Advice and suggestions on how to teach intonation with Japanese students.

I am an English teacher currently in Japan and I have a question about how to teach intonation. My problem is, the Japanese language has hardly any, as do other languages, and I don't know how to teach them...especially when they laugh at your "sing-song" accent!! Also, in some cultures it is sometimes considered "feminine" to talk like this. How can we spice up this monotone way of communicating and change this kind of thinking?? I would appreciate any help in this matter!

I was interested first of all in your claim that Japanese has hardly any intonation. My impression, from the limited opportunities I've had to listen to Japanese, was that it's got plenty. It appears (cf. Cruttenden A. Intonation CUP 1986:13-15) that Japanese really doesn't make use of intonation in the same sense that English does, but that it has “one immovable high-pitched accent for each accented word” and (cf. Swan M. & Smith B. eds. Learner English 1987:215) that Japanese prosody includes “raising the whole pitch-range of the voice when embarking on a new topic of conversation and lowering it to signal a coming end” and “broadening the pitch-range to show interest and involvement.” Perhaps these features would account for my superficial impression.

I think the musical qualities of any language tend to be under-estimated and under-reported particularly by native speakers of that language, and also to some extent by other people who are very used to hearing it. English speakers commonly say that Italian sounds 'musical' or 'melodic' and that English is 'flat' or 'all on the same level', but I've often heard Italians claim just the opposite: that English is musical and Italian isn't!

I think the explanation for this paradox is that when we listen to a language that we don't know, we can't understand the meanings of the sounds and sound combinations, and we're particularly sensitive to the purely sonic and musical qualities of the language – the typical setting of the speech organs, the degree and distribution of tension, the pitch range, the intonation, the rhythms and so on. These are all we can relate to, because they are in a broad sense universal, in the same way that the basic elements of music are universal, even though different cultures have selected, developed, adapted and combined them in different ways, and developed different musical instruments, though they are all manufactured from a selection of the same set of raw materials.

But as we become more familiar with a language, two things happen: the novelty of the music wears off so that we notice it less and less, and we start to understand more and more, and therefore pay more and more attention to the relationship between sound and meaning. (Much the same thing happens in first language acquisition: we start by noticing and responding to intonation and rhythm, and then gradually start to assign meanings to sounds and sound sequences.)

There are different accounts of exactly what intonation is (and even more varied ones of what it does) but it's generally taken to include:

  1. the division of the stream of speech into units related to breathing patterns and/or units of thought.
  2. the assigning of different 'weights' to different words / syllables within these units, 'weight' being embodied in features such as length, loudness, vowel quality and, particularly, tone – i.e. the melodic component of speech, the movement of the voice up and down from one pitch to another.

No matter how much languages differ from one another, it's hard to imagine that any language could manage without some system for doing these things; such a system seems essential for speech production and speech comprehension.

It's true that English does tend to make use of quite a wide pitch range, extending a long way upwards - though I can't say exactly how it compares with Japanese in this respect – and that this is sometimes perceived as 'sing-song' or effeminate. This may be an insurmountable affective barrier for some learners, and there's no reason why they can't become very effective speakers of English without adopting a very wide pitch range, as long as they can group words together and pause appropriately, and give different weight to different words through the use of stress – this means, for instance, that if they're asked “Did you say forty-two?”, they'll be able to answer “No, I said thirty-two” with stress on the underlined syllables, rather than “No, I said thirty-two.” This would be in line with Jennifer Jenkins' finding (cf. The Phonology of English as an International Language OUP 2000:151-6) that 'nuclear stress' is extremely important for intelligibility in English as international language, but that pitch movement is not important. This is significant finding for the large numbers of learners who want English for international communication, and not particularly for interacting with native speakers.

Those learners who do aspire to a more native-like pronunciation of English, on the other hand, will need to find the motivation to overcome their reluctance to emulate 'sing-song' intonation patterns. This will probably only come with repeated exposure. Video can be very useful in drawing attention to the normalness of what seems like exaggerated intonation, because you can see who the speakers are and how they behave and react. Movies are one possibility, although learners might suspect that the actors' delivery is exaggerated in comparison with spontaneous speech (they might even be right in some cases!) and they might be more readily persuaded by video material of people caught on camera with no thought of acting.

When it comes to practising the production of intonation patterns, why not encourage learners to relish the apparent silliness and excessiveness of the patterns? Some will find that role play allows them to 'give themselves permission' to sound a bit ridiculous. They could model themselves on video sequences, mimicking not just the speech but also the gestures of the characters. They could also practise intonation without words – i.e. just say “mmm mm mmmmm mmm” or “aaa aa aaaaaa aaa” but going up and down in imitation of an intonation contour; some people find that this helps them to be more accurate with the intonation, and also to find a new source of enjoyment in it.

There are plenty of descriptions of English intonation available; Adrian Underhill's Sound Foundations (Macmillan 1994) offers a particularly user-friendly discovery approach, together with practical classroom exercises to help learners develop an awareness of intonation and provide them with the tools to improve their performance. Mark Hancock's English Pronunciation in Use (CUP 2003) includes intonation listening and speaking exercises in the section titled 'Conversation', emphasising the role it plays in everyday communication. Richard Cauldwell's Streaming Speech: Listening and Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English ( 2003) is an electronic publication which allows learners to interact with unscripted recordings and transcriptions of these in order to work on all aspects of pronunciation, but with a heavy emphasis on intonation and other suprasegmental features. These and other recent materials integrate a concern for intonation into work on other aspects of listening and speaking, showing how it contributes to interaction rather than being a kind of decorative add-on feature.

The works of the Brontë sisters are popular in Japan, and the Yorkshire village of Haworth, where they lived, is one of the places where I most regularly get the chance to hear Japanese spoken. The footpaths across the moors above Haworth are even signposted bilingually in English and Japanese. When Charlotte Brontë first read her sister Emily's poems, she recorded in her diary that they had “a peculiar music” - she intended this in a positive sense. Perhaps at least some of your students will in time be able to appreciate the peculiar music of English, and even sing it themselves.


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