The text was previously published in the Croatian HUPE magazine, relating to a presentation at the conference in Opatija, Croatia in April 2014.
The Importance of Intonation
Danny Singh, UK
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
Intonation and conflict
Intonation vs. pronunciation
Intonation exercises for your class
90% of conflict between people is caused by bad intonation! Only 10% is caused by a difference of opinion. This is applicable even when people are communicating in the same language, let alone when there are language deficiencies. Despite these figures, little is done, either by teachers or students to tackle the problem. Most teachers seem to think it is not worth their while, or that it’s too difficult a subject to teach. Many students (especially mono-lingual ones), tend to believe that just saying the word, however badly pronounced or intonated is enough to merit a round of applause! I believe that the main reason why intonation is avoided is that it involves both parties (teacher and student), going outside their comfort zone and as we know, people don’t like moving outside their comfort zone.
Having a better quality of intonation not only helps you communicate better in foreign languages, not to mention your own language, but can make a real difference to your life, to your personal relationships, work relationships and contact with people in all situations, hence I see it as fundamental, not a matter of choice!
Good face to face communication involves 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% words according to research by Professor Albert Mehrabian. Notice that grammar (the aspect of teaching that most teachers and students like to concentrate on) isn’t even mentioned! A few years ago, I had a series of one-to-one lessons with a lawyer. He walked in to our first lesson with his gaze fixed firmly on the ground. I asked him politely how he was. He replied, fine thanks and you? His intonation sounded as though he was devastated about some event and didn’t fit the language he’d used. I said, sorry? He repeated the same answer as before, in exactly the same way. So I hadn’t misunderstood. While asking him about his previous experience with the English language, it transpired that he had done one of those direct method courses that some language schools offer. This is where you learn to respond automatically to everything that is asked of you. While this may be fine for a complete beginner needing to learn some basic language before departing for a far distant land, it limits you somewhat. The learner in this case, had never been taught how to reply using any alternative words, such as, not so good, things could be better, or even, so and so!
Pronunciation and intonation often overlap of course, but there is a difference in that intonation is even more important. Once I was in the office of a language school, when I heard one of the staff repeatedly saying, I’m a doctor, with an awful pronunciation. Did I look so ill to him, I wondered? In the end, he called me over and showed me the problem. He was doing one of those multimedia exercises, where you read a sentence into a microphone and you are given a percentage to show how well you’ve pronounced it. He was getting between 30% and 40%, as he became more and more frustrated. He asked me to have a go. Of course, I replied. It’s easy! I read out the phrase in my perfect English and got 94%. I wanted to argue with the computer, as to why 6% of my pronunciation was lacking, but the member of staff pushed me away, and repeated the phrase again, this time imitating my intonation perfectly, but still with a bad pronunciation. He received over 70%, despite the awful pronunciation, as the computer programme recognised that his intonation had suddenly become excellent.
Some teachers have told me that they recognize the importance of intonation, however, finding ways to deal with it is not so easy. Well, here are a few of the activities that I use. Ideally, you should try all of them and see which ones work best for you.
The activity that I use most often to practice intonation is simply choosing a word or chunk and practice saying it in different ways and with different tones. I demonstrate this first to my students. I then put them into groups and get them to choose a word or chunk, then choose their own ways of saying it. Different ways of intonating include; joy, shyness, nervousness, anger, fear, desperation, sadness, laughter, impatience and of course, sensuality! This exercise works well, as you give the students freedom to select the word that they want to use and the forms of intonation they are prepared to try, without forcing anything on them. It is also great fun and the other groups should try to guess what the message is, each time that the word is intonated differently.
Another activity that I have begun using recently is that of gibberish. This is basically a nonsensical language, often used by babies and small children. It can be quite difficult and embarrassing at first. However, the less you think, the easier it becomes. The more you think, the worse it is! To prepare for an activity like this, we need to reduce everyone’s inhibitions. I usually use 10-15 minutes of laughter yoga exercises. That always works! The big advantage of this activity is that students realize that we can communicate without words. As this is however a difficult exercise, especially the first time, it would normally be better to begin in small groups and eventually enlarge them and mix them up, so that people gain more confidence.
A third activity that is fairly easy to use is to get hold of a list of typical English sounds and expressions, such as um, hmm, err, ugh, yuk etc and get your students to practice saying them. These words are often found in childrens’ comics, as well as being available on many language websites.
Aphorisms, proverbs and quotations have to be said in the correct way in order to indicate their real meaning. These apart from being extremely educational, are a good way of practicing intonation. One of my favourite writers is Oscar Wilde, who uses wit and wisdom, especially in his four famous comedies. However, feel free to use the ones you want or the ones that you think your students might like. In this exercise, you are killing two birds with one stone, as you teach the meaning of a useful expression at the same time as practicing the way it should be intonated.
Similar to this is a fifth activity, which is reading nursery rhymes. Again, it’s great fun, but it works on rhythm and stress, as well as intonation, so practice reading these with your students.
One of the most boring activities for teachers and possibly students is drilling and repetition. However, it can be effective, so without throwing out the baby and the bathwater, repetition can be made more interesting, fun and hence effective, by singing the expression, toning and stressing it at different points, so as to emphasise the differences.
Imitation is fundamental to learning. The example of the staff member who imitated my intonation and improved his pronunciation result from 30% to 70% is a classic example. My deaf students in Rome, the only group of Italian students I have ever had in over 20 years who had such a high quality pronunciation of English did exactly that, they imitated me. Babies and young kids usually learn quickly, as they imitate everything that everybody says. So get your students to imitate you, making sure of course, that your pronunciation and intonation is of a high level.
There are many games and activities that you can use to help improve the intonation of your students. I have illustrated some. Anything which involves singing, acting, role-play or storytelling is certain to help, so think of your own activities, games which you feel comfortable with and let’s hear our students level of intonation improve!
Please check the Teaching Pronunciation at Pilgrims website.