Intonation in the Elementary Russian Classroom Revisited

Francis McLellan, Princeton University

Intonation, unlike phonetics, was largely ignored into the 1970s and in the teaching of elementary Russian, due primarily to the lack of a generally accepted framework for understanding it, in spite of the early efforts of Boianus and Jopson (1952). It was not until E. A. Bryzgunova (1965, 1981) developed and refined a broadly understandable and pedagogically applicable system of transcribing Intonational Contours (intonnatsionnye konstruktsii, IC) that intonation began to be included in widely used Russian language textbooks and attracted imitators. Having come into pedagogical fashion in the 1980s, the teaching of IC is now on the wane. This presentation proposes to address the reasons for that. It further proposes to suggest that the trend away from teaching IC be reversed, at least at the elementary level. The communicative function of intonation is most pronounced when the syntactic and lexical content of an utterance is small. In order to express the meaning of simple sentence, consisting of one syntagm and from one to five words, Russian speakers rely heavily on intonation (in written Russian, that function may be fulfilled by punctuation). More syntactically and lexically complex sentences of the type students produce in subsequent years of the study of Russian are not nearly as dependent on intonation to carry meaning. For that reason intonation is most important for elementary Russian students, as it has the most significance for the greatest number of sentences they will utter. A discussion of methods of incorporating appropriate IC into the speech of elementary students and their advantages and disadvantages follows.


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