martes, 13 de octubre de 2015

Pronunciation Integration #2: Intonation and Viewpoint Adjuncts

As I may have hinted in previous posts, my greatest passion within the world of Phonetics and Phonology is intonation. At times, I read blog posts and articles that stress the fact that intonation appears to be "unteachable" or "unnecessary", and it really makes me fiery (Yes, I have Italian genes, so at times "I cannot keep calm", as the meme goes). I personally believe that in order to make something "teachable", you need to read about it, listen to people using the feature, question the half-truths in textbooks at times, and think about your learners' L1 and their possible difficulties with that particular L2 pronunciation feature (check out my post on "tips and tricks" to read more about this). 

I honestly think that intonation does have a very strong bearing on the teaching of grammar for spoken communication, and today's post will focus on one of the many areas we can connect grammar, vocabulary and intonation. (You can find a first attempt at a connection between these on my previous integration post, by the way!)

This blog post will discuss one of the possible contexts for intonation integration: the intonation of expressions to preface your opinion: viewpoint adjuncts. I insist on this quite a lot in my pronunciation courses, and this is because of two main reasons. The most interesting thing about this linguistic context is that it enables immediate use in the classroom, as it is an essential component of speaking proficiency and everyday interaction, not to mention the fact that we teach these expressions to train students for international examinations. The second aspect to bear in mind is that most of these expressions have a fixed intonation pattern, and we can actually teach them as "collocations", drilling the repetition of the melody as attached to the phrase, as if we were learning a line from a song.


Viewpoint Adjuncts are forms of expressing one's opinion, stance or take on something. They could appear in any part of the clause, but because of their saliency, this post will focus on the presence of these elements in thematic -that is, initial- position. In Systemic Functional Linguistics, these are seen as Modal Adjuncts (Halliday and Mathiessen, 2014:109), when these are introduced in initial position they act as  a sort of frame, a preparatory condition, a filter, through which to look at the upcoming opinion. The following point of view, which is of course the core of the message, may present content which may threaten the participants' face (Linguistic Politeness theory, see Brown & Levinson, 1987), the social image they may be trying to uphold for themselves. Therefore, the presence of these modal/evaluative adjuncts act as a form of "preparation", at times, a "disclaimer", even, for the message which is about to be presented. In other words, you make it clear to the listener that what is coming is not to be taken as the truth, but as a point of view, and that you are leaving the door open to discussion or disagreement. On the other hand, these expressions may act as a sort of "insurance policy" for you, a means of saying, "don't say I haven't warned you" if the opinion that follows is somehow too radical, or offensive.

Now, why such a long preface to the topic? Well, it is important to understand the effects of the introduction of these expressions from a pragmatic perspective to understand the contribution that prosody makes. Another strong belief of mine is that in order to teach intonation, you have to really understand the functional aspect of language, and Pragmatics and Discourse and Conversation Analytical approaches are most helpful in this respect.


In General British, most of these viewpoint expressions tend to be presented with a fall-rise tone (I may be wrong, but I have heard rises on them more widely used in General American accents). As you may know, the fall-rise is generally implicational (Wells, 2006 and earlier work by other phoneticians), and from a social perspective, it creates convergence, by building solidarity, togetherness and intimacy between participants (Brazil and Sinclair, 1982 and others), favouring an "us"-perspective to the matter at hand, instead of an authoritative take on it. So from the point of view of the development of the argument, an initial opinion adjunct includes an unspoken assumption (or implicaton) that what you are introducing just holds true as a point of view, and that it may, perhaps, introduce a position which others may find debatable. It is a means of hedging your message (and thus, orient to the Cooperative Principle) and thus, in a way, softening the imposition of your opinion.

The most interesting effect, however, is not the use of the fall-rise, but the choice of nucleus. More often than not, these expressions take the nucleus on the pronominal element: "I", "me", "my". As you may remember, the accentuation of pronouns tends to make for a strong contrast (except, perhaps in cases of fixed or idiomatic tonicity, see Wells, 2006, chapter 3). Part of this disclaimer we introduce through opinion expressions is, in fact, built by the accented pronoun.

In our Riverplate Spanish, we may use truncated rise-falls in this leading position. This tone, although processed as a referring tone (Granato, 2005) by us native speakers in this position, may sound slightly divergent to L1 speakers of English (added to the fact that according to many British and Americans, we "porteños" do sound quite imposing most of the time to their ear!).


In order to present this topic in the EFL lesson, we may carry a thorough search for these expressions in our listening passages or textbook materials (also check the resources below), draw our students' attention to the "roallercoastery" (i.e. fall-rise) intonation employed in them, and introduce it as a sort of melody to be repeated, or sung along. Even though we know we may not so readily "feel" intonation, as we may do for segments, we may play with extremes and feel our larynx going up and down for the higher and lower points in the fall-rise. We may play with the expressions, singing the different notes and levels making up the contour in slow motion, one by one before speeding up and linking the notes. We may use a piano app on our mobiles, or on our PC (, and play the notes! (I am grateful for this idea to Prof. Perticone and Prof. Zabala, who I first saw use the piano for intonation teaching)

We may, of course, first elicit the "highlighted" words, the words someone being "hit", the words that we feel echoing in our mind after listening to the expression, that is, the nucleus, the last and most important accent in the intonation phrase (mostly presented as louder and longer, at times, depending on the pitch movement attached to it, it could be higher, but this is not always the case, of course).

These are a few resources online that teach opinion expressions (without, perhaps, the necessary focus on intonation which you as a teacher can add to them!). In some of these videos, as the expressions are presented in a vacuum, more oblique renderings than those we expect may be found.

After the presentation of expressions, we may create contexts for use, which is not difficult to do. We may give students some thought-provoking quotes, shocking headlines, or puzzling images, and elicit their opinion, asking them to use the phrases. Other students may act as "monitors", trying to assess whether the patterns are being used properly on the task. Similarly, we can ask students to apply these expressions may on debates and mock exams, and if your school allows it, students may record their production, play it back, and self-assess their intonation patterns. It may also help to ask students to record the expressions in isolation on their mobiles, and play them as a sort of reminder when they need a "model" of the auditory image to imitate.

Disclaimer #1: As with everything, linguistic rules are always open to variation, and this is, of course, due to a number of factors, including social, geographic, situational, even stylistic. Oblique renderings of a text may introduce different tonality, tonicity and tone choices than those we expect. That is, we may find speakers accenting "opinion" in "in my opinion", we may even hear people using falls on these expressions, not to mention the frequent presence of the level tone.
So rules like the use of the fall-rise and the accentuation of the personal pronoun could be presented as one way of helping learners cope with the chaos of speech so as to produce a "safe choice", which is, after all, that is what we try to do as EFL teachers when we teach speaking.

Disclaimer#2: There are, of course, other forms of introducing opinion which may not take pronouns, or which may perhaps not even highlight the "us" aspect of the relationship, such as the use "of course" (see Brazil, 1997), mostly heard with a fall (or of course, with a level tone). The divergent use of these expressions needs a separate kind of analysis and has to be handled with care, as phrases of this kind may perhaps make students sound a bit too imposing ....unless, of course, we are teaching them ways to argue, or quarrel in English, in which case you may freely do so!

Hope you have found this humble post useful, and that you can apply the ideas in it as early as....tomorrow!

Wells, J.C. (2006) English Intonation. An Introduction. Cambridge: CUP.
Brazil, D. and J. Sinclair (1982). Teacher Talk. Oxford: OUP
Brazil, D (1997). The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. CUP: Cambridge
Halliday, M.A.K and C. Mathiessen (2014). An Introduction to Functional Grammar. 4th Edition. Routledge.
Brown, P and S Levinson (1987). Politeness. Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: CUP.

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