Number one for English language teachers

Can intonation be taught?

Type: Article

In this article from the archives of English Teaching professional magazine, Gerald Kelly discusses the issue of teaching intonation.

A colleague recently compared English language learning to a shopping transaction. You go to the shop because they supply something you don't have, money is exchanged, and you (usually) go away happy. Some shopkeepers give good customer care, others care less.

A question of choice

Taking this analogy further, we can also consider the concept of choice. You choose a shop because it's likely to have what you want, and you work through a range of choices until you find what you are after. A clever shopkeeper can help to inform your choice. At the risk of sounding trite, this reflects the role of the language teacher, that of helping students to narrow down the choices, until they are left with the appropriate language for a given situation. This holds true with grammar (e.g. whether the student is using or identifying the tense appropriately), lexis (the word or phrase) and pronunciation (the sounds, stress patterns), and applies whether or not we are talking about language production or reception.

A question of knowledge

Is it possible to narrow down the choices for intonation? Can you teach intonation? Many sources will give you a resounding 'No!' or 'Rather you than me!'. Intonation is described variously as 'slippery' or 'too deep in the unconscious', as a 'basic instinct' or as 'intuitive'.

We are also blinded with science: think of terms such as suprasegmental, nuclear stress and so on. Materials for students wanting to study intonation tend to be at advanced level, or, if at a lower level, tend to deal with either the easy-to-teach (intonation in question tags) or the over-emphasized (listing, Australian 'rising intonation'). Students can go online or buy CD-ROMs and have their wave-forms analyzed, trying to match their voice to a contour on the screen. Watching students grappling with this technology, and listening to the results, I can't see how it offers anything more effective than simply repeating what a teacher says in class, or an actor says on a tape or in a film. Personally, I love the technology, but then a flash car won't improve your parking!

Disagreement about intonation is largely a question of knowledge about the subject. Ask ten teachers to mark the intonation on a given utterance, and you will get a wide variety of answers. This is cited as evidence of the slippery nature of intonation; if we can't agree on it ourselves, as native or fluent speakers, then how are we supposed to agree on how best to teach it?

Wasting time?

The teaching of intonation also seems to be regarded as something of a futile cause. Teachers complain of a lack of materials, or that the materials are too difficult to use. Elaborate projects are set up to write in-house materials, which are misused or underused and eventually gather dust on a staffroom shelf.

Intonation and choice

The answer to all of this? Simplify it. Intonation need not be slippery, and need not be difficult to teach. You need not spend hours writing your own materials; you need not search in vain for suitable published materials. You need not think of it as simply the preserve of advanced classes. It's as important as grammar or lexis, and the same principles can be applied to teaching it. The materials for teaching it are there already, in any speaking or listening activity, even though it may not say so on the printed page.

As mentioned in my 'shop' analogy, successful teaching involves helping students to narrow down choices, till the appropriate language is used, or the appropriate meaning recognized. Can we apply this to intonation? We already do, through the question-tag model, which persists as an easy-to-teach page filler, and is variously disputed and supported as to whether or not it reflects the reality of language use. If it can be applied to question tags, why not apply it to any other sentence or utterance we pick over in the classroom? David Brazil's 'discourse intonation' model does an impressive and inspiring job in identifying the choices we make when speaking. I urge all readers, at some point, to start and finish The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. Admittedly, it is not for the faint-hearted, but it makes very convincing reading. So, can we take Brazil's central points and make them useful for teachers and students? I think we can.

Stepping forward

1. Don't pay too much attention to sentence stress, stress-timing, etc. Identifying 'content' words is a useful language awareness exercise, but will not necessarily help students speak more naturally or understand more readily. There are also strong arguments undermining the view that English is a stress-timed language. It is at best a dubious assumption, and teaching the concept to students will introduce unnecessary technicalities.

2. Get students to identify the last stressed syllable in an utterance, the one on or around which the voice moves up or down. If you are dealing (perhaps unnaturally, but we all do it) with relatively short, whole sentences, this is easy. Here are some examples with final stresses in bold:

Where do you live?

How do you spell 'bicycle'?

I've been here since July.

3. If you are dealing with longer sentences, incomplete sentences, phrases, clauses, etc, work in tone groups: in your planning, decide where the main 'final' stresses occur (as described in step 2 above), and split the utterance up accordingly. In this example, the tone groups are separated by slashes:

//I first met John// //in a cemetery// //in South Lon don// //There was an organized tour// //and the guide was talking about the famous peo ple// //bur ied there// //An yway// //we got talking about foot ball// //got to know each other// //and eventually became good friend s// //Then we started up our own foot ball team// …

4. With the syllables you have isolated, ask students (or show them, if they can't show you) whether the voice ultimately rises or falls with that syllable. The isolated syllables are known as the tonic syllables (i.e. this syllable carries the main tone movement within the tone group). You don't need to go into enormous detail here, just isolate the stressed syllables, and decide if the voice goes up or down.

Is that it?

Not quite, but just about. As teachers, you need to know the significance of the rising and falling voice. The table below perhaps deals in rather large generalisations, but it is one which I feel provides a useful summary, and which might be adapted or used for classroom practice.

 

Rising or fallingExampleIndication
a) Falling on a statement

He's moved to Glasgow.

 

I'm telling you something I think you don't know.

 

b) Falling and rising within a statement

He moved to Glasgow (about a year ago).

 

I haven't finished yet (there is more information to come).

 

c) Falling on a question

Where do you live?

 

I'm asking a genuine question.

 

d) Rising on a question

Where do you live?

 

I know you've told me before, but…

Remember that (in step 4 above) the words 'ultimately rises or falls' were used. Thus, a falling tone also includes a rise-fall, and a rising tone includes a fall-rise. So, for example, in b) above, the voice falls on the tonic syllable (moved) but rises towards the end of the tone group (Glasgow). Remember also that by far the two most common tone choices are the fall and the fall-rise. So, these are the ones which students are most likely to need to interpret when they are listening to English being spoken.

But this is getting technical!

When you're teaching, clearly you need to know the ins and outs of the grammar you are dealing with. You need to know the terminology, how it works and so on. You don't pass all of this on to your students, but you give a distilled version: what the students need to know. It's the same with pronunciation. You should know the background to the language choices that you are helping your students to make. It will not necessarily benefit students to know terms like tone group, voiced alveolar fricative, etc, but it will help them if they can identify and use the real-life manifestations of these terms.

Will students get it?

This ultimately depends on your skills as a teacher, and the students' own individual skills in hearing and replicating pitch changes. It's perfectly possible to 'teach' intonation with all levels, from beginner upwards. Students do not necessarily need to learn in detail the significance of the rises and falls. The most important thing you can do is to acclimatize students to natural patterns through listening activities, drills and so on. If you couple this with correction as and when a student's spoken intonation interferes with their message, then you'll be doing the right thing. Don't only cover intonation when it appears (rarely) on the pages of the coursebook you are using; it's inherent in pretty much everything you do in the classroom. If you can explain it to your students, you will understand it better yourself.

References

Brazil, D The Communicative Value of Intonation in English CUP 1997

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A really useful introduction!

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