Watch the video of Viviane talking about her weekends and think about her pronunciation.
So, what do you notice about her pronunciation? It’s pretty good, right? Watch the video again and focus on these phrases. What happens to her intonation?
- Hi, I’m Viviane. I’m Brazilian. I’m 31 years old.
- I would like to talk about my typical weekend.
- I usually go back home and cook something.
- I watch something on TV, then go out for a stroll.
- Then I come back home.
- Then on Sunday… on Sundays I usually wake up quite late.
- In Barcelona I usually go out with my friends.
What’s the problem for the listener?
Essentially, there is no issue with Viviane being intelligible here. In fact, she is perfectly intelligible on all levels, from individual sounds to suprasegmental features such as sentence stress. It is more a question of discourse. At the ends of each phrase her intonation rises. You might think this is not unusual and you would be right. This is something many fluent speakers of English do. It actually has a name, or two. It is known as HRT (high rise terminals) or AQI (Australian questioning intonation). So, why might this be a problem? Well, it can make it harder for a listener to know when to take a turn. Our brains are trained to recognise it is our turn in a conversation by the way the speaker uses their voice. When intonation falls at the end of a phrase, it sends a signal that it is now okay for us to speak. If a speaker always uses rising intonation at the end of phrases, we may not know it is our turn and this could lead to awkward silences!
Viviane may not be aware of this phenomenon so we can help to raise awareness of this so she is more informed as a learner and can make decisions about her pronunciation, take control of it and become a more effective communicator. She may decide that this feature of her pronunciation is not an issue and she would prefer to concentrate on other aspects of her language learning, but she may feel that she wants to control her intonation and change this aspect of it. It is our job to give her the information and awareness needed to make this decision. So, how can we do this?
There are two things to consider here. Firstly, Viviane needs to be aware of this feature of English pronunciation and be able to hear it in other speakers. Secondly, she needs to be able to hear and control it in her own speech. So, let’s turn to the cycle to put this into practice.
Strategies to develop this feature of pronunciation
A supportive cycle
We can search for some examples on audio or video where intonation makes a clear impact on communication. Alternatively, we can model it by scripting and recording or performing a simple example in class.
To do this we need to be aware of some of the key ways intonation helps us manage discourse, so we can model them and have some clear information to give our learners.
All speech is broken down into what we call tone units. These are chunks of speech with one stressed syllable. For example,
//what do you think//
//It’s really awful// and //I disagree// //one hundred percent//
The stressed syllable is called the tonic syllable. There is no wrong or right placement of this syllable. The speaker chooses it according to what they want to communicate.
The information conveyed in the tone units of speech can do a number of things. Let’s take two of these: either the speaker is saying something that the listener is already aware of through the context of interaction, or the speaker may be introducing something that is not yet shared between the speaker and listener. Referring tones (falling-rising intonation) are used in the first case and proclaiming tones (falling intonation) in the second case. The falling or falling-rising tone is determined by the change in pitch at the tonic syllable (the last prominent syllable in the tone unit). When we are finished speaking and want the other person to know this, we often use a falling tone. This is another message that can be conveyed by the tone unit. Take the above example, if we used rising intonation in one hundred percent, the listener might think we are going to add to the sentence. They won’t know it is their turn.
So, if the speaker does not use intonation to manage their discourse, they can fail to communicate the message 100% clearly. This is especially true if they are interacting with very proficient speakers of English. If learners can’t hear this, then they won’t know it’s their turn to speak. Or they may start speaking prematurely.
Even in the context of a monologue, we may want to show that information we are giving is known to the listeners, something new has been added, we are pausing, or we have finished a statement.
This is what we want to get across to Viviane. So, we need to create a script or find material where this happens. In the case of Viviane, she is producing a monologue about her weekend. So, with her as a one-to-one student, we could choose to script a monologue in which there is both known (falling-rising intonation) and unknown (falling intonation) information, or where there are moments when she is clearly finishing a statement (falling intonation) and other lines where she is pausing or not sure of where she is going with the information (rising intonation). If working with a group of students, we can script a simple dialogue with the same elements.
As our first task, let’s say we ask Viviane to listen and read a monologue with the some of the intonation patterns marked. When we have introduced this model, we can then draw her attention to the sounds of the language. We can ask her some guidance questions like: Why do you think this part has a falling-rising pattern? Why do you think that part has a falling pattern? Why do you think that part has a rising pattern?
Sample monologue with intonation marked:
Hi, I’m Viviane and I’d like to tell you about my weekend. (falling)
I went to that art gallery in town on Saturday morning. (falling)
You know the one. (falling-rising)
Anyway, it was really good. (falling)
The exhibition was really cool. (falling)
Then, let’s see…emmmm (rising)
Oh, then, we went for lunch and did some shopping. ( )
On Sunday, I can’t remember what I did, emmmm ( )
Oh yeah! ( )
I went to the cinema. ( )
Time to hear
We want to give Viviane more time with this without putting her under any pressure to produce any intonation patterns for now. One way to do this and keep it interesting for her is to change the task and not the material. As you may have noticed, the last four lines of the monologue don’t have any intonation pattern marked. At this stage we want to help Viviane hear the difference between the falling-rising, the rising and the falling patterns, and consider their impact on the speaker. We play the recording or perform the monologue again. This time we ask her to decide whether the final lines have a) falling-rising pattern b) falling pattern or c) rising pattern.
At this stage we could ask Viviane to match the reason for the intonation pattern to the meaning or intention of the speaker. E.g.
A Giving/ checking shared information
B Uncertainty (pausing)
C Adding something new
D Finishing a statement
Try doing this now! Can you match different phrases to these functions?
So, Viviane decides she does want to have more variety in how she uses intonation. The first steps we can take as teachers here is drilling different intonation patterns with her. We can take one sentence or phrase and drill it with different intonation patterns to give her practice and more confidence with falling-rising, falling and rising tones.
We can read out the monologue with different intonation patterns and ask her to say how it affects meaning and ask her to play around with it also by choosing her own patterns to use and perform. We could also add more items to her day to show how we use intonation in lists! We rise on the items in the list and fall on the last item to show the listener we are done.
Anyway, it was really good. (falling)
The exhibition was really cool. (falling)
Then, we went for lunch (rising)
and did some shopping. (rising)
We got our nails done (rising)
We bought some new shoes (rising)
We had cake (rising)
And then we went for a drink. (falling)
Feedback and consolidation
So, now Viviane is clearer on the way we use intonation in discourse and she has had a go at working on her own intonation, now we need to focus the lesson feedback on intonation.
Her main aim is to start using more falling intonation. We could give her another opportunity to tell us about what she did last week and help her to manipulate her intonation to express herself more effectively. She should also record herself and analyse her intonation after the lesson.
We can also ask her how she feels about intonation and whether it is important. We might even want to play her some examples of speakers with HRT/AQI so she can evaluate how it sounds and whether she thinks it is worth addressing. Another activity or project for her could be to try to imitate someone’s intonation from a video – YouTube, TV series, film etc. There’s a lot of imitation of others in language learning, isn’t there?
As her teacher, we need to remain quite impartial here and help Viviane take control of her pronunciation development. What we want to do is give her an opportunity to move from being intelligible to being more effective, but give her control of this. Allowing her to go beyond intelligibility needs her willing steps in that direction!
Intonation is not an easy area to cover in lessons as it is not clear cut and many trainee teachers on the Diploma course we teach say they find it hard to hear rising and falling tones. However, I am sure we have all had learners who sound flat or monotone or even use similar intonation patterns to Viviane, so we should be equipped to address it. This post has given you some background on the topic and ways to work on it. As with other areas of pronunciation, once we know a little more about it, we feel more confident about teaching it.