Raising the pedagogic status

of discourse intonation
teaching
Charles Clennell

At the heart of many cross-cultural
misunderstandings
lie problems
associated with intonation features of learner English. Failure to make use
of the appropriate pragmatic discourse features of English intonation may
result in serious communication
breakdown
between native and nonnative speakers of even advanced levels ofproficiency.
This article sets out
a case for teaching the pragmatic
(discourse-based)
features of English
intonation to overseas students studying on tertiary-level
ELT courses, in
order to improve cross-cultural
communication
at both receptive and
productive stages. Drawing on data from advanced /eve/ EAP learners, it
advocates a systematic approach to the teaching of the pragmatic
and
discourse functions of English intonation through a consciousness-raising
methodology
that uses authentic academic oral texts.

Introduction

Reasons why
intonation
is
poorly
understood
and
inadequate/y
taught

‘It’s not what she says, but how she says it.’ This cliché is worth bearing
in mind when one considers the communication problems even
proficient non-native speakers face when interacting with native
speakers in tertiary-level academic contexts. Drawing on data and
materials developed for an EAP oral language programme, I shall argue
that the successful use of discourse intonation could well be the key to
effective cross-cultural communication. It seems that discourse intonation is a comparatively neglected field in ELT, although there is
evidence of a growing interest in this area in recent years (Thompson
1995, Chun 1988. Bradford 1988. Kenworthy 1987). I will look at the
reasons why intonation is particularly problematic for EAP learners, and
examine three crucial reasons why lack of prosodic skills may jeopardize
effective communication
in ‘on campus’ contexts, in relation to
propositional content, illocutionary force, and inter-speaker co-operation and conversational management. The article concludes with a brief
sketch of strategies for effective pedagogic intervention to help students
develop appropriate skills in these three areas.
Why do many tertiary-level learners lack competence and confidence in
the area of English intonation? There are a number of related reasons
for this. Firstly, the discourse/pragmatic functions of English prosody
appear to be specific to the English language, and as such are unfamiliar
to most overseas learners of English, regardless of language or cultural
background. Secondly, these discourse and pragmatic functions are not
ELT Journal Volume 51/2 April 1997 © Oxford University Press 1997

articles

117

welcome

but also rhythm and voice quality as well as other paralinguistic (non-verbal) features (Crystal 1987: 169). finally. for three important and interrelated reasons: 1 The propositional content (essential information) of the message may not be fully grasped. Zawadski 1994. for example. which have a tonal and rhythmic structure sufficiently different from English to make even basic competence in the discourse features of English intonation extremely difficult. Propositional content 118 Without shared prosodic awareness. we can consider both word and phrase stress to be subsumed under the term intonation (Brown et al. English prosody . Definition of terms Some consequences of inadequate prosody in NS/ NNS interaction ‘Intonation’ is a broad term used by phoneticians to describe the effects of contrastive pitch movement (Crystal 1987: 423) on the meanings of utterances over stretches of speech (Cruttenden 1986: 9. 2 The illocutionary force (pragmatic meaning) of utterances may be misunderstood.readily appreciated even by native speakers. although a growing number are turning their attention to prosody in discourse settings (see. A failure to make full use of English prosodic features has crucial consequences in NS/NNS oral interaction. In this example. there is the problem of materials. 3 Inter-speaker co-operation and conversational management may be poorly controlled. interference from the learners may be a problem. By using the broader term ‘prosody’ we make it clear that all these features play a significant part in delineating pragmatic intention. Brown 1977: 90).is not adequately dealt with by most available pronunciation coursebooks in ESL. Bradford 1988. listening comprehension in English becomes a more difficult activity for both parties. including teachers of English. which includes stress and intonation. especially if they are speakers of oriental languages. at the level of decoding messages. Few if any teachers come to TESOL courses with an adequate understanding of English intonation in natural discourse. Rogerson and Gilbert 1990. 1980: 31). Oral communication becomes more difficult for both parties. Because stress (on a single word or in phrases) has as one of its chief acoustic correlates a change of pitch. So intonation relates to the contrastive use of pitch movement over stretches of speech and the influence this has on meaning. Roach 1983: 112). and a lack of precision in describing suprasegmental features of phonology. And. Kenworthy 1987). Thirdly.particularly its discourse function . a course tutor is asking a student for clarification: Charles Clennell articles welcome . mainly because of their inherent opaqueness in the discourse. Native speakers of English mark the propositional content of the message with stress and pitch in such a way that the content is hierarchically differentiated in terms of its perceived importance to the speaker (Halliday 1985: 53. ‘Prosody’ is a broader label.

but are unable to perceive what is intended to be significant by the speaker. students need to be familiar with a range of possible pragmatic choices in a given speech situation. verb. which means identifying the elements (subject/verb/object/complement/ syntactic or sentence adverb). the word ‘when’). and object) rather than one. and examining the implied speaker intentions behind each choice. the tutor’s reply to the student’s request about his assignment might be The \ DUE date || is next \ FRIDay This response might not appear to be either complete or appropriate to a learner of English expecting a direct answer. Because non-native speakers do not (in general) follow this system. Native-speaker listeners will assume that their interlocutor will follow this method in allocating pitch and stress until checked otherwise. and so on. syntactic decoding. Such analysis can be extremely wearing over prolonged exchanges. Clearly. So when a non-native speaker asks a similar question it is likely that several items will receive equal prominence. the most prominent marking (1) being the most important item (in this case. Thus. the propositional meaning might be identified as a request to know whether the paper would be given or not. The failure of non-native speakers to pick Teaching discourse intonation 119 articles welcome . and lead to listener fatigue. For example. This system of hierarchical prominence is sometimes referred to as tonic (Halliday 1985: 53) or nuclear stress (Crystal 1969: 205). this Singhalese speaker has effectively ‘neutered’ the pragmatic intention of the utterance. and misunderstand the propositional content of the message. and lack of empathy (Clennell 1996).1 5647 3 8 2 \/ WHEN did you say you’d give your paper? (mid/high key) Each lexical item in this utterance would be differentiated by relative pitch prominence. This can be done. Overseas students unfamiliar with tonic prominence frequently fail to perceive the logical prominence of key items. and lead to further communication problems. Learners frequently have listening difficulties because they try to identify every item of the utterance. as in When / MUST we \ FINish this \/ ASSignMENT By placing prominence on three items (modal auxiliary. a request for information about due dates). for example. native speakers are obliged to carry out a different method of decoding which is more laborious and slower-namely. The tutor will have to infer for him or herself what the student’s intention might be (in this case. Illocutionary force The illocutionary force or the pragmatic intention of the utterance may not be clear to both parties. This simple statement could be perceived as an evasive tactic rather than a polite request. by exploring different ways of expressing polite requests in an academic (assignment-oriented) environment. in reply to the whquestion given above. the second most important (2) being the object ‘paper’. boredom.

A technique for exploring this kind of approach is demonstrated at the end of this paper. for example. for example. It is worth noting that students can be shown the consequences of such a subtle change in prosody by simply highlighting similar samples of native-speaker texts in their natural contexts. By ‘tone’ I mean the choice of pitch contrast the speaker makes. but with profound consequences for meaning. the confusion between conducive questions (in which the speaker already has a reasonably clear expectation of the answer) and non-conducive questions (in which the answer is unpredictable) (Tenth 1988 cited in Thompson 1995: 239). Conducive questions carry (almost invariably) a falling tone: you were ex\PECTing (mid/low key) Whereas in non-conducive did you ex/PECT (mid/high key) a low mark? questions.e. is well known. both the tone and key are high: a high mark? Failure at this level to perceive the speaker’s intentions and expectations can easily disrupt the flow of the discourse. The next example shows how sarcasm is conveyed by the astute selection of a rise/fall tone and a mid/low choice of key. in English.tone and key . And yet this is not in itself a 120 Charles Clennell articles welcome . We could play safe and remain in a neutral band.work in different ways to mark pragmatic intention. This choice is more far-reaching than we may realize. where the dominant fall indicates topic termination. and drawing their attention to the pragmatic implications as they arise. By ‘key’ I mean the choice of relative pitch made by the speaker ‘which is independently meaningful’ (Brazil et al. 1980: 24). Two prosodic elements . or we could be decidedly prominent in our pitch choice when excited or angry (see McCarthy 1991 for a useful discussion on this topic).up sarcasm. this is normally limited to a rise or fall. the topic is not finished . One might imagine the following comment from a tutor who has just been asked to take two extra students into his tutorial: you can i/MAGine (mid/low key) how \THRILLed I was To reverse the pragmatic intention requires only an overall change of pitch on the tonic syllable. or a combination of the two (Halliday 1985: 57). The choice of higher key makes the crucial difference here: you can imagine how \THRILLed (mid/high key) I/ WAS This is a relatively small phonetic change. with a corresponding reversal of tune1 on the tail2 of the tone group3 combined with a mid/high key. Failure to perceive significant pitch change can create subtle misunderstandings in. Notice how the rising tone in the second version marks additional discourse information .i.in contrast to the first version.

particularly difficult feature to train our learners to perceive. so that in our next example the tutor’s criticism is marked by a characteristically low key. you /COULD write it \that way (mid/low key) just as you handled the intro\DUCTion well with a marked falling tone and low key selection may sound to the untuned ear like unreserved praise. or apologies.as in. as we have demonstrated above. The discourse function of such a technique can be readily appreciated when shown on a transcript and the interlocutor’s reply highlighted. This cross-cultural breakdown in communication can be rectified if both native-speaker staff and nonnative speaker learners are able to explore these misunderstandings in post-tutorial discussions. the need to mark questions with a rising tone may be self evident. it is possible for learners to start from the premise that they do have an idea of what reply will be given. say. Confusion is often caused when students are advised that questions ‘always carry a rising tone’ (one drawback to approaching language teaching from the lexical or sentence level). more important. and how this moderation may fail altogether to achieve its pragmatic intention. In addition to this. but on inspection realizes it is the wrong one: Teaching discourse intonation 121 articles welcome . That this may not be made clear on the surface is a culturally marked feature of English. In an informal chat with peers. the different ways tutors moderate their criticism in order to avoid giving offence. Clearly this is not so. Examples like these are not hard to find in the normal conversational demands of academic life.there will be ample opportunity to practice giving rhetorical questions with falling tones. for instance. but how seldom are such subtleties identified by learners as problematic or. In speech contexts where conventions are clearly understood . Rises are given to questions when the speaker does not have a clear expectation about the reply. the pragmatic role of intonation can be potent in conveying the speaker’s intentions in speech acts (Searle 1969) such as persuasion. the delivery of a seminar paper . So. for example. addressed by ELT specialists as a problem worth exploring? Yet such misunderstandings are common. Here is an illustration of how a failure to appreciate specific prosodic features could cause genuine communication breakdown of a quite dramatic and unexpected kind. making excuses. He is handed a form by an overworked male assistant (B). and know that they are being understood. Imagine a university library where an overseas student of Lebanese Arabic background (A) is asking for a library loan card. There is an identifiable need for a close examination of. and it is important that tutors are able to express themselves accurately.

the last lexical item ‘form’ would receive prominence. On our EAP courses we now have a phonological component which deals specifically with identifying and reproducing prominent stress in different academic contexts. rather than the personal pronoun ‘me’. You have \GIVEn me the \WRONG form B: Sorry. Even the contentious item ‘wrong’ may be perceived as given information. Let us take the earlier example from the Lebanese speaker.A: Excuse \ME. i. using video recorded extracts of native-speaker students interacting with their tutors. personal pronouns ‘me’. i. what is being marked as prominent is new information. it also preserves the distinction between what is given information from what is new (Brown 1983). where it would seem that the speaker was using an L1 rule that says stressed syllables indicate emphasis rather than topic salience (Gumperz 1990). Non-native speaker students need to know that their selected strategies for coping with pitch prominence in English may be unproductive and even dangerous. appeals to others in the queue for support] A: \ LNO it is the \ WRONG form B: OK. the student (unintentionally) turns what might have been a simple observation into a direct accusation. I gave you what you ASKed for [irritated. There’s no need to be rude By placing the stress on the premodifier ‘wrong’. information that is presumed by the speaker to be shared knowledge prior to this moment in the discourse. and imagine how it might be spoken by a native speaker. pausing. Most of the remaining items are given information. in the sense that the initial apology set up this expectation. and the verb ‘give’. Inter-speaker co-operation and conversational management Not only does intonation differentiate the relative significance of the items in a message. In the second tone group. the apologizing word. described by Chafe (1992: 39) as the interrelationship of 122 Charles Clennell articles welcome . In his subsequent denial he reiterates this accusation. instead of on the head noun ‘form’. But it is possible to make use of such incidents to highlight the need for learner awareness of the social consequences of inappropriate prosodic choices. Ex\CUSE me + you’ve given me the wrong \FORM The information-bearing items would be different in both tone groups. so that in the first tone group. Without this phonological coherence. Negative ethnic stereotyping can easily be fostered by such an encounter. e.g. ‘you’. as in the example just quoted. prominence would now be on the verb ‘excuse’. adding to the weight of the accusation the fact that the assistant is being untruthful.e. In both cases. The point is that the essential coherence of spoken texts in English is maintained by prosodic features (stress.e. and the object of the transaction ‘form’. pitch) which differentiate given from new information.

what can we do about it? Some practical suggestions have already been made in the course of the paper. authentic. record transactions (Clennell 1995) and then getting students to transcribe these conversations. by getting non-native speakers to interview and converse with native speakers. Pedagogic implications There are a number of related reasons why English prosody is both a crucial tool for effective oral communication and inherently problematic for non-native speakers. and by getting students to mark perceptually significant prosodic features (Clennell 1986). such as Brazil’s referring tone (see Bradford 1988 for exercises in this feature). by doing interviews (Economou 1985. e. Slade and Norris 1986). Suggested teaching activities When devising teaching activities teachers should aim to develop receptive awareness of prosodic skills before practising production by a systematic exposure to meaningful. by highlighting in transcripts of authentic oral interaction those prosodic markers that. semi-active and inactive’ information shared between speaker and interlocutor. with learners being invited to mark with a ‘g’ those items that carry tonic prominence. for example. and phonologically salient texts. The equivalent in the written medium would be a text without punctuation. We also need to demonstrate guiding principles are: its systemacity or grammaticality. but there is also a need to clarify and summarize some principles of curriculum selection. act anaphorically in the speech situation. Teaching discourse intonation 123 articles welcome . The question is. unmarked tonic syllables are located at the ends of tone groups. pitch change marks inherent complete/incomplete dichotomy of speaker. These include functions such as: information marker (prominent stress) discourse marker (given/new) conversational manager (turn-taking/collaborating) attitudinal or affect marker (mood/feeling) a grammatical/syntactic marker (clause boundaries/word classes) pragmatic marker (illocutionary force/intention of speaker). tonic syllables normally occur on one item in a tone group. Some tone group divisions are acoustically recognizable. marked tonic syllables may occur on any item for contrastive reasons.g. First of all. we need to clarify the different roles of prosody in oral communication. This sort of coherence (and cohesion) can be demonstrated to students in the same way that syntactic cohesion can be demonstrated. tonic syllables are perceptually salient through pitch change. The given/new dichotomy can be illustrated in the same way. the conversation can become extremely dense and confused. relative pitch choice is always significant and part of discourse competence.‘active.

and invite them to evaluate them. 1 Record 2 3 4 5 native-speaker students on campus interacting in different informal speech situations. Record and transcribe these interactions. at the library putting in a request form. Intonation in Context. G. Currie. D. Lampert (eds. Brown. Modern Language References Bradford. which may be of interest to readers. Chun. G. In this way it is possible to highlight the pragmatic/discourse functions of English prosody in a meaningful context. C. Johns. Discourse fall rise fall-rise extra emphasis on stressed syllables tone group boundary pause Notes 1 Tune = intonation contour or movement over several items. 2 Tail = any items in a tone group that succeed the tonic syllable. with a peer over coffee after a lecture. 1980. etc. K.I will conclude with a technique being developed for use with EAP students at my own institution. London: Longman. e. Edwards and L. Ask the students to perform the same interaction tasks among themselves. consisting of a distinctive sequence of tones (a contour) and usually with one prominent (tonic/nuclear) syllable. D. M. London: Croom Helm. Cutler and R.). Hillsdale. ‘Stress: No ESL lesson should be without it’. 1980. and Language Teaching. Invite students to listen to the native-speaker texts with the transcription available on OHT. with a lecturer after a lecture. Clennell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.. ‘Prosodic and functional units of language’ in J. and C. Prosody: Models and Methods. G. with the teacher acting as a native-speaker staff member. 124 Intonation Journal 72/3: 295-302. Ladd (eds. Kenworthy.. Berlin: Springer Verlag. Show students their own texts. Talking Data Transcription and Coding in Discourse Research. and J. 1988. 1992. 1988. 1977. Received Key \ / 9 \ II + March 1996 Brazil.). Questions of Intonation. Transcribe these recordings and put the text on an OHT with certain key prosodic features accentuated in the way they have been marked in this article. Charles Clennell articles welcome . NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Coulthard. At this point you may wish to elicit prosodic differences as they appear to the learners after they have listened to a tape and followed the transcript. 1983. London: Longman. with a tutor discussing a paper. ‘The neglected role of intonation in communicative competence and proficiency’. Identify and prioritize specific prosodic problem areas. and suggest ways of improving the communicative aspects of their language.g. Chafe. and raise to consciousness both the salient form and pragmatic functions of English intonation (Clennell 1996). 3 Tone group = the smallest unit of meaning in English. ‘Prosodic structure and the given/ new distinction’ in A. W. Listening to the Spoken Language. 1986. Brown. B. Prospect 2/1: 89-98. Brown.

and J. His interests include phonology and interlanguage studies. 1995. Gumperz. 1990. 1969. 1994. Tench. Teaching discourse intonation 125 articles welcome .A. Halliday Scholarship for his work in classroom discourse research. The author Charles Clennell is a senior lecturer in TESOL at the Centre for Applied Linguistics (CALUSA) at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. Intonation. Coffee Break: Authentic Australian Casual Conversation. Prosodic Systems and Intonation In English. Speech Acts. ‘Teaching intonation on questions’. P. ‘Promoting the role of English prosody in a discourse-based approach to oral interaction’. 1995. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. D. M. 1994): Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. New York: Newbury House. ‘The conversational analysis of inter-ethnic communication’ in R. and L. In Tempo. ELT Journal 49/3: 235-42. J. C. Rogerson. London: Cambridge University Press. 1987. In 1994 he was awarded the M. D. Adelaide: NCRC. S. Roach. Prospect 10/3: 4-18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.A.Clennell. A. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1986. ‘An interlanguage discourse perspective on the communication strategies of second language learners when performing different pedagogic tasks’. English Phonetics and Phonology. J. Teaching English Pronunciation. (Revised edn. P. The Roles of Intonation in English Discourse. He is currently coordinating the MEd Studies TESOL course at CALUSA. 1988. 1985. 1996. Cruttenden. Developing Communicative Competence in a Second Language. Melbourne: Deakin University Press. Thompson. Clennell. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Scarcella et al. D. Sydney: NCELTR.K. Crystal. 1987. London: Longman. (eds. as well as developing aural/oral materials for EAP programmes. Sydney: NSW Education Department. 1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Slade. Halliday. Speaking Clearly. 1991. Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Norris. 1985. Kenworthy. and he has published a number of papers on his research into the communication strategies of second language learners from a classroom discourse perspective. Teaching Casual Conversation. M. Economou. C. P. 1986. 1990. Prospect 11/3: 17-28. Spoken and Written Language. Zawadski. Frankfurt: Peter Lang. H. McCarthy. Searle. J. Crystal. 1983. Gilbert.). D.K.