Pronunciation as protest | A thought experiment


I was intrigued by this recent NY Times article about two newly elected members of the Hong Kong legislature and their anti-China protests during their swearing-in ceremony. What’s particularly fascinating is how both of them pronounced China as /ˈtʃiː.nə/ , and how it instantly infuriated Beijing (this despite all sorts of other apparently anti-Beijing activities happening at this oath-taking event). Sixtus, the young man in this video, later blamed it on his poor English accent, and did so in perfectly fluent English. The Chinese government, it seems, perceives  the aberrant pronunciation as a slur from the time of the Japanese occupation.


This is the first time I’m hearing of pronunciation being used to mark protest. I am , however, familiar with the sentiment, because I’ve been doing something similar subconsciously for a while. A lot of Indian place names have been officially renamed over the last two decades to make them sound (allegedly) more Indian. Like a lot of people, I use the old Anglicised pronunciation out of habit, but never with any kind of consistency. I have met language chauvinists who’ve corrected me subtly reformulating my pronunciation or explicitly pointing out my dirty elitist, colonial ways.

I now use the Anglicised pronunciation intentionally, even with people who I reckon it’ll provoke. I think it’s great that place names are pronounced in ways that reflect the culture that shaped it in the first place. But what I take issue with is the empty populism of politicians who fritter away public money that could have been spent on more pressing needs like health, education, sanitation, and hunger – yes hunger – on meaningless name changes and all the associated costs that entails.

So if you live in India, here’s a thought experiment for you. Over the course of a fortnight, keep a record of which of the following you use and in what situations.

Bombay or Mumbai

Madras or Chennai

Poona or Pune

Calcutta or Kolkata

Bangalore or Bengaluru

Cochin or Kochi

At the end of the fortnight, analyse the results. Do you for example use Bombay consistently with your friends but Mumbai at work? Do you (like a lot of people I know) use Bangalore and Cochin all the time but can’t bring yourself to say Madras?  Is it because Chennai is a totally new name and not just a different pronunciation? If you haven’t made a clean break from the old names to the new ones, what’s your reason for favouring some from the old lot and others from the new one? Or are you, like me, using pronunciation as a form of low-level protest?

If you’re not from India, I’m curious about whether you have any parallels in your own culture or region where you feel pressured to pronounce a word in a certain way and the impetus to rebel.


The Melody of English | IATEFL PronSIG webinar summary

The full title of this webinar – The Melody of English: Research and Resources for Teaching the Pragmatic Functions of Intonation – is a real mouthful and it was the very first PronSIG event that I’ve ever experienced.  The speakers were Marnie Reed and Tamara Jones, both of whom seem to have written methodology books in this area.


Why teach the pragmatic functions of intonation? 

Marnie spent the first half of the webinar establishing the need for increasing learners’ sensitivity to pitch movements that lead to some sort of implicature – the speaker implies something through his or her intonation. She suggested that the way intonation is treated in language courses leads to it looking decorative and Ss come away feeling it has no particular meaning. She cited an example of a language lab that she observed where Ss practised intonation with decontextualised sentences and repeated it over and over until their intonation became increasingly target-like, in order to please the teacher. When Marnie asked these Ss whether they would use this native-live intonation in their everyday speech, they apparently suggested that only women speak like this and that it sounds silly and exaggerated.

Marnie went on to explain that her intention was not to force a speech pattern onto the learners and they had the right to reject it if they felt it was irrelevant to them. Her concern was about their ability to decode real world meaning and speaker intent because the Ss were not sensitive to the fact that we use intonation to provide extra meaning (the example she used repeatedly was the teacher didn’t *grade* the papers vs. the *teacher* didn’t grade the papers where the shift in the tonic word reveals more information than the words themselves state).  Marnie felt that the Ss’ beliefs about intonation were going to underpin their receptivity to it. In this case, Ss felt it was decorative, leading to gaps in their metacognition. She also suggested that teachers may also face these same gaps and NESTs are at greater risk because they use intonation unconsciously and are perhaps not motivated to analyse the theoretical basis for it and may not be equipped with dealing with it in the classroom.

What is intonation? 

Systematic and linguistically meaningful use of pitch movement at the phrase level or at the super-segmental level. Pickering (2012)

Marnie pointed out that English intonation is a bit of an outlier and we tend to use a wide pitch contour for everyday utterances and that if we’d  put languages and how they use intonation on a continuum, English would be at an extreme end. German, Turkish and Arabic would also apparently be in the vicinity but English tends to fall at the very extreme end in terms of its use of pitch movement for normal discourse and extra use of it to convey speaker intent where we are making an implication.

Unlike many other languages where grammatical inflection, word order or lexis is used to signal contrast or important information, English does this largely through phonology. Rogerson Revell (2012)

Problems with teaching intonation

Ts spend a lot of time on the attitude or affective areas of intonation such as being sarcastic and showing anger. I think Marnie was referring to that frequently used activity which involves decontextualised sentences being read out in conjunction with an emotion like anger. She suggested that we may working at a surface level producing or imitating intonation without compelling Ss to consider why the pitch range is so exaggerated compared to their L1 and what it might be trying to convey.

What would success look like?

Marnie seemed to describe two sides to this. The first was the ability to grasp implicature and be able to articulate it (in the sense of identify and respond to it). The second was the ability to predict the topic of the next sentence. She shared an example of this which I couldn’t quite hear but the gist of it was that the proficient English speaker is primed to know what to expect when he or she hears non-standard intonation which violates the norms. This might be an important skill in academic lectures where Ss are just following along without knowing what’s coming up.

Resources for teaching the pragmatic functions of intonation

Tamara handled this section of the webinar.  She focused on three situations where we’d expect to hear exaggerated intonation:

  1. Speaker attitude e.g., A: How are you today? B: *great* (with a sort of slow falling pitch movement)
  2. Contrasting information e.g., The *teacher* didn’t grade the papers vs. the teacher *didn’t* grade the papers
  3. Strong agreement e.g. She *does* have a good point.

I’m not sure why Tamara claimed that the utterance in number 3 is also an example of breaking a grammar rule by throwing in an auxiliary verb. Using do/does to add emphasis is generally standard usage.

There are no arguments for teaching intonation in terms of attitude, because the rules for use are too obscure, too amorphous, and too easily refutable.  Brazil et al (1980)

I recall Mssr Brazil being oft quoted in my Delta input lessons as evidence that intonation is a murky area of phonology that’s best left untaught. I could never agree with that perspective and I was happy to hear that Marnie and Tamara concurred. Tamara shared the following activities for focusing on the pragmatic functions of intonation:

1. Noticing: Ask Ss to take a passage and ask several proficient speakers to read it outside class time. Ask them to notice what happens to certain words or phrases and report back. Ss then notice that the proficient speakers all read these words or phrases in the same way or in Tamara’s words, they do something weird to it. Tamara suggested that this noticing is an important part of selling the idea to them – that the pitch change exists in reality and not just in the minds of their teachers.

2. Awareness-raising: Once Ss have noticed the pitch change, use awareness-raising activities to connect intonation to meaning such as:

Let’s conTINue our disCUSion of polLUtion

YESterday we deFINED polLUtion.

1. What will I probably say next?

a. Today we’ll talk about the IMpact of polLUtion

b. ToDAY we’ll deFINE acid RAIN

3. Assumptions understood: Use short dialogues which challenge Ss to interpret meaning or implicature such as this one:

A: Would you like to go skiing this weekend?

B: So you can ski?

What had the man assumed?

(a) A was a good skier.

(b) A was going skiing this weekend.

(c) A didn’t know how to ski.

(d) A did not intend to go skiing.

4. Matching activity: Ss look at a sentence such as “I took the 10:20 evening training from LA to San Francisco” and use the concept of shifting prominence to match it with a range of implicatures such as

a. Not John.

b. I didn’t drive it.

c. Not the 12.20 etc.

5. Quality choral repetition: Along with drills, get Ss to use paralinguistic cues to ‘feel’ the pitch movement in utterances such as “What’s the MATter?” and “You must be JOKing”.

  • Clap: Clap strongly and loudly on the stressed syllable. Clap quickly and quietly on the unstressed.
  • Eyes: Open your eyes wide. Relax them on the unstressed.
  • Eyebrows: Raise them. Relax them.
  • Get up: Stand up. Sit down.
  • Walk: Take a long step. Take a short step.
  • Dance: Take a long step. Take a quick step.
  • Shrug your shoulders: Raise them. Relax them.
  • Snap your fingers: Snap.

Tamara also suggested using rubber bands with words that have exaggerated intonation. I would caution against doing this. I’ve used rubber bands before and find that Ss end up altering the quality and the length of the vowel, reducing rather than enhancing comprehensibility.

6. Card matches: Similar to number four except that the words which have prominence are indicated in the text. These utterances and their implicatures are presented on individual cards.  Ss read and match the cards.

I want to learn to ski on my holiday

I want to learn to SKI on my holiday

I want to learn to ski on my HOLIDAY.

I WANT to learn to ski on my holiday.

My husband already knows how to ski.

I don’t have to learn to ski, but I am interested in doing it.

I am too busy with work to learn right now.

I am not interested in learning to swim or to surf

7. Marking the dialogue: Play short clips such as these ones from Seinfeld and Friends, provide a transcript and ask Ss to mark up words where they hear an exaggerated intonation.

8. Correct me if I’m wrong: Ss complete some sentences about themselves (My name’s … My first language is … My favourite food’s … etc.) and then exchange it with a partner who reads it out wrong “Your favourite colour is black” and then gets corrected “No, my favourite colour is WHITE.” (in the same vein as Mark Hancock’s Contradict me from Pronunciation Games, CUP)

9. What comes before? Provide statements such as “I’m afraid I see some DISadvantages” and Ss work out the preceding statement – “This plan has a lot of advantages.” And then Ss select a dialogue and present it to the class.

Are you sure? Maybe we need TWO new PCs.

I went to the lab on Saturday AND Sunday.

I agree. That IS an unrealistic deadline.

Frank, could YOU do the presentation?

No, the exam is on the FIFTH.

When I reflect on the way I’ve taught intonation, I’ve generally focused on getting Ss to work towards practising intonation that’s definitely not native-like but is easier on the ear either by not sounding too flat or too singsong. I never plan to teach the pragmatic side of intonation and if it happens, it’s usually in emerging language focus. The fact that Ss might be missing out on key aspects of real world communicative competence because of their inability to pick up something proficient English speakers subconsciously process all the time is truly food for thought. I particularly liked the example Tamara shared towards the end when she said that sometimes when she tries to highlight an error to Ss through intonation such as “Louis GO to the bank?”, her Ss use paralinguistic clues to perceive that their teacher is unhappy but miss out on the pitch movement on GO and instead focus on correcting the preposition or some other part of the utterance.

While the studies that were cited and the rationale around teaching the pragmatic functions were really interesting, I felt the activities that were shared were a bit of a damp squib. Most of these (save No.9) are ones that my peers and I have been using variations of for years. Linda Grant’s Well Said, a book that both these ladies seem very partial too was supplementary material for a course I taught with my former employer. Ss could get access to their own copies and they universally disliked doing exercises from it because they found it dry and disengaging.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful for this nice long list of references:

  • Gilbert, J. (2014). Myth 4: Intonation is hard to teach. in L. Grant (Ed.) Pronunciation Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Levis, J. (1999). Intonation in theory and practice. Revisited. TESOL Quarterly 33(1), p.37-64.
  • Paunovic, T. & Savic, M (2008). Discourse Intonation – Making it work in S. Komar & U. Mozetic (Eds.). As you write it: Issues in literature, language, and translation in the context of Europe in the 21st century, V (1-2), 57-75.
  • Pickering, L. (2012). Intonation. in K. Malmkjaer (Ed.) The Routledge Linguistics Encyclopedia (3rd edition), pp. 280-286.
  • Vandergrift, L. & Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in action. NY: Routledge, P.22.
  • Wells, J.C. (2006). English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Wichmann, A. (2005). The role of intonation in the expression of attitudinal meaning. English Language and Linguistics, 9(2), pp. 229-253.

And I think Olya from ELT Stories suggested Paul Tench  (1996, 2001) for functions for teaching intonation.

Image attribution: Flickr | Pronunciation by Steve Bowbrick | CC by 2.0

English through Yoga: Lesson #1



This is actually my second lesson inspired by yoga; the first was called Past Continuous Yoga and was designed for eight to eleven year olds. It was my maiden shot at writing a lesson for YLs and it won the Trinity College London’s lesson plan contest held at the Teacher Educator Conference in Hyderabad earlier this year. Trinity has compiled a sample of the entries into a document. I’ll post a link to that when they publish it online.

I’ve heard of teachers including yoga in their classroom routine usually as pre-lesson warmers but I don’t know if anyone teaches language through yoga. I became interested in yoga as an instructional medium through my friend Faredoon who at various times has been a hippie, actor and corporate trainer but always a lifelong practitioner of yoga and Vipassana.  I realize that the idea seems trendy and like many trends, questionable. I don’t know if it will work nor do I currently have an opportunity to test-drive these ideas. However, I do know that yoga heightens self and other awareness  and it improves breathing and sharpens concentration. These alone are surely attractive outcomes for any language teacher. The question is how to leverage them such that language teaching processes become seamlessly coupled with yoga derived activities.  Again, I don’t know the answer though I hope these posts will take me closer to it.

I’d love to hear your feedback if you are able to try this lesson out with your learners.


Title: Vowel stretches

Aim: Differentiate between commonly confused monophthongs (ɪ & iː, ʌ & ɜː, ʊ & uː, ɒ & ɔː, ɑː & ə, e & æ). I’ve picked pairs of sounds that learners in Western India generally interchange.  These can be replaced by other vowel sounds including diphthongs that are appropriate in your teaching context.

Audience: A2/B1 adult learners

Duration: 75 min

Materials: Yoga mats, a whiteboard you can move around, Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart, Stickups or flashcards with the target sounds,  a noisemaker (preferably a small brass bell), pairs of words with the target sounds from a book like Ann Baker’s Ship & Sheep.  Ss should be wearing loose, comfortable clothes and footwear they can take off easily.

Stage 1: Warm-up 

Lead the group in doing some warm-up stretches. This site has a list of simple stretches that you could use; a sequence of sukhasana, seated spinal twist, cat-cow stretch, and maybe end with the child’s pose.

Stage 2: Breathing exercises

If Ss are seated, ask them to continue sitting cross-legged in a circle.  

  • Close your eyes and visualize a swan gliding serenely over a still lake.
  • Just as the swan moves smoothly over the water, inhale and exhale through nose in a long and smooth manner.  Try to expand your breath as much as possible. 
  • Do this for 7 counts. Observe your breathing.  Then gradually breathe normally.

Ask Ss to stand.

  • Rest your hands gently on your stomach. Say any word in English in a loud voice. 
  • Now breathe through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Do this three times, inhaling and exhaling as deeply as possible.
  • Do the same exercise again but this time when you exhale say the word you’d said before in a loud voice.
  • Ask Ss to repeat the process but this time as they exhale, enunciate a single sound from the word they had said before.

Stage 3: Focus on sounds

  • Ask Ss to sit in a circle on the floor and focus on the sound they enunciated at the end of the last exercise – in all likelihood, they’ll be vowel sounds. If you get syllables, ask Ss to split the syllable into individual sounds.
  • What’s common among all of these sounds? Elicit that they’re all vowel sounds.
  • Say the sound again. When you make it, do you obstruct the air as it comes through your mouth? No.
  • Try saying the sounds that you hear others saying. How is it different from the sound that you made? What’s happening inside your mouth? How is the tongue positioned differently? What about your lips and jaw?
  • Derive that we shape the sound in our mouth using tongue and lips, creating different kinds of vowel sounds.
  • Pick up one of the vowel sounds shared by a student and demonstrate a short and long variant of it. What’s the difference? Elicit that one is a short sound and the other is a stretched, long sound.
  • Ask Ss stand in the mountain pose. Model a short sound and get Ss to repeat it in this position. Now, have Ss move into the Warrior II stretch and get them to repeat after you as you say a long vowel sound that you’ve paired the short sound with. Get them to do this a few times before you move to the next pair.
  • As you do each pair of sounds, get Ss to note the positioning of the tongue, lips and jaw.
  • The only pair I’ve selected which bucks the trend of short and long is e & æ. Maybe, Ss could do a half-warrior to demonstrate that æ is not a long sound but it has a different vocal quality than e.

Stage 4: Focus on form 

  • If using the IPA in class gives you an allergy, you can replace this stage with some drills or a review before moving on. 
  • Use the phonemic chart to associate the sounds you’ve taught with symbols. Point out what the colon does to the sound.
  • Use stickups or flashcards to do a quick review. Display the stickup with a phonemic symbol and nominate Ss to “perform” the sounds i.e. both the vowel sound and the mountain or warrior pose.
  • If more practice is required, get Ss to sit down in a circle and drill the sounds chorally, in groups and then individually.

Stage 5Controlled practice

  • I don’t like to do word association until this stage. A lot of teachers disagree with me but many learners in India have  had mispronunciation reinforced through their education – it’s not merely a question of L1 influence.  I find associating words with sounds too early in the lesson can often lead to minimal pronunciation change in words with the target sounds other than those drilled in class. 
  • Have Ss pair-up and sit cross-legged facing each other. They should sit such that one person from each pair faces the whiteboard while the other has her back to it.
  • Ask Ss to to place their palms on their partner’s palms.
  • Write the first word on the board e.g., TIN.  Ss facing the board push their partners hands while saying this word. Ss who can’t see the board listen to what the partner is saying and supply its minimal pair (TEEN) while pushing back their partner’s hands. Monitor and check for mispronunciation. Model if required; board the other word. Ask partners to swap words to repeat the process.
  • Continue with the next pair of words. After doing 8 pairs, ask partners to swap positions and do the next eight pairs.

Stage 6: Semi-controlled practice 

  • While Ss are doing the exercise in the preceding stage, write numbers against all the pairs on the whiteboard. 
  • Divide Ss into groups of three. Have them stand such that they can see the whiteboard.
  • Ask Ss what yoga poses they are familiar with. Ask them to demonstrate a few.
  • Announce a number. One Ss from each group creates a sentence using the minimal pair. When she says this sentence aloud, her group members repeat the sentence while doing an impromptu asana that involves stretching the arms or legs on a word with a long sound and constraining the arms or legs on a word with a shorter sound.
  • Ask Ss to keep swapping roles as you call out newer numbers. Encourage peer correction and creativity of movement.

Stage 7: Freer practice 

  • Get Ss to stand in two circles; inner circle facing out and outer circle facing in. 
  • Get each student to stand directly opposite another from the other circle in the tree pose or Vriksasana. In this pose, the hands are normally clasped above the head but to make things easier, ask Ss to clasp their hands in the “Anjali mudra” at their chests.
  • Ask Ss to talk to the other person about how they think improving English pronunciation might help personally or professionally. Ask them to think about how similar or different their partner’s perspectives are. They can also consider if there are any drawbacks to improving English pronunciation.
  • After a minute, ring the bell and ask Ss to lower their leg, thank their partner with a namaste and move one step to the left if they’re in the inner circle and one to the right if they’re in the outer one.
  • Get Ss to greet their partners with a namaste, get into the tree pose and repeat procedure.

Stage 8: Cool-down 

  • Get everyone to sit in a cross-legged position in a circle. Lead the group in doing a seated twist.
  • Ask them to share interesting opinions they heard from their partners. 
  • Point out sounds that everyone is doing really well with and sounds that they might need to practice. Inform them that you will send them an email that will have additional resources for self-study.
  • Now, get Ss to lie down in the corpse position and do a breathing exercise. You may want to accompany this with a visualization of the swan from the warm-up taking off and flying high in the air.


1. Baker, Ann. Ship or Sheep? An Intermediate Pronunciation Course. CUP: 2002.

2. Mehta, Silva et al. Yoga The Iyengar Way. DK: 1990.

NB. The asanas in this lesson are really simple ones meant for beginners and I’ve got them vetted by a professional yoga teacher. I don’t recommend replacing them with other poses unless you have an experienced practitioner present to help you out. 

CuePrompter: activities across skills

During the ISTEK ELT conference last weekend, a delegate tweeted about a session that had activities with CuePrompter. Apparently, the activity involved a read & do version of Simon says.

From ISTEK ELT 2013

From ISTEK ELT 2013

It’s an interesting tool that allows you to paste any text you’d like(it doesn’t seem to do so well with non-Latin scripts, I tried with Chinese) and select speed, font size, and colour (white on black, black on white). While the prompter is running, you can pause, reverse, fast-forward as well as increase and decrease speed. Many thanks to Okan Önalan for tweeting about the site.


CuePrompter seems too versatile a tool to be limited to just a variation of Simon says. I brainstormed some other applications for it which would extend its use across other skills.


  • Ask Ss skim a text to answer a linear sequence of questions. Since the text disappears after a couple of seconds, Ss will be compelled (hopefully) to skim. This could also be a good exercise to help Ss get over regression – where Ss repeatedly read the same sentences or paragraph when it’s not required. 
  • Give Ss a set of statements and ask them to skim the text displayed by CuePrompter to decide whether they are true or false. Alternatively (this could be useful for EAP & ESP contexts), decide whether the information is available or referred to in the text.


  • Create a text that has synonyms of the target vocabulary. Give Ss a table or a bingo chart with the target vocabulary. Let the prompter roll and ask them to read quickly and write down synonyms from the text next to the words they have in their worksheet. Repeat until they get most of the words. 


  • Distribute a list of words to Ss and ask them to look up how they’re pronounced after class. To make it more interesting, you could run it as a jigsaw task and give out several lists. In the next session, ask students to teach each other words that might have appeared in their lists but not in those of others. Then, set the stage for a breaking news broadcast activity.  Pick up recent news items from the net and plant words from the lists you have distributed. Divide Ss into groups and name them after rival news channels.  Tell them they are competing for viewer ratings which they can secure by pronouncing all the words correctly.  Paste the text into CuePrompter and have a student from the first group read out the text as if it were a live news broadcast. Explain to the Ss that news broadcasters don’t get any prep time when it comes to breaking news – they have to read from the prompter without making any mistakes because there’s no second take. 


  • Most creative writing activities allow Ss a lot of time to think and write. But, what if you wanted to encourage the capture of spontaneous thoughts?  Create a series of prompts in a narrative (You enter a large room, what do you see? Suddenly, you hear a loud noise, describe it.)  Paste the prompts into CuePrompter and puts lots of ******** between each prompt. Ss read the cue quickly and start writing using the first thought that pops into their heads.  They have to write really fast because the next cue will come up soon.  When the prompter runs out of text, get Ss to proof-read what they’ve written and then teach them some discourse markers to connect their sentences and transition smoothly between events and actions. Let Ss rewrite their stories as a cohesive narrative before sharing it with the rest of the class.


  • A replica of the writing activity except Ss are in small groups and each time CuePrompter displays a prompt, Ss discuss it and collaboratively construct a story.  

I’d love to hear your feedback on these ideas especially if you get the opportunity to try them out with your learners.