Thursday, April 1, 2010
The Importance of Intonation
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
“This is a song that you all should know.”
Last week, I was in a jazz club in Venice when I heard something that made me sit up and scribble in my napkin. (It seems that when one becomes an English teacher, it is impossible to shed that hat, even for a night.) The speaker was an Italian pianist. He had excellent English overall, and introduced all of the group’s songs intelligibly and with a sense of humor. However, at one point, I noticed something interesting.
He was introducing a well-know song and he said, “This is a song that you all should know.” Now, that sentence seems innocuous enough, and there were no grammar or vocabulary errors, so what was so interesting about it? What caught my attention was what he did with the pitch of his voice and how that impacted how I heard his meaning.
General English Intonation Guidelines
When following the basic “rules” of English intonation, speakers tend to rise on the last stressed syllable of a phrase or sentence and then fall after the last stressed syllable. For a yes/no question, North American English speakers will generally rise on the last stressed syllable and continue up from there.
However, for any number of different reasons, speakers may choose an alternate intonation pattern. More specifically, if the speaker wants to stress something or focus the listener’s attention on something else in the sentence, he or she will rise on a different syllable. Gilbert (2003) gives this example:
Back to the Pianist
So, what does this mean for the Italian jazz pianist? He rose and fell at the end of his statement, following typical Italian intonation patterns.
For a second or two immediately after, I felt a bit put out. When I stopped to think about my emotional reaction to what he said, I realized that because he had risen and fallen on the word know. In the moment following, I had understood him to mean, “If you don’t know this song, you obviously don’t know anything about jazz.” Now, I would be the first to admit, I am no jazz expert, but I still had an immediate gut reaction of defensiveness.
Once I actually thought logically about it, it was clear that what he had probably intended to say was more along the lines of, “This is a well-known song, and since you are here listening to jazz music when you could be doing any number of other things in Venice during Carnival, you probably know something about jazz and will recognize this tune.” In other words, he probably meant to say,
By stressing the word should he could have focused the listeners’ attention on the probability implied in the modal.
Intonation and Grammar
Intonation varies from language to language. Meyers and Holt (2001) point out that when you are in an international environment, for instance an airport, it is easy to differentiate your native language from the many others being spoken in the area. This is not because you can hear the individual words, but rather because you can hear the “music” of your language.
The reason this is so important for teachers and students to be aware of is that even when a sentence is grammatically sound, if the student is following the intonation patterns associated with his/her L1, the meaning can be strongly impacted. In fact, “… when grammar and intonation are at odds, the intonation directly carries the illocutionary force of the speech act.” (Wennerstrom, 2001, page 149) In other words, how you say something is more powerful than what you say.
The moral of this story is that studying grammar and vocabulary is not enough. Students also need to simultaneously be made aware of the intonation norms of the target language and the meaning associated with them. After all, although the offense I briefly took at the pianist’s remark was minor and quickly resolved, it might not be the case if a student were to make this error in, for example, a job interview.
Gilbert, J. (2003) Pronunciation Priorities for Beginning Students, presentation at TESOL, Baltimore, MD.
Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (2001) Pronunciation for Success, Aspen Productions.
Wennerstrom, A. (2001) The Music of Everyday Speech: Prosody and Discourse Analysis, New York: Oxford University Press.