I'm supposed to give an ESL lesson on the distinction between polite and neutral intonations for yes/no questions in a few days. In examining the coursebook materials, I realized that I don't actually make such a distinction in American English. Apparently intonation conveys a level of politeness in British English, but try as I might, I can't come up with any type of level-of-politeness distinction in my own American English that is communicated by intonation.

The problem is: What am I to do? Should I rigorously follow the coursebook and drill students based on what's on the tape (spoken by British speakers), even though I don't really perceive any difference in meaning between the two intonations? Should I drill students using myself as model, by imitating the pronunciations on the tape (if I can even do so--I'm not sure I can), even though I never make such distinctions myself? And what should I tell students about the absence of these distinctions in American English, if anything?

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[nq:1]I'm supposed to give an ESL lesson on the distinction between polite and neutral intonations for yes/no questions in a ... such distinctions myself? And what should I tell students about the absence of these distinctions in American English, if anything?
It's the intonation in the question rather than the answer is it? Can you give us some examples as used on the tape?

In the meantime -

"Do you like cheese?" - flat - disinterested, rude - slow rise - incredulity - check Dilbert's 'Incredulous Ed' character... - rise fall - interest in the other person, politeness

Are you absolutely sure this doesn't happen in AmE?

DC Cat (BrE speaker) 31 hours to go to assignment submission, and counting
PS which tape/coursebook is it? DC
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Django Cat writes:
It's the intonation in the question rather than the answer is it?

They are yes/no questions, structured as such, for example:

"Could you begin, John?"

Apparently there are two possible intonations in British English for this type of question, one being neutral or unmarked, and the other being "polite." However, there is no difference in American English, which typically uses a constant rising intonation for this type of question in all cases (whereas British uses some sort of falling-then-rising intonation). Since I'm American, I have no idea how I'm going to teach this, short of remaining completely silent and playing the tape for the lesson. I'm not even sure I'll be able to hear a difference, much less reproduce it for students. I don't have the tape at home so I won't be able to review it until tomorrow.
Can you give us some examples as used on the tape?

See above. Things like:

"Could you begin, John?" "Could you say that again?" "May I come in?"

and so on.
"Do you like cheese?" - flat - disinterested, rude - slow rise - incredulity - check Dilbert's 'Incredulous Ed' character... - rise fall - interest in the other person, politeness

Hmm. I think I'll have to actually hear it.
Are you absolutely sure this doesn't happen in AmE?

I've been trying all weekend to think of intonations that mark the difference, but I always say such questions with the same intonation. Some searching around the Web seems to support my conclusion that AmE is not making the distinction. American speakers don't use more than one intonation, and they don't usually notice the variable intonations of British speakers.

One could argue that it's pointless to teach students a nuance of intonation that isn't even meaningful outside the U.K., and some of the sources I looked at say as much, but this is the lesson I'm required to give, so I have to go with it. I'm not sure whether to actually mention to students that the stuff I've spent the past hour or so teaching them is moot outside the U.K.

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Django Cat writes:
PS which tape/coursebook is it?

International Express (although this British-only lesson is making me wonder about the "International" part).

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[nq:1]Django Cat writes:
It's the intonation in the question rather than the answer is it?

They are yes/no questions, structured as such, for example: "Could you begin, John?" Apparently there are two possible intonations in ... it for students. I don't have the tape at home so I won't be able to review it until tomorrow.

Can you give us some examples as used on the tape?

See above. Things like: "Could you begin, John?" "Could you say that again?" "May I come in?" and so on.

"Do you like cheese?" - flat - disinterested, rude - ... - rise fall - interest in the other person, politeness

Hmm. I think I'll have to actually hear it.

Are you absolutely sure this doesn't happen in AmE?

I've been trying all weekend to think of intonations that mark the difference, but I always say such questions with ... possible intonations in British English for this type of question, one being neutral or unmarked, and the other being "polite."

sounds like one such bee - at least, the exclusively BrE nature of such a feature in the eye of the Tb writer. While one of the features which differentiates the various world Englishes *is* intonation (Australians put a rise tone on practically everything which is why they always sound as if everything is a question - "my names Darleen? I come from Sydney?" - the aural equivalent of perpetually raised eyebrows), I don't think this is a specifically BrE thing - but the textbook writer may think it is. Try teaching Finns sometime if you want to hear what English really sounds like with zero intonation.

Second thought is, is it possible to fall back on the time honoured ESL technique of doing something else with the material if you think its teaching point is bollocks? Instead of using these sentences for pronunciation practice could you make them into a comprehension?
"Could you begin, John?""Now class, who has to begin?" (feeble, but it's something). but this is the lesson I'm required to give, so I have to go with it.

maybe not then.
I'm not sure whether to actually mention to students that the stuff I've spent the past hour or so teaching them is moot outside the U.K.

Don't. WADR, for better or worse BrE is the prefered model for many International learners, especially outside the Far East, and we Brits generally manage to just about make ourselves understood by English speaking people around the world despite our peculiar intonation patterns and the hegemony of US media. Don't tell me, you're in the Far East, aren't you?
However, there is no difference in American English, which typically uses a constant rising intonation for this type of question ... (That comma and question mark aren't there for just decoration or because some grammar book says they should be, either.)

Obviously trying to explain pronunciation in a text-based medium is a killer, as is trying to draw lines. Intonation is a complex process based on stress and pitch, sometimes described as the tune of an utterance. Usually people draw a line above a transcription of the utterance from the beginning to the end, which stays flat (Good Morning, Helsinki), goes up, down, or wiggles about a bit.

Here's an attempt:-

__--^^^--- __-__
"Could you begin, John?" - polite

__^^^--- -___
"Could you begin, John?" - like, now.

__ ^^---__ --
"Could you begin, John?" - John, not Dave.

Well, sort of. Maybe you're right, but I don't really think AmE functions without these or some very close analogies. One approach if you really do have to teach this wretched stuff is to draw the rise fall lines over the sentences on the board. And get the class to repeat the sentences anyway - it's not entirely illogical to suppose they'll pick up a distinction of intonation which you as an L1 speaker are too close to your own native language to register consciously - not to mention the fact they may well have done this sort of stuff before and know what the txb writer has in mind. Perhaps. If you're still stuck tomorrow I'll knock up an MP3 of examples and send it if it would help (alternatively if you can get streaming audio listen to some stuff on http://www.bbc.co.uk / and see if your textbook's theory is correct) - and let us know where you are teaching.

Good luck Django 19 hours to go before assignment submission, and looking at an all nighter.
Site Hint: Check out our list of pronunciation videos.
PS again - the guy next door comes from Las Vegas, I must go for a beer with him and check his intonation!

DCC 16 hours to go. Is that a light at the end of the tunnel or the onset of photophobia?
I think it is entirely possible to use intonation to indicate politeness in American English.

Ask an African American friend to drive around in a town at night and wait for a white police officer to appear and stop his car. Ask this friend to tape the conversation.

... I am just being sarcastic ..
Django Cat writes:

It's the intonation in the question rather than the answer is it?

They are yes/no questions, structured as such, for example: "Could you begin, John?" Apparently there are two possible intonations in ... it for students. I don't have the tape at home so I won't be able to review it until tomorrow.

Can you give us some examples as used on the tape?

See above. Things like: "Could you begin, John?" "Could you say that again?" "May I come in?" and so on.

"Do you like cheese?" - flat - disinterested, rude - ... - rise fall - interest in the other person, politeness

Hmm. I think I'll have to actually hear it.

Are you absolutely sure this doesn't happen in AmE?

I've been trying all weekend to think of intonations that mark the difference, but I always say such questions with ... to students that the stuff I've spent the past hour or so teaching them is moot outside the U.K. [/nq]
Django Cat writes:
Hmm, very curious. First of all I've never heard of the text book, but as you say it doesn't sound very Intenational (is it written specifically for learners in the country you're in and by a local national by any faint chance?) and by.

Written by Liz Taylor, Oxford University Press, in the UK. It's supposed to be for any ESL students.
Try teaching Finns sometime if you want to hear what English really sounds like with zero intonation.

Does it actually impede comprehension, or does it just sound weird? I'm not sure that errors in intonation alone are a problem. Not to be confused with stress, of course, which needs to be at least reasonably correct.
Second thought is, is it possible to fall back on the time honoured ESL technique of doing something else with the material if you think its teaching point is bollocks? Instead of using these sentences for pronunciation practice could you make them into a comprehension?

Not in this case. This is ESL teacher training. The less I change, the more likely I am to pass the TP assignment.
Don't. WADR, for better or worse BrE is the prefered model for many International learners, especially outside the Far East, ... our peculiar intonation patterns and the hegemony of US media. Don't tell me, you're in the Far East, aren't you?

Europe.
Are you sure? To my ears that would make it sound as if 'John' was what we were asking the other person to begin doing.

The intonation seems to rise and stay there, at least each time that I say it. Actually I've always had a hard time imitating British intonations, which seem to go up and down a lot. Students say British pronunciation is easier to understand, though--but I'm not sure that intonation has anything to do with that.
Just compare

"Could you begin, John?"

with "Could you begin the test". (That comma and question mark aren't there for just decoration or because some grammar book says they should be, either.)

If they are questions, the intonation rises for both, at least in my AmE. If they are not questions, the intonation probably wouldn't rise--but I normally don't use question structures as statements, so I'm not sure ("How do you do?" has always sounded strange to me, since my normal temptation is to simply answer the question, and I know that many American speakers are the same way).
Here's an attempt:- __--[/nq]^^^--- __-__
"Could you begin, John?" - polite

__[/nq]^^^--- -___
"Could you begin, John?" - like, now.

__ [/nq]^^---__ --
"Could you begin, John?" - John, not Dave.

At least from the diagrams, I'm not sure I hear a (meaningful) difference.
Well, sort of. Maybe you're right, but I don't really think AmE functions without these or some very close analogies.

The several sources I found imply that it does not, and my own speech matches this. I'll have to ask other Americans in class if they make a distinction.
One approach if you really do have to teach this wretched stuff is to draw the rise fall lines over the sentences on the board.

I've thought of that--if I can recognize the intonations on the tape, that is. There's a tendency not to hear features of pronunciation that do not affect meaning.
And get the class to repeat the sentences anyway - it's not entirely illogical to suppose they'll pick up a ... they may well have done this sort of stuff before and know what the txb writer has in mind. Perhaps.

Yes. I just hope I can imitate the tape serviceably. It would be odd to play only the tape without reinforcing the drill myself, I should think.
If you're still stuck tomorrow I'll knock up an MP3 of examples and send it if it would help (alternatively ... stuff on http://www.bbc.co.uk / and see if your textbook's theory is correct) - and let us know where you are teaching.

Teaching in France, and it looks like I'll be teaching this lesson this afternoon.
19 hours to go before assignment submission, and looking at an all nighter.

What assignment is that?

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