. You can also repeat this very same process as much and as often as you like.

Method 3: Sing a lot!

This is perhaps the easiest and the funnest one! Assuming that you can speak English good enough already, but your intonation is off (which usually implies that your rhythm is off too), the fix is simple, just sing a lot TM :-).

You don't have to sing difficult songs, or sing any songs the way professional singers do. You just want to feel the melody and rhythm! Embrace them. Absorb them. Let them flow into you. Virtually, any songs you like are equally good. But here is my big secret: the simpler the song is, the more useful it would be for you. So, nursery songs and rhymes are good. Oldies is good. Slow rock, pop, country songs are good, too, in my opinion. It's up to you. It's your choice. Just pick something you like that is not too fast, and not too slurred, and sing along.

Good luck!

  • Thanks for the suggestions! About the last part, I am actually a good singer. And usually sing a lot on my own. Have no problems at all with that. I also realize that its better to have no intonation at all than to have a bad one. The real issue is not being able to figure out which part to stress. Actually stress is not the right words. Its more like I lack the melody that good speakers of english language have. I do , for instance' know how to pronounce Object (a thing) and object (Verb). This comes naturally. Jun 11, 2014 at 1:11

I am a native English speaker, and this is my answer.

Like you said, intonation is when your voice goes higher in pitch on a certain word. You seem to understand what intonation is already, so there's no point in explaining it.

Even though speaking out loud with other native speakers will help your intonation, there isn't always someone to practice with. In that case, I would do this

Write out a sentence, and use intonation on each word separately.. for instance.

 Sometimes my friend Joe likes to eat pizza.

You can break this down into 8 different meanings by using intonation.

SOMETIMES my friend Joe likes to eat pizza.

Not all the time, but sometimes.

Sometimes MY friend Joe likes to eat pizza.

Not just a friend, but MY friend, not your friend. or anyone else's.

Sometimes my FRIEND Joe likes to eat pizza.

Joe is a friend, and nothing else Not an enemy, not an acquaitence... just a friend.

Sometimes my friend JOE likes to eat pizza.

Referring to a particular friend, JOE... not someone else.

Sometimes my friend Joe LIKES to eat pizza.

And sometimes he doesn't like to eat pizza.

Sometimes my friend Joe likes TO eat pizza.

You cannot really use intonation this, it combines with eat.

Sometimes my friend Joe likes to EAT pizza.

Someone else may like to MAKE pizza, but Joe likes to EAT it.

Sometimes my friend Joe likes to eat PIZZA.

This can have a negative connotation; especially if you end it with an exclamation mark.

 Sometimes my friend Joe likes to eat PIZZA!

It makes it seem as if eating pizza is odd / strange / weird / et cetera.

It also emphasizes pizza, as if Joe likes nothing else but pizza.

So create yourself some lists and practice raising your pitch on the capitalized word.

  • 4
    Something hidden in this answer (and something that doesn't always occur to native speakers of English) is the notion that stress, intonation, elision (running words together) and pauses are all parts of English grammar. It's not quite to the extent that one can say that English is a tonal language, but that's not as far from the truth as people might be inclined to think. Intonation plays some of the parts that conjugational or declension endings play in other languages. It can override word order. It changes parts of speech. It is our set of pragmatic particles. It's our spoken punctuation. Jun 10, 2014 at 19:57
  • 1
    I agree with Stan 100% and feel that the only way to acquire this is by imitation, or at the very least have a native help you on Skype, and explain all the possible intonation contours for an utterance and what they all imply or say about the speaker's attitude toward what he's saying or whom he's addressing. This isn't something you can learn in a month. I think the best practice would be to use a book of good dialogs and read them line by line to a native and have him correct your intonation, etc. Or perhaps make up dialogs so that you know exactly what emotion each line is meant to carry.
    – CocoPop
    Jun 11, 2014 at 1:07

Intonation is all about how we speak. The flow of our sentence. Native speakers of English in different parts of the world intonate in different ways and their pronunciation is also different for some words. Ex- American and British pronunciation, even in Britian there are different pronunciation. I work in an international call centre in India and I met a client who is from Britain, he never enunciated letter 't' whenever a word ended with that letter, like in- but, put, that etc.

The best way I think is watch English movies and try imitate the way actors speak. What I noticed they put emotion in the sentence and according to that their is a rise and fall in the sentence. We should try to put emotion, express a sentence with emotions and according to it bring rise and fall in the sentence.

Online dictionaries are also available for pronunciation- http://dictionary.reference.com/ (for American pronunciation) and http://www.macmillandictionary.com/ (for British pronunciation)

We Indian speak from chest where as native speakers speak from throat and head. Try to give air to your voice from throat. I mean try to speak from throat not from chest.

There are some sounds in English language. Generally we do not know about them. Try to look for those sounds on internet. Sound of- 'V'(in victory, bite your lips), 'W'(in win, kiss your 'W', shape of lips should be in a position when we kiss), 'th'(bring your tounge behind teeth of your lower jaw when 'th' comes in a word with a meaning, like in thing, breath, Thanks) this sound is enunciated with a puff of air, 'th'(bring your tounge between your teeth when it comes in a word which do not have a meaning, like in - the, that, though)('the' is pronunced as- 'da' when it comes before a word starting with a consonant, like- da banana)('the' is pronounced as- 'dee' when it comes before a word starting with a letter starting with a vowel, like- dee apple), 'zh'(keep your teeth clinched and push air outside, tounge should touch that part where teeth touch each other, like- Vision is pronounced as- vizhon).

People from Northen part of India have problem with sounds like- 's' and 'sh' People from North East have problem with- 't' People from North West have harsh consonants sounds.

We need to take care of it.

Last we can join a training centre for spoken English where training for call centres is provided.

I hope these tips will improve your spoken English.

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