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The Rise and Fall of English

English rises and English falls. No, I don’t mean it literally rises and falls like the waves of the ocean. But English does have waves of a sort: sound waves. These sound waves rise and fall in pitch. Just like music, English has high notes and low notes. A high note followed immediately by a low note is one of the key features of spoken English. This rise and fall in tone is used to mark important words and phrases. It also marks the end of a sentence. The final words in most English sentences have a rising and falling tone.

Listen to this sentence, which I am repeating from a TOEFL Listening task:

Notice that the tone of my voice rises to a higher pitch and then falls to a lower pitch on the following words and phrases:

kind of, behavior, completely, out of place, displacement activity.

These words are the most important words in the sentence. They state the key term “displacement activity” and define it as “a kind of behavior completely out of place.” Additionally, the rise and fall on the phrase “displacement activity” marks the end of the sentence. This final “rise-fall” indicates that you should listen for new information in the next sentence.

If having trouble hearing the tonal changes in my sentence above, don’t feel bad. Recognizing the changing tones of spoken language can be very challenging. I’ve made a video that may help you. In the video, the recorded sentence above is written on the screen. I will read the sentence out loud very slowly and mark the changes in pitch with red lines. Watch it below:

Now you should be ready to recognize the tonal changes in the original TOEFL track of this sentence. I have placed a link to the sound clip below. Beneath it, read a transcript with the pitch changes marked in red. Can you hear the speaker’s voice get high, then low? If it helps, use your mouse or your finger to trace over the red lines while you listen.


These rises and falls are very common in spoken English. Recognize them, and you’ll be able to identify the speaker’s main ideas. You’ll also always know where one sentence ends and another begins. Still, be careful. There is one major exception to the rule that English sentences must end with a pitch that rises and falls. Questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” end in a high pitch only, with no low pitch afterward. This final listening video can help you hear the difference between yes/no questions and other kinds of sentences.


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