Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Music has Meaning – Part I

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Two Very Different Conversations

Imagine the following conversation: A student approaches a teacher after a lecture. The student says, “I am very busy this week. I know the paper is due on Friday, but can I hand it in on Monday instead?” The professor responds, “You can.”

In your imagination, was the student an English learner or a proficient English speaker? What the student understood about the conversation could be wildly different depending on his/her level of English. In fact, if you visualized an English learner, most likely the student understood the professor’s words, the locution. He/she would have left feeling content in the understanding that it was perfectly okay to submit the assignment late.

However, a proficient English speaker would have subconsciously understood that when the professor stressed the word “can,” he/she was communicating an additional message, in this case a contrary one.  As noted by Wells, the speaker typically states one thing but implies something further (Wells, 2006).  The proficient English speaking student would have probably felt much less confident that the teacher was okay with a late submission than the other student because he/she would have heard the illocutionary force of the message.

What I Said ≠ What I Meant

This example is one used by Marnie Reed in her webinar, The Melody of English: Research and Resources for Teaching the Pragmatic Functions of Intonation, that she and I gave for IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) recently. In her research, Reed reveals a startling disconnect between what English users say and what learners hear, simply because they are not hearing the musical inflections of our voices.

For instance, Reed points out that if I say “The teacher didn’t grade the papers” with a rising/falling intonation on the word “teacher” most English speakers would immediately understand that the papers were graded, just not by the teacher. Conversely, most English learners would hear the words and disregard the intonation because they “may think intonation is simply decorative.” (Gilbert, 2014, page 125) As a result, as Reed reports, English learners believe that the papers weren’t graded at all.

Reed’s fascinating research reveals that, while proficient English speakers consistently catch the message, our students believe that the “words trump intonation.” (Reed, 2015) As a result, they repeatedly miss the key information that is communicated by intonation alone because they fail to recognize that intonation “has the power to reinforce, mitigate, or even undermine the words spoken.” (Wichmann, 2005, page 229)

To make matters worse, good listeners are not just listening and understanding what is being said at any given moment, they are also always thinking about what will come next. Sometimes we use collocations to do this, but most often we rely on these prosodic cues to anticipate what the speaker is going to talk about next. For instance, if a lecturer says, “Last class, we talked about the causes of global warming. Today we are going to talk about …” a good English listener can hypothesize that the lecture today will probably be about the effects of global warming simply because the speaker stressed the word “cause.” At the same time, English learners are unable to make such guesses, so they have to work even harder to understand the lecture.

What’s a Teacher to Do?

Luckily, pronunciation experts like Grant (2010) and Gilbert (2012) have narrowed down the main functions of this kind of intonational shifts, often referred to as “focus” or “prominence.” They demonstrate that proficient English speakers usually rise and fall on the last content word of each phrase, or thought group. However, sometimes we rise and fall in the middle of a phrase when we want to communicate a specific meaning.

We do it to introduce new information:

Speaker A: “Can I have the pen?
Speaker B: “Which pen?”
Speaker A: “The blue pen.”

We do it to contrast:

Speaker A: I don’t just like chocolate. I love it!

We do it to correct:

Speaker A: Hello. My name’s James Bond.
Speaker B: Jim Bond?
Speaker A: James Bond.

We do it to emphasize agreement:

Speaker B: You ate all the cookies? You really do like dessert!

Even more luckily, there are many fun and interactive ways teachers can introduce and facilitate practice of these important concepts in their English lessons. Stay tuned for the next blog posting with some practical suggestions!


Gilbert, J. (2012) Clear Speech, Fourth Edition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Gilbert, J. (2014). Myth 4: Intonation is hard to teach. In L. Grant (Ed.) Pronunciation Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Grant, L. (2010). Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication, Third Edition, Boston, MA: Heinle.
Reed, M. (2015, Feb 17). The Melody of English: Research and Resources for Teaching the Pragmatic Functions of Intonation, [webinar] IATEFL.
Wells, J.C. (2006). English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wichmann, A. (2005). The role of intonation in the expression of attitudinal meaning. English Language and Linguistics, 9(2), pp. 229-253.

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