Intonation, stress, and my Godiva chocolates

Posted on May 10, 2009. Filed under: American culture, celebrations, language, nonverbal communication | Tags: , , , , , |

I was woken up this morning with a lovely breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day. Actually, I had been up for about 10 minutes, and really wanted to pee and brush my teeth, but I thought it best to fake sleeping until I heard the rattle of the breakfast tray being carried down the hall by my beloved children, so as not to ruin their “surprise”.

One of my presents was a box of Godiva truffles,  which, by the way, I plan to finish before the end of the day. As I opened them, I saw Carlita looking longingly at the box.

“Would you like one?” I asked, with rising intonation, typical of a question asked in English. She smiled and took the coconut cream.

I looked at my husband. “Would YOU like one?” I asked, stressing the word you, because he doesn’t really eat sweets, and I wasn’t expecting that he would take it. ” Maybe later” he said.

Finally, I looked at Calvin, my teenage son who is capable of  inhaling the entire refrigerator at one sitting. “Would you like ONE?” I asked, stressing the word one, to let him know this was my candy, and I wasn’t giving it all away.

I had asked 3 people the same question, but each time it carried a very different meaning. Stress and intonation in English carry the bulk of the message, which is why English language learners often miss the subtle nuances in conversation. They tend to focus on the vocabulary and grammar. As native speakers, we all understood the differences in meaning  without an overt explanation. They also understood, without overt explanation, that they’d better not touch the raspberry dark chocolate one.


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2 Responses to “Intonation, stress, and my Godiva chocolates”

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Interesting presumption, however this applies to many languages. I cannot say that it applies to all, because I don’t know all of them. I know only 19 and the rule applies uniformly in 18 of them. Hawaiian is the only one I know where an subject marker is used to stress the person if he/she is the object of the sentence or when his/her person has to be stressed. The process of learning a language begins with learning the basic rules, then building a vocabulary, then refining the use of grammar, then learning idioms, and only then refining the use of intonation if the teacher pays any attention to it. There are two major reasons this part of exercise is neglected in learning or teaching a foreign language: 1/ The student already makes a progress by expressing himself/herself grammatically correctly and the audience accepts his/her lack of intonation, because the message is understood. 2/ The teacher fails to point out the importance of the intonation.
Did you notice that in American schools, teaching reading rarely involves making the children read aloud and correcting their intonation? In schools of other nations where there is an emphasis on good speaking and where national oratorical contests are held, for example in Fiji, Samoa, North Korea, Philippines etc. the children are taught to have good intonation from an early age on and they are constantly corrected not only in grade schools, but in secondary schools as well. When I went to elementary school we learnt good intonation through reciting poems and practically we had to learn a new poem every third day in first through third grades, and we took pride in reciting them with good intonations, plus we received awards for excelling in good intonation (the reward was always a book, but we valued books immensely). You can watch your children’s speech and correct their intonation in time.

Yes, I realized that the emphasis is actually on the intention of the speaker.

Few weeks ago, someone asked me about whether the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence is OK or not.

(1) Yes, we can.
(2) Yes, we can!

I was asked which one is correct. I can only answer that it depends on how you want to express it. If you want to give more expression or put more excitement in the sentence, then (2) would look and sound more exciting!

I think it all depends on the intention of the speaker. And I think it’s not really the language or intonation issue.

Just my opinion.

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