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Professor Jane Setter's brilliant Plenary on Intonation has just ended. It is always such a joy to listen to a kindred spirit. I remember J.C. Wells in one of his blog posts was writing at some point that one has to be born a phonetician, and once he/she finds this out about themselves, it makes them tremendously happy just to listen to people speak and analyse the speech sounds. I can very much relate to that, since I was lucky enough to figure it out about myself at the age of 8.
So, the main point of the talk was that even though it is generally accepted that unlike sounds, intonation of a foreign language is not teachable - so why even bother?!, - some of its aspects can and should be taught, which has been proven in an experiment that Jane Setter and her colleagues held with some of Vietnamese and Japanese students. What aspects might that be? Primarily tonicity - the placement of the nucleus (the main stressed syllable in the intonational phrase), to a lesser extent tonality (dividing speed into phrases) while tone (the choice of the intonation contour for the main stressed syllable) proved to be the most difficult to teach. To be fair, finding the right word to stress is probably the most important task if we want ourselves to be understood. The experiment has also shown that doing it in spontaneous speech was a lot easier for students than when they were reading a text. Which brings us to the issue of reading out loud - Task 1 in the Oral Part of the State Exams in English. Jane Setter pointed out that reading is "cognitively more demanding" in that respect.
Too bad all the phonetic songs that she sang with the audience could not be heard when it was streamed live. But there's a little video on Twitter (Thank you, Adam Scott!!!) and also Karaoke on the youtube!
My name is Elena Rafaelevna Watson, I have been teaching English as a foreign language for over 25 years now. I have also been translating and interpreting (English/Russian) for over 20 years.