Wednesday, September 21, 2011

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I Beg Your Pardon? a.k.a. What? (The Importance of Intonation)

Learning a language is not just about the words we say, it’s also about how we say them. Listen to the different ways that this question is asked, “Is that your car?

Did you hear the differences? Each of these questions has a different purpose and a different meaning.  We understand these differences from context and from intonation.

Intonation is very important.

Look at the different focus of each of these sentences in the slides.

Did you understand the slides? If we stress that ‘David wanted to buy a red shirt.’ that means we are focused on David, not someone else (meaning another person). Take a look at the sentences again, can you complete the sentences based on the stressed word?

As well as understanding, it is important to focus on intonation for reasons of politeness. Some languages change the words used based on who you are talking to – there is a formal form and an informal form. In fact, I know that in some languages it is even more complicated than that! In English, we don’t change the verb form to show formal respect (like in Spanish, for example) but we do have polite phrases and we depend on polite intonation.

Would you mind helping me for a moment?” is a polite request for help but if I speak with my friends I will probably say “Can you give me a hand for a sec?” (where ‘give me a hand’ means help, and ‘sec’ can mean ‘second’ but often just means a short period of time, not an actual second).

There are other examples that are much shorter. “What?”, for instance (‘for instance’ being another way to say ‘for example’). ‘What’ is a great word and ‘What?’ an easy way to get more information. BUT be careful, because how you say it will give your audience a lot of extra information. Look at this video about all the different ways one man can say “What?

In these examples you can identify confusion, frustration, anger, disbelief and amazement. Sometimes he asks this to mean ‘Repeat what you said, I didn’t hear you.’ and this is a different “What?” than ‘Explain what you said, I didn’t understand you.” and these are both different from “What?” to ask ‘Why are you unhappy/angry with me?’  Watch again and see if you can identify these specific differences.

Obviously, when you are talking with friends intonation and polite phrases are not so important because you all know each other but if you are talking to someone you don’t know or you don’t know them very well (meaning you aren’t close friends) then this is important.

Try practising the different ways you can ask the same question. Try practising the different ways you can ask “What?” However, sometimes it is safer to not use “What?” and to use another, more polite phrase.

How many alternative phrases to “What?” can you find in this short video?

Many thanks to Kevin Cuckow for inspiring this post by sharing the Horrible Histories video, and thank you to Martin Sketchley for his wonderful blog and the example sentence for intonation.


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