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Teaching Intonation using discourse
Teaching Intonation using discourse
Teaching Intonation using discourse
Teaching Intonation using discourse
Teaching Intonation using discourse
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Teaching Intonation using discourse


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  • 1. Discourse Intonation in ELTIn order to attain total mastery of English language, ESL students should undoubtedly be taught theintonation of English. Without learning this suprasegmental feature, English learners, regardless of theirlevel of English proficiency, would be at risk of causing serious communication breakdown with nativespeakers. Recent studies show that there has been a growing awareness of the importance of teachingintonation in ESL classes by integrating it into the main ELT curriculum. Unfortunately, the intonationrules exemplified in most course books nowadays are inadequate to accurately describe what occurs inreal life communication. In order to improve cross cultural communication between learners and nativespeakers, a systematic approach based on discourse intonation is thus called for. Discourse Intonationviews intonation as more than just its attitudinal or grammatical function; it takes intonation to the nextlevel by looking at the larger contexts where sentences occur. By exposing learners to context-sensitivelanguage where natural speech occurs, discourse intonation hopes to offer a practical solution to teachingintonation to ESL students. In the world of ELT, intonation earns an ever-lasting notoriety as being one of the mostchallenging language components to teach. After all, how can one teach the intricacy of a suprasegmentalfeature of a language? Intonation is conceptualized in a deeply subconscious level, which even nativespeakers find it hard to analyze the patters themselves (Bradford, 1995, as cited in Rannali 2002). Thedifficulties inherent in teaching intonation have turned many coursebook writers to present it in astructurally limited way which, as we shall see later, can sometimes be misleading for learners. Thislimitation has been investigated in various studies. For example, Clennel (1996) maintains that there is alack of precision in describing suprasegmental features of phonology. This in turn causes materials foundin ELT course books to be insufficient. In the same vein, Thompson (1995) states that ESL teaching 2
  • 2. materials on intonation is missing or dealt with in haphazard way causing uncertainty among teachers. Itis no wonder then that the same old favorites to appear in course books again and again, such as the risingand falling tones in yes/no questions and wh- questions. Cauldwell, and Hewings (1996) demonstrated indetail a mismatch between what is found in course books and that of a natural speech as follow. One of the rules most commonly found in ELT course books is that in sentences with a main clause and a subordinate clause, a rising tone is used for the subordinate clause and a falling tone for the main clause, as in: (a) // Before I read this book // I thought stress was an executive disease // We know that it does not conform what happens in real life speech, for example: (b) // even if it rains // well come // In this case, the falling tone occurs on the subordinate clause, and the rising tone on the main clause. Another prime example is the famous rising and falling intonations in yes/no questions and wh-questions. As illustrated below: With yes/no questions a rising tone is used, as in: (a) //Shall we go tomorrow? // Wh-questions, such as What, Where, When, How, end with a falling tone, as in: (b) // Where shall we go tomorrow? // In most cases the rules exemplified above are true but how do we justify the following examples that come from authentic speech? (a) //Are they significantly different? // (b) //Whats a bidet?// The above illustration suggests that intonation rules in yes/no and wh-questions given in textbookcould not picture the complexity of intonation as used in authentic speech. It is feared that such limitedstructural intonation teaching may pose learners to a serious communication breakdown when talking to 3
  • 3. native speakers of English. Clennell (1997) mentions three crucial consequences when learners hingeupon intonation materials in course books: 1. The propositional content (essential information) of the message may not be fully grasped. 2. The illocutionary force (pragmatic meaning) of utterances may be misunderstood. 3. Inter-speaker co-operation and conversational management may be poorly controlled. In order to remedy the numerous problems as faced by learners in communicating with nativespeakers, a different pedagogical approach to intonation is thus needed. That is, the approach that looks atintonation patters in naturally spoken English and how such patterns affect the communicative value ofspeech. Such approach is called discourse intonation. Developed in the early 1980s by David Brazil,discourse intonation looks at the act of speaking in a broader way, where the speakers can either signalthe listener the information as ‘new’ or ‘given’. Speakers use these various prosodic components toindicate to listeners that they have finished speaking, that another person is expected to speak, or aparticular response is required. As Roach (2009) puts it, the regulation of this turn-taking in everydayconversation is analogous to footballers who look for someone to pass the ball to, or when they are readyto receive the ball by using body language such as eye contact, facial expression, gestures, and headturning. Because it is discoursal in function rather than accentual or grammatical, its fundamentally dealswith speakers moment-by-moment context-referenced choices. It features four systems of speaker choice:tone unit, prominence, proclaiming and referring tones, and high/low key. Each of these systems adds anincrement of interpersonal meaning to the discourse between speaker and listener. In the light of above descriptions, it is clear then that only with discourse intonation can weprovide learners with satisfactory explanation for the intonation as used in real speech, a major pointwhich the structural view fails in. Furthermore, its top-down processing enables learners to see intonationholistically as used in a genuine real life communication rather than just an artificial message taken out ofcontext in structural forms. Such analysis of everyday speech is hoped to bring learners’ understanding ofintonation from simply the level of perception to interpretation (Atoye, 2005). Other key benefits to 4
  • 4. teaching discourse intonation have been shown in various studies. For example, Chapman (2007) pointsout that discourse intonation helps learners develop better listening comprehension, overcomegrammatical understanding of NS utterance, and gain the conversation management function. Knowing what a discourse intonation is and how its teaching proves to be beneficial to ourstudents, our big question now turns to how we translate it systematically into something that is bothteachable and learnable. As we understand it, discourse intonation is context-sensitive by nature.Pedagogically, it implies that teachers would have to expose their learners to intensive listening forchanges in intonation patterns. Chapman’s study reveals that a pre-listening activity based on a task-basedapproach proves beneficial to students learning discourse intonation. These tasks specifically askedlearners to speculate what they were going to hear before listening to the tape and later compare it.Clennell (1997) proposes alternative pedagogic implications. First of all, the prosodic terms need to beexplained and clarified to students. Secondly, demonstration of how those terms work systematically andgrammatically is given. Finally, ask students to transcribe recordings of native-speakers in differentinformal speech situations using the terms explained by the teacher. This paper concludes the current materials on intonation in most course books, which heavilycling on structural analysis, should be evaluated. If learners were to succeed in their interaction withnative speakers, a deeper analysis of intonation should be used. Discourse intonation provides a betterpicture of how intonation works in real-life speech by using context-referenced choices in their prosodicfeatures. Failure to use one of these appropriate features would lead to a misunderstanding or even anoffence. Indisputably, ESL teachers need to readily equip themselves with the awareness of these featuresby studying current researches on discourse intonation. 5
  • 5. ReferencesAtoye, R. (2005) ‘Non-Native Perception and Interpretation of English Intonation’, Nordic Journal of African Studies, Vol. 14, no.1, pp.26-42Cauldwell, R. and Hewings, M. (1996) ‘Intonation rules in ELT textbooks’, ELT Journal, Vol. 50, No.4, pp.327-334Chapman, M. (2007) ‘Theory and Practice of Teaching Discourse Intonation’, ELT Journal, Vol. 61, no.1, pp.1-11Clennell, C. (1996) ‘Raising the Pedagogic Status of Discourse Intonation Teaching’, ELT Journal, Volume 51, no. 2, pp.117-125Discourse Intonation. (n.d.) in speechinaction. Retrieved March 6, 2011, from, J. (2002) ‘Discourse Intonation: To Teach or not to Teach?’ Retrieved March 17, 2011, from, P.J. (2009) English Phonetics and Phonology, 4th edn., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (first published 1983).Stibbard, R. (1996) ‘Teaching English Intonation with a Visual Display of Fundamental Frequency’, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. 2, no. 8, pp.1-14Thompson, S. (1996) ‘Teaching Intonation in Questions’, ELT Journal, Vol. 49, No. 3, pp. 235-243Vaissière, J. (2004) ‘Perception of Intonation’, Handbook of Speech Perception, D. B. Pisoni and R. E. Remez. Oxford, Blackwell, (in press). Pp.1-28 6