I is for Intonation

22 02 2015

For someone who has never enjoyed – nor succeeded at – teaching intonation, I was gratified to find that John Wells shares my scepticism. In his latest book, Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and general phonetics (Wells 2014) he writes:

Most learners of English as an additional language… are not taught intonation and do not study intonation. Yet they do not speak English on a monotone. A few may be gifted mimics who succeed in imitating intonation along with everything else in the phonetics of the target language. For most, though, their intonation patterns are presumably those of their first language, transferred to English.

The same applies to English learners of foreign languages.

On the whole, even though this may make the speaker sound strange, typical of their origin, boring or annoying, it seems not to cause much of an actual breakdown in communication. How can this be?

It must be because the principles of intonation in language are sufficiently universal for us to be able to rely on them even in a foreign-language situation.

Wells Sounds InterestingWells (who, I hope I don’t have to remind you, is probably Britain’s foremost phonetician) goes on to look at the different functions of intonation in terms of their universality. The three systems in which intonation is implicated are: 1. the tonality system, i.e. the chunking of speech into meaningful units; 2. the tonicity system, i.e. the assigning of nuclear stress within these units; and 3. the tone system, i.e. the use of changes in pitch to convey certain kinds of meaning, such as assertion vs non-assertion, completion vs non-completion, high involvement vs low involvement.

Of the three, he argues that tonality and the meaningful use of tones seem both to be linguistic universals. Tonicity, on the other hand, does not. Whereas in English we would ask

Do you want your coffee WITH milk or withOUT milk?

in Spanish this would more likely be:

¿Quiere el café con LECHe or sin LECHe?

Given the way that nuclear stress plays an important role in flagging new information in discourse, this would seem to be something worth teaching, if not for production, at least for recognition.

human_body faceA quick scan of a number of current coursebooks suggests that it is an area that does indeed get fairly regular – if not detailed – treatment. But so too do the other, supposedly universal, features of intonation, such as the use of a wide pitch span, or high key, to signal politeness. Or the different intonation contours of wh- and yes/no questions. Or the use of falling intonation to signal the end of a list. And so on.

Are we wasting our students’ time? If their goal is to be communicatively effective in international contexts, probably yes. In making her case for a lingua franca phonological core, Jennifer Jenkins (2000, p. 153) argues:

Even if it were possible to teach pitch in the classroom, I do not believe that the use of “native speaker” pitch movements matters very much for intelligibility in interactions among [non-native speakers]. This feature of the intonation system seldom leads to communication problems in the [interlanguage talk] data …

But, anticipating Wells, she goes on to argue:

Nuclear stress, however is a completely different story [and] it is crucial for intelligibility in interlanguage talk (ibid.).

With regard to the redundancy of teaching the rest of the systems, Wells (who happens to be a fluent speaker of Esperanto) nails his case thus:

These points about intonation in EFL applied equally to intonation in Esperanto: somehow speakers manage to understand one another in the language very well despite the lack of any agreed, taught or described intonation system.


Jenkins, J. 2000. The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wells, J.C. 2014. Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and general phonetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(This post started life as a thread on the Facebook site of the ELT Writers Connected group.)