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An Interview with Lucy Pickering by Brad Hodges

How important is teacher intonation in the language classroom?

Rising and falling intonation not only alters meaning in English, it can also give different impressions of speaker attitude and emotion, says Dr. Lucy Pickering, whose work has focused on intonation, intelligibility in spoken discourse, and cross-cultural communication.

Dr. Pickering says that errors involving verb conjugation—such as lack of the inflectional -s in the third-person singular of simple present tense—rarely impede comprehension. Intonation, however, tends to be interpreted as a personality issue, according to Pickering. Based on a second language speakers’ tone of voice, a North American English speaker might misinterpret that speaker as uninterested, bored, sarcastic or even aggressive, Pickering said.

In one study, Dr. Pickering found that Chinese international teaching assistants (ITAs) tended to use more falling and flat intonation than North American teaching assistants in ESL classrooms. This is important because when teachers prompt for answers, this pattern may seem less inviting and lead to less participation than rising intonation, according to Pickering.

In another study, (see graphic), Dr. Pickering analyzed the speech of a 17-year-old second language learner of English from Honduras. The adolescent had spent time with North Americans of a similar age at a local mall, Dr. Pickering said. "She has done an excellent job of picking up the high rising intonation common in ‘teen speak,’ that has also been described as ‘valley girl talk.’"

Honduran ESL learner in Florida

Dr. Pickering uses a computerized speech lab by Kay Pentax that captures signals from an analog audio line or from a digital file. Measuring pitch and volume over time, the lab produces an image. Such a lab is also used for evaluating speech disorders and for teaching. “When you listen to someone’s voice, you subjectively listen to tone going up and down. Objectively, you can measure this.”

From the images produced with the speech lab, Zac Riddle and Karan Rana created movement using Macromedia Flash. Dr. Pickering says the Flash models illustrate intonation through movements in real tiem with the audio recording, rather than simply showing a motionless pitch trace.

The second and third graphics show an example of how different varieties of English may use intonation differently to resolve misunderstanding between speakers (Gumperz, 1982). By listening and comparing the two, one can see the North American speaker corrects the hearer's misunderstanding of a phone number by using emphatic (higher) stress and intonation on the incorrectly repeated digit. In contrast, the Indian English speaker in the same situation repeats the telephone number using exactly the same intonation pattern. A North American hearer will expect extra stress on the misunderstood digit and this may engender further confusion between the two conversationalists.

Two Americans Exchange a phone number

Two U.S. English speakers exchange a phone number. Notice in the correction the incorrect digit is emphasized with higher pitch and duration.

Indian English Speaker

An Indian English speaker gives a phone number to a U.S. English speaker. Notice that the intonation does not change in the correction.

A creative writing major who yearned to travel, Dr. Pickering taught EFL in Hungary and ESL in England before pursuing an MA and PhD in linguistics at the University of Florida. While in Florida, Dr. Pickering worked extensively with ITAs. “It was clear to me that they were having problems both in terms of being understood and how they were being perceived by their students.”

Thanks go to Zac Riddle and Karan Rana for the creation of the Flash files.


Gumperz, J. (1982). Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.