Driving down the 101 this week, I saw this roadside sign advertising Monterey Wines: “Catch the Melody”. I realized that’s exactly what I teach my ESL students to do in order to improve their American English accents. I want them listening to English radio and TV, to stories on CD, and to English speakers out in the community because I want them to be aware of the “melody” of English. We call this “intonation”.
When listening for melody, you are listening for rising and falling intonation, and lengthening and shortening of sounds. Just like words have stressed syllables, sentences have regular patterns of stressed words in English. Statements and wh- questions usually have a falling pitch at the end. Yes/No questions usually have a rising pitch at the end. Rising pitch can also indicate the speaker is not finished with his thought.
Additionally intonation conveys attitude and serves as the punctuation of spoken language. Some common attitudes conveyed in spoken language are excitement, curiousity, surprise, disappointment, agreement, hesitation, anger and sarcasm.
To improve melody, ESL students should listen carefully to the intonation patterns of native English speakers and imitate them. Your teacher may be able to point out the areas of intonation you need to improve, and focus on those.
Teachers can help students learn English melody and intonation using a simple child’s toy – a kazoo. To use a kazoo, do not blow into it! A kazoo’s job is to amplify humming. You hum into the kazoo. Use a kazoo to have students follow and imitate familiar rising and falling melody and intonation patterns in English.