Learning the intonation of English

I was talking about the somewhat odd way that some English words are pronounced by Hong Kong people (like the letter ‘e’ being pronounced as ‘yee’). A friend, named Laura, who has moved to the UK, commented on how her name is usually pronounced by the Brits, as opposed to how it was often pronounced, in all sorts of funny ways, while she was residing in Hong Kong. She also pointed out how the Brits would vary the intonation when saying her name to signify various communicative intents. She concluded that intonation was the most difficult aspect of pronunciation for immigrants in the UK to master.

That is indeed not surprising. I can only add that our sentence~final particles, such as ga, wor, lor, meh, geh, jeh, la, ma, etc, are equally difficult for foreign learners of Cantonese to learn. These particles signal communicative intents as well as attitudes, and since these are often intricate, the choice of sentence-final particle is never straightforward. 

A serving secondary school teacher then talked about the difficulty she is facing in teaching intonation. She remarks: “Both teaching and learning intonation are difficult to master. Since it exists only when we speak, students don’t have much chance to try it out/ Personally I think the urge to express clearly will help speaking with intonation.
Since this
 is quite important in getting higher marks in DSE Paper 4, I have tried to emphasize this in teaching my senior form students. The effectiveness was low, partly due to time constraints, my methodology and their lack of exposure to native speaking. I played some short and interesting dialogues to arouse their awareness of intonation. I guess it works for a few of them.”

Indeed, intonation is not only difficult to learn; it’s also difficult to teach. Compared with individual phonemes, intonation is much more elusive, because it’s not as simple as telling students that Rising Intonation is for Yes/No questions, and Falling intonation for Wh-questions and affirmative sentences. A multitude of factors exist that determine what intonation to use for an utterance, not to mention coming to grips with the various tunes themselves. In fact, Peter Roach, an acclaimed academic in phonology, has always doubted the effect of explicit instruction on the learning of intonation. I have observed that young children (KG and lower primary) can pick up intonation quite easily and naturally when they listen to stories told by native speakers (recorded, or live). When they grow up, they seem to lose this innate ability. With secondary learners, I’m speculating that a language awareness approach which sensitizes students to the functions of intonation may help (e.g., Listen to how John says the sentence again. Do you think he really wants to help Mary?). I’m not sure about the effectiveness of teaching that focuses on presenting and drilling the various intonation patterns – input does not always result in intake. At the same time, a variety of oral language arts activities, such as jazz chants, reader’s theatre, radio drama, choral speaking, storytelling, singing, etc. may help. But again, this is only my speculation. Also, there isn’t much research literature that can inform intonation teaching.

Intonation is about pitch variation. It’s interesting to note that pitch variation seems always to be a difficult aspect in learning the pronunciation of a foreign language. Our only consolation, if this counts as consolation, is that the tones in our Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Putonghua, Chiu Chow, etc.) are as difficult to foreigners as English intonation is to us.


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