Intonation is vital to human interaction. Intonation is why you don't sound like a robot when you talk. Some sentences rise, for example, questions. Some fall. If you're George W. Bush, Leader of the Free World, they just get louder at the end.
"America is addicted TA OIL."
I love squinting, peering out from under my eyebrows with thin-lipped intensity and saying that. Repeatedly.
Some of our students have a wonderful feel for intonation, and their English sounds very natural, with maybe a touch of a Spanishesque accent because both Espanol and Nihongo share vowel sounds. Back at Nova there was one high school girl in one of the higher levels who would give you the pefectly teen girl-intoned "Oh MY GOD!" whenever you asked a difficult or stupid question.
At my current school, we have one girl who often exclaims, "Oh shit!" in those situations, but if she remembers her manners, she'll change it to a less scatalogical "Oh shhhhhhoooot!"
Drawing it out so at first you're not sure where she's going with it. She uses both in place of the Japanese version, which is "EEEEHHH??!!" with an English-style "rising surprised question" intonation.
But she also frequently lapses into Japanese. One moment she sounds like an American teenager, then suddenly, she's asking her classmate "Maji de?!!" Which means, "Really?!!" And then she pops right back into perfectly intoned American-style English.
It makes me jealous of her facility with two languages, while I stink at 3. And with students like that, you tend to expect more from their modes of expression. With others, you just want an intelligible sentence with recognizable elements such as subjects, verbs and objects. Once we accomplish that, then we'll start working on intonation and sounding more human and less like a pull-string toy.
Kids are a little different. Even though my main concentration is grammar and building a vocabulary of simple but logical responses to easy questions, and working with their pronunciation, so they're saying "Canada" instead of "Ka-nah-dah," and "America" instead of "Ah-may-ree-kah," I also try to fix their monotonous intonation, especially with easy expressions like, "It's yummy!" or "Oh, really?"
If you learn nothing else from me, you'll be able to tell someone the food is delicious and sound like you mean it, dammit! Or else that you're a bit skeptical of what they just told you.
Sometimes we practice the phrases a few times, which cracks them up as they take turns pretending they're enjoying a certain food, or being surprised by some startling, hypothetical event.
But when we read the dialogue again, unless the class is my Advanced Senior junior high trio who are getting to the point where we can have actual conversations and will one day be amazingly fluent speakers of English, it's back to using the same halting, robotic monotone.
Or for some reason, a falling intonation.
Which sounds strangely melancholic, even if the dialogue itself is supposed to be cheerful. When Hiro calls his Dad from Vancouver, you'd think they'd both be happy to talk to each other after Hiro's first month of homestay, but no.
Dad (filled with an unbearable sorrow, undefinable, inescapable): Do you have a lot of friends in Vancouver?
Hiro (we die as we dream, alone): Yes, I do.
Dad (unable to express the central absurdity of existence): Thank you for calling.
Hiro (seeks oblivion of self): You're welcome...
And so it ends. Like a Bergman film, baby.
Speaking of film, teaching English in Japan is also teaching me to become an actor.
I find when I'm reading lesson dialogues, I'm consciously thinking in terms of character. This week, a guy named Raoul had a discussion with her friend Anne about Anne's terrible hangover.
I should point out at this point this wasn't a kid's lesson- it was for our mid-to-high level adults. Which are frequently high school girls not of drinking age and totally unaware of the binge alcoholism culture that awaits them when they graduate and go onto college.
Not to mention during their working careers, where after-hours drinking parties are mandatory. That's right- MANDATORY. When I was a binging fool in college, I thought that was cool but having seen the weekday morning results now I'm not so sure...
Anyway, character. Raoul and Anne. In my mind, Raoul has slicked-back hair and a pencil-thin mustache, while Anne is a nondescript but basically attractive young woman. I want to give Raoul a slight continental accent, but I refrain. Instead, I concentrate on making them both sound friendly, but adding a touch of tiredness to Anne's voice.
At other times, the first voice that comes out of my mouth is reminiscent of either Luke Wilson or Owen Wilson. I don't know why sometimes I act out the dialogue as Dueling Wilson Brothers; I just do. Luke's more thin-lipped and speaks in a more clipped, strained manner. Owen's laid back, with a higher-pitched drawl.
You have to imagine him saying, "Everyone knows Custer died at the Little Bighorn. But what this book pre-supposes is... maybe he didn't?"
Or explaining how his book Wildcat was "written in an obsolete vernacular." You get extra points if you can add the adjective "friscalating."
I do an amazing Owen Wilson impression. If you closed your eyes during one of my readings, you'd swear it was Owen himself, and you'd be expecting me to save the leaden dialogue with some quick-witted improvisation.
But I can't do that everytime, man. I have to feel it.