Monday 17 December 2012

what's important in intonation for EFL?

As I found in Shanghai, most people in mainland China cannot access my blog, because Blogspot is hosted on the Google ‘cloud’, which the Chinese government routinely blocks. They can’t see Facebook, either. They can, however, see my UCL pages, and can exchange email freely.

I also thought it strange that the conference I attended, despite being billed as the “1st Chinese International TESOL Symposium on English Phonetics Teaching”, apparently had no web presence. But I don’t think that has anything to do with official restrictions, more with a low awareness of the internet among Chinese academics.

The conference was also referred to as “the 2012 English Phonetic Conference in China”, this being a series of biennial conferences. Since my return, I have discovered that the 2010 conference, held in Jiangsu, does have a modest web presence, from which I have been able to recover the abstract of the keynote speech given by my colleague Francis Nolan of the University of Cambridge, who had some sensible things to say about the teaching of intonation in an EFL context.

Those who have had explicit instruction in English intonation will be aware that English has a rich intonation system, one that from the foreign learner’s point of view is possibly quite daunting. In the first part of this talk I will risk making English intonation even more daunting by giving a summary of the substantial intonational variation found in major accents (or dialects) of English in the British Isles. In the second part I will attempt to reassure non-native speakers of English by suggesting that, in fact, native speakers’ familiarity with this variation makes them relatively tolerant of learners’ intonational deviations. Unless learners wish to have an absolutely native English accent – a questionable goal outside spy school – their efforts should focus on a number of priorities in the prosodic system.
…Speakers in Belfast produce a rise-plateau in pitch where RP speakers produce variously a fall, a rise, or a fall-rise; yet there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility (as long as the segmental features are not too different). Such alternative patterns should remind us that English listeners are used to coping with considerable intonational variation. Admittedly, some nuances may be misinterpreted across dialects, but such misinterpretation in itself suggests that even the acquisition of perfect RP intonation won’t solve everything – unless the learner never mixes with non-RP speakers.
…I will suggest that what learners need is a strategy which will optimise the pedagogical cost-benefit ratio in terms of (in order of priority) intelligibility, the avoidance of inadvertent offence, and (lowest in priority) the mastery of intonational nuances. Broadly corresponding to these three goals would be three prioritised learning targets: the mastery of accentuation (involving stress placement, rhythm, and pitch prominence achieved by a reduced inventory of pitch accents); the eradication of any L1-influenced phonetic realisations of pitch accents which might convey unintended meaning in English; and (lowest in priority) the acquisition of a more complete set of intonational pitch contrasts.

Thus he sees the mastery of English tonicity (aka accentuation, aka placement of the nucleus/tonic) as the most important goal, much more so than mastery of the fine details of pitch contours in tone contrasts. I agree wholeheartedly.

I also see this as my defence against critics of my own intonation book who suggest that because my description is based on RP it is irrelevant to the needs of most learners, or that it ignores AmE and other models. On the contrary: that is why I relegated details of minor differences in pitch patterns to a late chapter, ‘Beyond the three Ts’. Everything in the earlier part of the book is applicable, I believe, to all core L1 varieties of English, and that is what is of importance to EFL learners.


  1. The whole book is a model of clarity for anyone interested in learning and/or teaching intonation – Certainly I’ve learnt more from it than from any other books I’ve studied on the subject.

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