18 Intonation: Teacher’s Corner

It is important to first address students’ nonstandard intonation in terms of how the student vs. the student’s target audience is likely to interpret that intonation. For example, for an L1 English listener, a consistently rising intonation could easily lead them to question a speaker’s competence.

Main suggestions

  • First discuss the students’ nonstandard intonation in terms of who their 1) immediate, 2) primary, and 3) long-term target audience(s) are and how those target audience(s) are likely to interpret students’ current intonational norms.
  • When students plan to work long-term in contexts where calibration toward L1 English intonational norms appears more likely to hurt than to help communication, student resistance to activities targeted at fostering more standard intonation should certainly be respected.
  • Also ensure students clearly understand the potential ramifications their L2 English intonational preferences are likely to have on their success in L1-English-context job interviews, professional relationships, etc., which they may decide to pursue in the future.

On the other hand, students may find help via an introduction to how one successfully navigates being able to “flip the switch” from their “native language self” to a slightly different “English self.” Students may also break free of L1-induced interpretations of English intonation as excessively melodramatic and emotional by imagining they are acting in a movie, where a broader intonation range is expected.

Common Intonational Patterns Based on Written Punctuation

  1. Period at the end of a sentence = falling intonation
  2. Comma at the end of a clause or phrase = steady intonation (or slight rise)
    1. This indicates the speaker is not finished speaking
  3. Exclamation points often signal strong emotion = extreme pitch changes

Teaching intonation can make use of lines, as seen in the Overview section, or sometimes it can help students to see the difference in syllable form. For example, if we use the line “The union’s indivisible, not divisible,” it may look like this:

The union’s INdivisible / not diVIsible

This method allows the students to see which sounds are involved in particular falls or rises.


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Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English by Timothy Kochem, Monica Ghosh, Lily Compton, and Elena Cotos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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