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The attitudinal function of intonation

Intonation is used to convey feelings and attitudes. For example, a sentence can be said in different ways, which might be labeled as “angry”, “happy” etc. It is also known that the intonation is different in different languages. For example the intonation of Romanian is different than that of English. Some languages, such as Vietnamese, have totally different intonation than English.

It is said that foreign learners of English should learn English intonation since there are situations in which a learner of English may unintentionally give offence instead gratitude, for example. This usually happen because of the difference in intonation between their native language and English. I know for sure that this is a real problem for foreign learners of English and it creates anxiety among them.

Now, the question is how you, as an English teacher, can introduce to your students the attitudinal function of intonation and analyze it.

The teacher can invent a number of sentences and try saying them with different intonation patterns (different combinations of head and tone), nothing what attitude was supposed to correspond to the intonation in each case. This is a strange situation since it is based on an artificial performance that has little resemblance to conversational speech.

Another possibility is that the teacher could say these sentences to his students and ask them to write down what attitudes they thought were being expressed. This approach creates a new problem. There is a vast range of adjectives that can be used to label attitudes and the students may come up with a very large number of such adjectives. Now, the teacher and the students have to decide if words as “obsequious” and “sycophantic” for example, are synonyms or represent different attitudes. This approach can be useful when teaching vocabulary, but in our case it creates more problems than it solves.

To overcome the problem of “synonyms versus different attitudes”, the teacher may ask the students to choose among a limited number of adjectives given by the teacher. The result would be easier to quantify but it would no longer be the students’ free choice of label.

An interesting option would be to ask the students to say a list of sentences in different ways according to the labels provided by the teacher and see what features of intonation are found in common (for example count how many students use low head to say something in a “hostile” way). I tried this approach and the result is very difficult to interpret and very variable. Moreover, students might have very limited range of acting talent which makes this activity ever more difficult.

A much more realistic approach would be to study recordings of different speakers speaking naturally and spontaneously then try to make generalizations about attitudes and intonation on this basis. However, many problems remain because in the methods presented previously the teacher selects sentences with “neutral” meaning from the emotional point of view. A sentence like “Why don’t you leave me alone?” would probably be avoided since it already makes the speaker’s attitude very clear whereas a sentence like “The paper has fallen under the table” is less likely to prejudice the listener. Studying natural speech gives the teacher less free choice of material. However, studying intonation is much more useful if it is done through studying natural speech rather than inventing examples of what someone might say in a hypothetical situation.

The teacher might want to explain to the students that an emotion or an attitude may be expressed involuntary or voluntary. For instance, if I say something in a “happy” way is because I feel happy or because I want to give you the impression that I am happy. In addition, an attitude can be expressed towards the listener, towards what is being said, or towards an external event or situation.

One of the best ways of analyzing intonation is to ask your students to perform their pronunciation of a sentence in a number of different ways. For example, let’s take the sentence “I want to buy a new bike” and the students have to say it in the following ways: “pleading”, “angry”, “sad”, “happy”, and “proud”. For sure, the students use variation in speed and loudness, and also different voice qualities for different attitudes. Probably the pitch range is also used in different ways. They certainly use different facial expressions, gestures, and body movements. These are all factors of a great importance in conveying attitudes and emotions but they are completely ignored by course books.

What advice can be given to someone who tries to learn “correct intonation”?

Few generalizations can be made about the attitudinal function of intonation and they are presented below.

Fall tone – it means “finality” or “definiteness”
Example: Stop \talking.

Rise tone – Most functions attributed to rises are nearer to grammatical than attitudinal.
General questions – Can you /help me?
Listing – /Red, /brown, /yellow, or \blue (note the fall on the last item of enumeration; that is normal)
Encouraging – It won’t /hurt.

Rise-fall tone – it means “surprise” or “being impressed”
Example: /\All of them.

Generalizations, such as these, are not bad but learners usually find learning intonation through them quite difficult. Most of the generalizations are also true for other languages as well. These rules and generalizations about conveying attitudes through intonation are likely to be too trivial to be worth learning. However, it should not be understood that intonation is not important for conveying attitudes. What I am saying is its complexity and linguistic (para-linguistic should be said) features makes it very difficult to teach and learn.

In conclusion the attitudinal use of intonation is best acquired through talking with and listen to English speakers.


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