In our hurry to ensure that our students can say more of what they want to, we sometimes forget to encourage them to think about how they are saying it.
Many of the textbooks I’ve worked with have demoted pronunciation, and intonation in particular, to a light-hearted, ignorable game at the end of every third chapter, and I believe this does the language, and its learning, something of a disservice.
Students are not always as focused on intonation as they might be, finding sufficient achievement in accurate grammatical formation or good choice of vocabulary. This is quite understandable, and for some students it may be appropriate, but for those seeking a truly ‘native’ sound, intonation is an indispensable skill, and one which teachers should feel confident in encouraging.
Consider Why Achieving Native-level Intonation Is Diffiuclt
Our Roots’ Influence
We all speak in a manner which reflects our origins. I live in Florida, but I certainly don’t sound like I’m from around here; instead, my British accent is am embodiment of my identity and home. The same is true in second languages; it is quickly audible, when I try to speak Chinese or French, that I’m not a native speaker. Some of this discrepancy comes from pronunciation of the family of sounds which don’t exist in my own first language, but the remainder is because I have yet to capture the true intonation of my second; this is nowhere more true than in standard ‘Pu Tong Hua’ Mandarin, with its emphasis on intonation as part of the meaning itself.
Playing It Safe
To play it safe, especially when reading aloud, many students adopt a monotonal intonation. Presentation classes used to drag on terribly during moments like these, and this was the beginning of my fixation on recording one’s own speaking as a learning tool. A monotone carries no additional meaning or inflection, little humor or character, and is dreadfully dull for an audience.
No Good Examples
As mentioned above, intonation has been de-emphasized in many otherwise excellent ESL syllabi, and therefore we must seek out good models to emulate. In the first place, these could be famous speeches by the great English language orators – Winston Churchill, Dr. Martin Luther King, President Kennedy, etc – which can then be examined to discover just what makes them so communicative and impassioned, so iconic and memorable.
Lacking a Method of Assessing Intonation
This is where we need a graphic representation of the variety and choice of intonation the speaker has made. I made use of an almost childishly simple method which I called ‘Intonation Maps’. The text of the speech is laid out, with plenty of space for annotations, and the students listen closely to it while marking moments of emphasis, rising or falling tone, slowing or accelerating, and pauses for effect. I advised them to use a set of arrows, rising and falling check-marks, circles and underlines, but almost any system could work, provided that it reveals the communicative success of the speech.
Much of this will be tied in with understanding the meaning of the speech, and I always try to ensure my students aren’t lost in the artful use of sound at the expense of the words and objectives of the speech.
Practice Intonation Meaningfully
Begin with some analysis. This could grow from examining the intonation of individual sentences, to news reports, lectures and famous speeches. Consider Neil Armstrong’s immortal summing up of his first step on the moon:
That’s one small step for (a) man… One giant leap for mankind.
You might begin by having the students join you in forgiving the late, great astronaut his missing article; it was a uniquely stressful moment. More importantly, consider how he leaves the sentence hanging in mid-air after ‘man’, making use wait for the second part of his comparison, and then pauses before ‘giant’ and strongly emphasizes ‘leap’. Moments of contrast like this are highly instructive, and if we listen to everyday English, are elemental to a clear understanding.
Some other short sentences which can yield useful lessons during analysis would be:
- No, the problem is with my credit card, not my debit card.
- How dare you speak that way to me! I’m your boss, not your employee!
- Why do I have to wait four more years until the next Olympics?
- It was your choice of restaurant. Why are you blaming me for the long wait?
- Tidy up, brush your teeth, and go to bed!
- You can’t be serious!?
Continue on to practice. With the ‘intonation maps’ as their guide, the students then take short sentences from a reading, a play, a paragraph from a newspaper, etc, and apply the same method, asking themselves, “How can I communicate this in the most vivid posisble way?” They will quickly find that using different strengths of emphasis, pausing for effect, using a greater variety of vocal pitch (high and low sounds) and speaking steadily and with confidence, produces a much more communicative and approachable speaking style. This will not, however, happen overnight, and the students will need reinforcement if they are to habituate this more lively, expressive style of speaking.
I’ve found that the best way to do this is actually by having the student teach themselves. Regular recordings of their speaking pay quick and considerable dividends; one group of students recorded their conversation in a bar one evening in Boston, and three of them reported their discoveries the next day:
- They sounded as though they were still speaking Spanish, but the words were English;
- They tend to use the same cadence as they’d always done, and it began to sound a bit dull;
- One lady discovered that she used ‘like’ sixty-seven times in two hours of conversation, something which really surprised the class and got us thinking about how much we all used that particular word.
Guard against extremes. It can be easy for this exercise to comically mutate into a sing-song style, which would be just as inauthentic and strange as a monotonal style or that informed by the students’ first language. Those who aren’t taking the work as seriously as they might have a tendency to do this, and I laugh along but then quickly guide them back to a method which, I remind them, will help their English sound more assured and native, and therefore mean they are taken more seriously.
Periodically reinforce the method. It needn’t be a matter of laboring the point, but every now and again, ask the student if there might be more interesting way of expressing their point by using a greater variety of pitch and pacing.
Intonation is a hard-won skill and will take time to perfect, but by self-teaching and using the best models, along with a simple but effective method of intonation analysis, can get the students off to a great start