“Language is about managing relationships,” said Stephen Pinker in a 2007 TED talk entitled What our Language Habits Reveal, and in his presentation, Pinker points out that to socialize, you have to satisfy two conditions, “You have to convey the actual content,” and “You want to express the bribe, the command, the promise, the solicitation, and so on, but you also have to negotiate and maintain the kind of relationship you have with the other person.”
Do we teach that in our English language classes? Does the material in textbooks support us in helping students present themselves in the light they want the other person to receive it? Certainly not as much as the first condition. We teach students how to “convey content,” but “manage relationships,” not so much. Here’s where taking a fresh approach to pronunciation work may help.
Prosody is the art of being able to speak so that what you say is taken in the way it was intended. You could say it is about the speaker’s attitude. An obvious example is sarcasm as in this example between two young men at a bus stop in the ESL play and podcast, Rising Water.
Ajax: (Looks at his phone or watch) I’m in trouble.
Magnus: Yes you are!
Ajax: (Sarcastically) That’s helpful, Magnus.
Sarcasm is clearly at work in the short dialog above, but sarcasm can also be subtle. Here’s another example that could be read in different ways. Maybe Ajax is admiring or maybe he is hurt and not trying to be sarcastic at all. Maybe Magnus’ response is defensive and maybe it is smug. In performance, the prosodic choices made by the actors will affect what the audience learns about their relationship and whether they will empathize with the characters.
Magnus: It’s all about planning ahead, Ajax.
Ajax: Yeah well, I’m not you Magnus. You’re perfect. Everyone knows that.
Magnus: I’m not perfect, Ajax. I’m organized. I plan ahead.
In addition to sarcasm and hurt or smugness, people can express worry, exasperation, enthusiasm, anticipation, dismay, relief, joy, disbelief, and other emotions simply in the way they use their voice. These implicit emotional messages can make speakers seem more trustworthy because real feelings and intentions are difficult to hide.
Here’s another example that features hurt feelings and disbelief. It comes from the ESL play and podcast, Only the Best Intentions. In this scene, Oscar and his fiancée, Gigi, are having problems due to his gaming. Oscar feels bad that Gigi’s family is excited about their son who plays soccer but critical of Oscar’s passion for computer games. Much of what happens in this exchange depends on student actors’ ability to convey the emotional power of the moment.
Oscar: You know how everyone is so proud of Jaime. He’s great at soccer, and he deserves it. But how Jaime feels about soccer, I feel about gaming. Only everyone hates me for it.
Gigi: Okay, but soccer is a sport.
Oscar: So is Epic Storm. It’s an esport.
Gigi: I’m sorry, Oscar. Really?
Oscar shares his true feelings and Gigi dismisses them by rejecting the idea that computer games are a sport. The exchange is wooden when spoken without emotional intonation but quite powerful with it.
In class, students can try reading the lines with different intentions and then improvise with a related topic. For example, have a similar disagreement but make it about Gigi’s goal of becoming a musician. Students can also work with excerpts from feature films and television shows, watching, imitating and then experimenting. Romantic comedies or medical dramas, for example, can provide emotionally charged scenes such as giving bad news or airing a grievance.
Theatre scripts, videos and podcasts are full of short functional interactions, but investing time in a script search is not imperative. And it’s not imperative that the dialog be written by a native speakers since students may be interacting with international people from different countries. However, it is a good idea to roleplay with a partner to see what language naturally occurs in the situation. (You may be surprised.)
Once you have a dialog that has an underlying emotional current, you can practice it for effect. In Alice Llanos recent guest post Stress-out: A Roleplay about Relationships, she shares an activity for practicing different attitudes with the same dialog. However, it is also possible to work with dialogs that feature the same situation but with different outcomes. The following activity provides insight into asking for and responding to a favor by showing how a conversation can end well or badly.
The art of asking for a favor requires testing the availability and willingness of the other person so you don’t put them on the spot. It is also about letting them off the hook if they signal that you are asking for too much. The other speaker has the job of signalling sincere willingness or reluctance to comply with the request. In the following activity, students can explore these different outcomes and then create scenarios for practice.
First: Introduce students to the dialog (below). Model the sounds through a recording or read the parts aloud. Then identify the emotions/intentions of the speakers. Do drills with the students to help them ‘feel’ the sounds.
Second: Put students in pairs and assign one of the dialogs to each pair. Have them create the context. They can decide who is talking, how old they are, how well they know each other as well as decide what the person is asking for. Point out that it’s very hard to know how each is feeling without hearing their voices.
Third: Have them add the missing first half of the dialog. They should add a greeting and request for a favor leading up to the lines they have been given. Instruct them to practice delivering the full dialog with the rhythm and pitch that communicates the emotional situation and feelings of the speakers.
Fourth: Have them perform the dialogs for the class and discuss the situation. Give feedback about how the intentions and responses were handled.
C: Are you sure?
K: No, seriously, I don’t mind.
C: You’re not just saying that?
K: Of course not, I’d like to help.
C: Okay, well I owe you big time!
C: Are you sure?
K: Yeah, I can make it work.
C: Oh gosh, I feel bad. You know what? I’m going to ask
around some more.
K: Well, if you want to, but . . .
C: No, no. It’s okay.
K: Well alright, then. But I’m here if you need me.
C: Are you sure?
K: Well, I think so. Can I let you know?
C: Oh never mind. I’ll find someone else.
K: I said I’d do it. I just need to see if I can move some things around.
C: No. it’s okay.
K: Now, you’re guilt-tripping.
When you finish, you can share the original context which was improvised by two 19-year-old high school students. One asked the other to take his younger brother to school.
Asking for a favor is one of a short list of high frequency functions that can be immediately useful for people learning English for school or work. Others are inviting and declining, introducing an idea or perspective and responding, and expressing agreement and disagreement politely. Being able to recognize intentions and implicit messages through both language and prosody can give learners confidence that they are not just sharing information but also negotiating a relationship that they care about.