17 September 2010

British Intonation

In his presentation at the recent conference held at the Jiangsu University of Science and Technology, Francis Nolan argued that, when speaking English, it is important to get the focus of information right using standard sentence stress, and it is also important to get lexical stress right as otherwise people will not be able to understand the words. However, it is not so important to imitate the finer distinctions of the intonational tunes of native speakers, partly because there is a huge amount of variation in tone usage in Britain and elsewhere, so listeners are accustomed to hearing substantial differences among the people they talk to. To support this, he played lots of data from speakers from around the UK and Ireland, and I thought he made a very convincing case.

The next day, some participants came up and thanked him for his wonderful presentation and then asked him to explain the difference between a high head and a rising head in an intonational phrase. In other words, they were asking about details that he had been arguing really don't make a lot of difference.

When he tried to make this point once more, they insisted that the difference must be important, as it is shown in English Intonation: An Introduction by John Wells.

I don't remember the exact examples they used, but I believe they were from page 225 of the book, which discusses possible responses to the question "Where are your essays?":The text in the book observes that (i) shows emotional involvement, (ii) is factual and unemotional, (iii) is a protest, and (iv) is an emphatic protest.

While this is almost certainly an accurate description of the intonational patterns of native speakers of RP British English, there is no way that listeners will misunderstand the message if a non-native speaker uses a rising head rather than a high head. But the questioner was adamant that the distinction is absolutely vital. It is in the book by John Wells, she insisted, so it must be important.

I doubt very much if John Wells has ever argued that learners of English need to imitate every single nuance of the RP system of intonation. But it seems impossible to get this message across in China.

One further issue is pertinent here: it is extremely difficult, without sounding condescending, to convey the message that learners of English do not need to imitate British English so closely. And I don't know how to get round this. It is something I strongly believe, but at the same time I am aware that I probably sound quite patronising when I say it.

However, it really is true: if you speak clearly and well, so listeners can understand everything you say with ease, then they will be paying attention to what you are saying rather than how you say it. And while it is absolutely vital always to speak clearly and well, there is no need to try and pretend that you come from England.