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Is intonation neglected in the classroom?

March 30, 2008

Hello again,
When teachers discuss language issues with me, intonation never seems to crop up. And I can’t think of an example of intonation teaching in lessons I have observed recently, yet intonation is a systematic means of adding...

... meaning to language. Native speakers normally use intonation patterns without thinking about them. Yet many distorted patterns are still heard. Newsreaders looking at auto-cues seem to have no notion that intonation is insignificant and one of the presenters of a daily news magazine on morning radio in the UK seems to think that a little rise at the end of each word cluster somehow provides emphasis. It doesn’t; it merely makes her speech intensely irritating to listen too and often difficult to interpret.

Intonation is the melody of language and its cadences are meaningful. In spoken language sentences have to be divided into tone units to allow the speakers to take breath. As these units are spoken the pitch of the voice varies: some languages, including English, have a wide pitch-range others less so.
In each tone unit a rise or fall in tone (or a combination of the two) takes place
on the most important syllable. This tonic-syllable is usually a significant word,
near the end of the unit. A neutral intonation usually involves a low fall on the tonic to indicate that the phrase is coming to an end. This simple device helps the listener to group words according to meaning.

Those of you who know your Shakespeare will remember how Quince delivers a prologue to the play, Pramus and Thisbe in which the real meanings are reversed by wrong intonation so that the phrase clusters are muddled:

Consider then we come but in despite. We do not come as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you.

By varying the intonation you can sound as if you are asking a question, are surprised, bored and so on.

Why teach intonation? Intonation exists in every language, so the concept we're introducing isn't new. However, learners are often so busy finding their words that intonation suffers. Yet intonation can be as important as word choice - we don't always realise how much difference intonation makes:
• Awareness of intonation aids communication.
• Incorrect intonation can result in misunderstandings, speakers losing interest or even taking offence!

Though it's unlikely our learners will need native-speaker-level pronunciation, what they do need, is greater awareness of intonation to facilitate their speaking and listening.

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  1. Matt Smith Says:

    Contrary to Brenda's opinion, using rising intonation at the end of a word cluster does provide emphasis. When the listener hears this, they subconsciously think a question is being asked, which focuses their attention. For someone trained in language learning it is irritating, but this technique works affectively on the majority of listeners... or the presenters of daily news programmes wouldn't use it.

  1. Abhilasha Says:

    Intonation is definatly important part of speech and communication. These days our children are losing the knowledge of importance of inonation in speech. Stress and Intonation are very important tools of effective communication.

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