Intonation (Lat. ‘intonare’ – ‘to pronounce’, ‘произносить’) is a complex of expressive phonetic qualities of speech. Intonation is very obviously suprasegmental, “…since an intonation pattern by definition extends over a whole utterance or a sizable piece of utterance” (Trask 2007: 283). Intonation is a complex phenomenon in both form and function. Intensive intonation studies began not so long ago – in the 1950 s of the XX th century, in connection with the overwhelming achievements in the field of linguistics and the accumulation of many experimental data deduced from the study of many world languages. The implementation of modern precise methods of phonetic analysis have brought about astounding results that made it possible to pronounce intonology an independent department of linguistics having its own object of research and its own methods of analysis. Intonation began to be explored from different angles: linguistic, paralinguistic, sociolinguistic, didactic, esthetic, etc. As a complex phenomenon of oral speech, it attracts much attention on the part of specialists from different spheres of knowledge: philologists, linguists, literary critics, art critics, theatrical experts, sociologists, psychologists, acoustic engineers, etc.
The study of intonation is of prime importance for the practice of teaching and learning foreign languages. When one listens to the sound flow of speech in a foreign tongue it is intonation that catches one’s ear first. The concrete meaning of an utterance may not be clear but the overall prosodic pattern of speech can help the non-native speaker decode the emotional state of the speaker and his attitude towards the partner in communication. It is common knowledge already that intonation is most difficult to master in the foreign language learning process. Wrong intonation does not only betray a speaker’s foreign origin and jars upon a native speaker’s ear – it can convey distorted meanings resulting in a serious misunderstanding in the process of communication. In this sense, as many phoneticians point out, intonation is much more important than accurately pronounced sounds of a foreign tongue: “English speakers are able to make a good deal of allowance for imperfect sound-making, but being for the most part aware of the far-reaching effect of intonation in their own language, they are much less able to make the same allowance for mistakenly used tunes” (O’Connor, Arnold 1973: 2).
Intonation studies in Great Britain from the very start were to a great extent pedagogically oriented. British phoneticians have contributed a lot into the teaching of English intonation to ‘overseas students’. The most well-known book of this kind appeared at the beginning of
the previous century: it was Harold Palmer’s “English Intonation with Systematic Exercises” (1922). The work by David Crystal “Prosodic Systems and Intonation in English” (1969) has turned out to be the most fundamental work on the theory of suprasegmentals including the description of English intonation, followed by an outstanding work by Daniel Hirst “Intonation in British English” (1977). At the end of the XX th century intonation has stopped to be the ‘Cinderella’ of the linguistic sciences. The year of 1986 has turned out to be the Vinage Year in the intonation research: there appeared three significant books – a two-volumed ‘bible’ by the American linguist Dwight Bolinger (“Intonation and its Parts” and “Intonation and its Uses”), a monograph by the British scholar Alan Cruttenden (“Intonation”) and a book by the German phonetician Elizabeth Couper-Kühlen (“An Introduction to English Prosody”).
Alan Cruttenden was right in profecying (1986: 183) that the study of intonation was at a point from which there is likely to be significant and consistent progress in the next decade or two. He said it was “an exciting time for intonationists” (Op. cit.: 184). The beginning of the XXI st century announced the arrival of even greater interest in intonation research (Wells 2006).The goal of intonology nowadays is to give a description of intonation as a linguistic category possessing its own phonetic features and functions, its universal and specific characteristics in oral speech. Intonation is one of the most important means of language expression inseparable from lexical and grammatical characteristics of an utterance. Without intonation, there is no utterance. Intonation is an essential component of the discourse structure of speech. It is the music of speech used for both – meaning and expression, reflected in the attitude of the speaker: “…every utterance we make contains, in its intonation, some indication of this attitude. Clearly, the speaker’s words and grammatical structures are used with the intention of expressing his attitude; but intonation gives additional information; that is why different actors can give such widely varying interpretations of the same role in a play. We may regard the words as a rough guide to the meaning, and the intonation as giving greater precision and point, but this is not to say that intonation makes a greater contribution to the whole that does the verbal structure; indeed the intonation without words would give a very vague impression of the total meaning. Nevertheless, it does provide important information which is not contained in any of the other features of utterances, and without this additional information there would be many more imprecisions and ambiguities in English speech than in fact there are” (O’Connor, Arnold 1973: 5). Sometimes intonation is dispensable but in most cases, it is essential, it carries the main load in shaping the speaker’s meaning. Elizabeth Couper-Kühlen writes (1986: 209): “The fact that speakers have the option of giving their utterances informational, illocutionary, attitudinal and textual ‘meaning’ with intonational means alone constitutes strong evidence for the function of intonation in language. This function is not fully ‘distinctive’ in the classical sense, but it is potentially of such far-reaching import that students of language can hardly afford to ignore it”.
Intonation mistakes are the ones that are most difficult to overcome for a foreign language learner. The language learner is burdened with his native tongue intonation knowledge lying dormant in him and influencing him in the perception of the foreign tongue intonation patterns. The latter ones are conveying linguistic meanings different from the native tongue, though sometimes seeming almost the same in form. The foreign language learner is often misled by the fact that there are universals in intonation the melodical component of which is based on the fall and rise of the voice pitch practically in every one of the world languages. The language learner does not at first feel the difference in the tone configuration and its other parameters pertaining to the suprasegmental characteristics of the target language.
On the level of performance, the foreign language learner is also under the strong influence of his native tongue intonation habits, which leads to the wrong suprasegmental organization of the utterance in the choice of melody, peaks of prominence placement, placement of pauses, rhythm arrangement of an utterance, etc. The distorted perception of foreign speech determined by the ‘phonological sieve’ of the native tongue can explain the causes of pronunciation mistakes resulting into the foreign quality of oral speech.
The teaching of intonation remains to be less effective and more hazardous than the teaching of other phonetic aspects of a foreign tongue. There is still no adequate and learnable description of English intonation for Russian learners (Vishnevskaya, Levina 2007). There are substantial reasons for it. Firstly, it is due to the nature of intonation itself, being a very complex sound phenomenon. Secondly, existing descriptions of intonation seem to be incomplete. Thirdly, intonation is less tangible than other phonetic characteristics of oral speech. However, there are ways of improving suprasegmental qualities of oral speech in the process of the English language acquisition process.The work is submitted to the International Scientific “Science and education in modern Russia”, Moscow, November 13–15, 2014 came to the editorial office оn 09.10.2014.