How to Properly Use Spanish Intonation
Learning Spanish involves learning many different parts of the language, grammar rules, conjugation of verbs, spelling—and yes, Spanish intonation!
Intonation is a fascinating habit that we don’t even take notice of, unless there’s an error or difference. Otherwise, it just seems to flow naturally in the background of our conversations.
When you’re learning a new language, you must begin adhering to the rules of rhythm and cadence in the way the natives speak.
So, how do you know if your Spanish intonation is correct?
Keep reading to learn what intonation is, the differences between Spanish intonation and English intonation, useful information about pitch patterns, tag questions, and everything you need to know about intonation rules!
What Is Intonation?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, intonation is specifically “the rise and fall in pitch of the voice in speech.”
Every language has its own specific intonation and it’s very important to get it right, as a change in intonation can change the meaning of a word, phrase, or question.
In spoken language intonation replaces punctuation and we use it to convey confusion, surprise, anger, or interest to our speech. Sometimes we may say something with words, but express the complete opposite due to our intonation.
Spanish Intonation vs English Intonation
Intonation in Spanish is quite different from that of English. On one hand, Spanish is a language with little variation in intonation, making it sound “flat” for native English speakers. Whereas, English is a language where pitch is essential and varies widely.
Intonation is an utterance that may be rising or falling—for which the pitch and stress determine the direction. In English, pitch can be of low, mid or high intensity, and each one of these intensities is associated with different emotions and personalities.
The different approaches by English and Spanish to pitch and intonation patterns, produce the distinctive sound of each language.
While in English there are four intonation patterns—falling, rising, non-final, and wavering intonation—in Spanish, pitch patterns vary according to the type of phrase.
There are many different pitch patterns in Spanish and it would be impossible to study all of them. As a matter of fact, you don’t need to! As you start getting more and more exposure to the language, you’ll learn and get used to them naturally.
However, here are some examples of different Spanish pitch patterns for you to get an idea of the kind of intonation used in the Spanish language.
Spanish Tag Questions
Tag questions are the typical example used to explain what intonation is. A tag question is a question that follows a statement to confirm or clarify a point. Both in English and Spanish, these types of questions use a rising intonation in the last word or the question itself.
In the statement,
Están buenos los tacos, ¿cierto?
The tacos are good, right?
The question ¿cierto? would need a rising intonation.
When it comes to information questions the Spanish question intonation is the complete opposite to the English intonation.
In Spanish, the pitch rises before dropping at the end of the question.
Simple Declarative Sentences
Simple declarative sentences are basic constructions consisting of a subject and an object, like in Carlos juega fútbol or “Carlos plays football.”
In these types of sentences the pitch in English rises through the phrase and then falls at the end of it. In Spanish, the pitch stays flat for the most part, only to fall slightly at the end of the sentence.
Differences Among Spanish Varieties
Although Spanish is Spanish everywhere, it’s a fact that different accents and intonations exist throughout the Spanish-speaking world. This is partly explained by a phenomenon called “substrate,” which means that the languages spoken before Spanish in certain territories influence the way Spanish is spoken in these places.
In practice, this means that you may end up with slight differences between Mexican Spanish intonation and Colombian Spanish intonation, to name just a couple of these variations. However, this fact doesn’t affect your Spanish learning process at all, as there are general rules that apply to all Spanish accents.
Spanish Intonation Rules
Now, let’s focus on learning some of the most common Spanish intonation rules and how to apply them.
Accents and Emphasis
In Spanish, the sílaba tónica or “stressed syllable” changes the pitch of the utterance. The rules regarding this all-important sílaba tónica not only determine Spanish intonation but also its spelling.
The first rule about Spanish intonation is that if the word has an accent mark, the emphasis should go on the syllable with the accent mark. For example, in the word avión (“airplane”), the intonation emphasis should be on the syllable -vión.
However, when the word doesn’t have an accent mark, the strong stressed syllable could be either on the last or the second to last syllable.
When this happens, apply the following rules:
- If the word ends in n, s, or a vowel, the emphasis should be on the last syllable.
- If the word ends in any consonant except n or s, the emphasis should be on the second to last syllable.
Spanish Question Intonation
The best way to ask a question in Spanish is by using intonation. As long as you raise your voice at the end of any statement and add an imaginary question mark at the end of it.
For example, you may want to say the statement:
Carlos juega fútbol.
Carlos plays football.
But maybe you’re not so sure about that, so you just raise your voice at the end of the statement and add that imaginary question mark:
¿Carlos juega fútbol?
Does Carlos play football?
The words pronounced are exactly the same, all that changes is intonation.
Tag Phrases in Spanish
As explained before, tag questions or tag phrases in Spanish are brief questions made at the end of statements to seek confirmation or denial of the statement.
The intonation of tag questions in Spanish is mostly flat, as the typical Spanish intonation. However, the pitch falls near the end of the statement, before rising again when you pronounce the question.
Some examples of tag phrases in Spanish:
Qué lindo es México, ¿verdad?
Mexico is nice, isn’t it?
Te gusta el fútbol, ¿no?
You like football, don’t you?
Ese es tu hermano, ¿cierto?
That’s your brother, right?
Practice With Us and Get Your Spanish Intonation Just Right!
Attaining a good Spanish intonation isn’t that hard as it is flat for the most part. However, knowing when to raise your pitch or add emphasis is important to convey your intended meaning as well as to express a variety of emotions.
Apply the rules you learned today, practice with Spanish audios to get familiarized with the intonation and find someone to practice your Spanish with.
A proper Spanish intonation makes traveling to Spanish-speaking countries easy as your communication with locals flows better and your traveling experience gets enriched.
You will naturally learn to use Spanish intonation patterns by practicing with a native speaker. Practice your pronunciation in real-time with real teachers! Sign up for a free Spanish class with one of our certified, native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala, they teach more than 24,000 actively enrolled students every month and offer flexible scheduling and tailored Spanish packages.
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