Does intonation matter?

In the following extract from her essay, Intonation in the production of and perception of simultaneous interpretation, Miriam Shlesinger describes a small experiment which suggests very clearly that unnatural intonation from an interpreter can impair the listener’s understanding of a given passage.

The moral of the story… make an effort to speak normally and with normal intonation patterns when in the booth. Record yourself onto a dictaphone to check how you’re doing. 

The extract is taken from…Intonation in the production of and perception of simultaneous interpretation. Shlesinger, Miriam. In Lambert and Moser-Mercer (Eds.). Bridging the Gap. Empirical Research in Simultaneous Interpretation. 1994 Benjamins. Schlesinger, Miriam. 

2. Procedure and Apparatus 

Ten excerpts were taken at random from the recorded, real-time output of professional interpreters in actual conference settings. Each excerpt was approximately 90 seconds long (15-20 typed lines). Six were in Hebrew (interpreted from English); four were in English (interpreted from Hebrew). Two of the English excerpts were the output of non-native speakers, whose Hebrew (native-language) interpreting output is also included in the corpus; i.e., the ten passages were the output of eight professional interpreters. 

2.1. Production: Isolating the Salient Features 

Repeated listening to the interpreted output revealed a set of features which seemed to differ markedly from those of spontaneous discourse. To validate the intuitive judgements on intonation in the interpreted passages, elicitation of the same passage by the same speakers in a non-interpreting setting was called for; i.e., ideally, it would have been useful to obtain the same texts from the same informants. Since it was not feasible to elicit these in the form of spontaneous speech, a second-best option was chosen: the passages were transcribed, and each interpreter was asked to read “his/her” passage aloud. It should be noted that a minimum of three years had elapsed between the actual interpretation and the experiment in Question; only two of the ten interpreters recognized the passage – and this only as a result of marked lexical cues. Thus, it may safely be assumed that that the reading, for all intents and purposes, was prima vista, was in no way expected to reveal those features which typify intonational interpretation. 

2.2. Perception: Effect of Interpretational Intonation on Comprehension and on Recall 

Once the features characteristic of simultaneous interpreting production had been pinpointed, their effect on perception could be assessed. Towards this end, recordings of three passages were played to two groups of subjects (eight in Group A and seven in Group B), matched for fluency in the languages concerned, and for familiarity with interpreting. 

Both groups of judges listened to recordings of the same three passages. Group A listened to the interpreted version, whereas Group B heard the read­aloud one. Since the text, the speaker (interpreter/reader) and the format (a recording) were identical for each passage, it was assumed that the sole distinguishing factor would be the intonation, and that by comparing the test results of the two groups, it would be possible to establish the differential effect of interpretational intonation. 

After each recording had been played, three questions on each of the three passages were presented in written form to each of the two groups of judges. (The same nine questions were presented to both groups.) The nine questions were meant to determine the effect of the mode of delivery. The passages did not lend themselves to inferential questions, but rather to a straightforward test of recall and comprehension, given that they averaged no more than fifteen lines and were presented out of context.

3. Results 

3.1. Production

The salient features of interpretational intonation, described in the analysis below, have been grouped into four broad categories: (1) tonality – the distribution of an utterance into distinctive contours, or information units; (2) tonicity – which syllable carries maximum pitch prominence in the tone group; (3) tone – the means of marking the opposition between certain and uncertain polarity. If polarity is certain, the pitch of the tonic falls; if uncertain, it rises (Halliday 1967); (4) prosody – duration and speed. 

All but one of the features described below – acceleration – was found in the output of at least four different interpreters; i.e., only one of the three features was possibly idiosyncratic. Moreover, although languages (and: even dialects) do differ in various aspects of intonation (Ladd 1990; Cutler 1987; Rameh > 1985), the features which came to the fore in the present study’ seemed to cut across (at least these two) languages. 

The data below refer to occurrences of the given feature in the interpreted passage only; i.e., whenever the feature appeared in the read-aloud mode as well, it was not counted. It should be noted that each of the interpreted texts in the corpus was longer in duration than its read-aloud counterpart; i.e., the interpretation was slower (took more time) than the reading. 

Passage 2 and passage 6 were produced by interpreters who, although working into English, are native speakers of Hebrew. The same two interpreters also produced the Hebrew passages 1 and 7, respectively. The data below do not reveal a significant pattern of differences between the two passages in the case of either interpreter, though further study is needed to determine whether directionality does in fact play a role in interpretational intonation. 

3.1.1. Tonality (Chunking, Pauses, Division into Tone Groups). The range of grammatical structures which pauses tend to separate is relatively small and constant (Crystal 1969). Functional pauses serve to divide discourse into tone groups and organize it into information units (Halliday 1985; El-Menoufy 1988). Nonfunctional pauses caused by hesitations, on the other hand, tend to lower the congruence between chunking and syntax, since the ensuing junctures are nongrammatical. 

The data below would seem to indicate that pauses within grammatical structures are by far the most salient feature of tonality in interpretation; i.e., interpreters are prone to introduce a disproportionate number of pauses in “unnatural” positions, which are liable to impede understanding (Alexieva 1987). 

As for pauses at the clause or sentence boundary, while the interpreted passages did generally include pauses at sentence boundaries (in conformity with the original), these tended to be tentative rather than final, and were often coextensive with a low-rise intonation (pitch movement 3). Tentative pauses are frequently used in the middle of a primary contour, usually serving a parenthetic function (Ladd 1975; Pike 1945); thus, a high incidence of such pauses in nonparenthetical position is anomalous. Moreover, since the tentative pause correlates with an attitude of uncertainty, the cumulative pragmatic effect is bound to be altered. As in other instances of introducing an element which runs counter to the listener’s expectations, understanding is likely to be affected. 

3.2. Perception

A test was devised to determine the extent of comprehension and recall by each of the two groups of subjects. The same test was administered to both groups. It consisted of three questions on each of three passages (a total of nine questions). The total number of correct answers in Group A (8 subjects) was 17 out of a possible 72 (21 %) and in Group B (7 subjects) 26 out of a possible 63 (41 %). The difference between the proportions of correct answers in the sample was 20%; i.e., the proportion of correct answers in the second group was approximately double that of the first.

2 ideas for language acquisition

This text below is taken from the updated and expanded 2005 version of Conference Interpreting – A Students’ Companion by Andrew Gillies (see bibliography) and suggests some strategies for acquiring language at advanced level. It is reproduced with kind permission of Tertium, Cracow.

These two exercises are probably the single most rapid and effective way of expanding your active language skills that you will find. All you need is a little application.

3.5 Learn by heart, and practise reciting, 5-10 lines of well written text in your B language every day. Each day check that you still know all the previous days’ texts each day. This may sound ambitious but it won’t actually take more than 10 minutes and after a week you will find yourself using the new structures and expressions when you speak your B language. 

This exercise will contribute very quickly and effectively to expanding the active vocabulary of your B language by moving not only words but also entire structures instantaneously from your passive to your active knowledge of a language.[1]In a short time you will have large body of good quality language that can be recalled instantaneously. 


3.7 Learn off-by-heart and mimic 2 minute extracts from, interviews, speeches and stand-up comedians in your B language. Copy the speaker’s sentence intonation as well as pronunciation. Learn one per day and each day check that you still know all the previous days’ texts. 

This exercise will help you develop the correct sentence intonation and rhythm when speaking your B language. Both are very difficult to learn and often give away foreign speakers of English who otherwise have a very good cammand of the language. 

In addition learning extracts by heart will function as in 3.5, moving words, structures and here also intonation patterns directly from passive to active language knowledge. 

(Comedians are mentioned here because to sound really authentic you will have to feel like you are exaggerating the accent when you speak….but in fact it will not be as over the top as you think.)

Shadowing – Guichot de Fortis

In this brief text I shall endeavour both to describe the technique and provide some hints as to its use.

The technique and practice of shadowing is an indispensable tool for both the budding and the experienced simultaneous interpreter, but it is a controversial technique and is often misunderstood or discounted. In my opinion, however, all interpreting professionals would gain greatly from spending time both considering and practising the art of shadowing.

Chris Guichot de Fortis Senior Interpreter, NATO Interpreter Training Resources

Shadowing is useful into all the interpreter’s active languages, ‘A’ and ‘B’, and can be employed to correct and refine a multitude of interpretation weaknesses – accent, delivery, voice quality, vocal range, emphasis, ‘cleanliness’ of rendition, confidence etc. etc.

However, it is important that shadowing:

  • –  be carried out in a graduated, thorough and reasoned way
  • –  be regularly supervised and/or assessed by both the practitioner and his or her teachers, supervisors or colleagues
  • –  be carried out over many hours and in each of the linguistic combinations that it is desired to enhance
  • –  be coupled with more conventional training techniques

The technique consists of spending many hours in a real or virtual booth shadowing an able and fluent speaker of the target language. As the goal is to replicate the neurological and intellectual demands of simultaneous interpretation, a simple laptop/ipod/headphone combination will suffice, in the absence of a true booth. Using MP3/MP4 or flash files, DVDs, CDs or audio cassettes, choose speakers who are expressing themselves in their mother tongue and who have an excellent mastery thereof, without strong regional accents, and with a gift of oratory which allows full expression of the native cadences of the language. It cannot be over- emphasised that your chosen speaker must be carefully selected, as a function of accent, elocution, delivery, register etc. This is an excellent technique at many levels, as (this being a marked trend among recent neuro-linguistic and neurological expert studies) shadowing involves some 80% of the neuro-linguistic operations involved in simultaneous interpretation, the only factor missing being that of language transfer. Shadowing initially involves repeating the words of the speaker without modification. This allows the interpreter’s brain, ears and mouth, working as they do in concert, to begin to reproduce the sounds and rhythms of the target language, without conscious mental effort, and begins to create the ‘linguistic muscle memory’ naturally acquired by children learning their own tongue. This will require many tens of hours of actual speech production – it is essential that the language actually be voiced, or the exercise is useless.

It is also recommended, in the case of an actual or potential ‘B’ language, to shadow with a text, as it is true to say that we cannot hear or apprehend what we do not know, and if we do not hear all the articles, prepositions, and smaller sounds that make a native speaker sound native, we will not reproduce those sounds in our shadowing, and will lose much of the potential benefit. Here again, it is useful to record your shadowing, and then replay it, comparing it to the text.

The prime goal of the exercise is to accustom brain, ears and mouth to the flawless and (eventually) effortless production of the sounds and cadences of what may be (in the case of a ‘B’) a foreign language. The goal here is to establish a new network of synapses and neuronal pathways, this being an essential stage in the interpreter’s acquisition of each new language combination. It should not be thought that all lessons learned in the successful mastery of one combination can simply and instantaneously be transposed to another – many hours of actual practice are required for each language pair, and there are no shortcuts!

Let’s now begin to look in a more concrete way at the actual practice of the technique.

While shadowing, it is important to experiment with differing levels of time lag or ‘recul’ (say from 0.5 to 5 seconds), introducing a certain elasticity to reflect the fluctuating demands imposed by the speaker and to train the brain to cope with larger or smaller linguistic buffer spaces in the language combination being employed.

At the same time, gradually introduce expressions of your own, allowing for varying semantic (but of course not substantive) distance from the speaker. At one extreme you may wish to decide in advance to modify one or two words per sentence, and at the other to leave only one or two words unchanged.

In order to approach, in the ‘B’ language, the facility which characterizes an experienced interpreter’s work into his/her mother tongue, it is also important to train both voice and brain to ensure acceptable linguistic production while mental processing efforts are required elsewhere.
To this end, it is useful while shadowing to practice (for example) writing numerical sequences involving fixed gradations (1, 3, 5, 7… or 1, 6, 11, 16, 21 etc.), which can then be self-checked after the exercise, along with the recorded interpretation.
Another variant might involve writing down poems or song lyrics, which the interpreter knows by heart, while interpreting. Using increasingly complex sequences is doubly fruitful, and the goal, evidently, is to guarantee an acceptable level of linguistic production even while mental processing efforts are devoted to other, more noble, tasks such as actually understanding and transposing concepts and ideas! Such exercises are useless, of course, unless both spoken and written productions are assessed for accuracy and acceptability.

Many interpreters experience difficulties, in the booth, in adopting a register or ‘persona’ which differs from their own, and shadowing can be very helpful in acquiring these more thespian-related skills which can so often make the difference between a good and an excellent interpretation. Thus, shadowing speakers who are expressing joy, grief, anger, sorrow or enthusiasm, will begin to instill the required ‘muscle memory’ that will allow the interpreter (when the chips are down and lack of the appropriate vocabulary or register would severely damage the credibility of the interpretation) appropriately and confidently to transmit the entire message and sentiments of the speaker. To this end, it is useful to shadow speakers who are expressing strong or even excessive emotion, without fear of drifting into caricature, given that there will always be a filter or some loss of intensity between ‘shadower’ and ‘shadowee’.

The above exercise is of particular utility in the interpreter’s ‘B’ language, as its extended practice helps to instill native accent and provide a more nearly instinctive feeling for register and vocabulary, in sensitive contexts where any such failures would have serious consequences. For accent correction purposes, it is preferable initially to shadow language-learning tapes/CDs, etc., because the texts are spoken slowly, thus all sounds can be easily discerned. In addition, the texts employed are simpler, but grammar and syntax are correct. An added advantage is that the text will be available to read during shadowing.

It is also useful to spend time shadowing fast speakers, as it is true to say that many (usually inexperienced) interpreters have difficulty in simply delivering even their native language rapidly, clearly and without stumbling, especially when obliged to adopt a cadence which is not their own. It goes without saying that this difficulty is exacerbated into the ‘B’ language.

It is my hope that the above hints and descriptions will help you in your interpreting life, and endow you with increased facility and confidence in all your active languages, and in all registers. I should again stress the importance of shadowing, and of spending considerable amounts of time on this exercise, to enable the brain to integrate it in a reflexive, automatic way, clearing the way for more complex intellectual operations while actually interpreting.

Christopher Guichot de Fortis (AIIC)
Senior Staff Interpreter, NATO Headquarters, Bruxelles September 2011

Perfectionnement linguistique (ESIT)

Quelques conseils librement inspirés de la brochure de l’ESIT : Comment perfectionner ses connaissances linguistiques (ESIT 1984-1995-1998) Compiled and contributed by Jean-Jacques Pedussaud.


Langue A 


1. lire des textes littéraires (roman, poésie, théâtre) 

2. lire la presse (dont obligatoirement, chaque jour, UN article sur un sujet qui a priori vous rebute !) 

3. rester critique vis-a-vis de la langue employée dans les médias ; etre un lecteur vigilant, a l’affut de l’inattendu, mais aussi des erreurs ; de meme, etre un locuteur et auditeur vigilant : faire la chasse a ses propres erreurs ou a ses tics de langage (nous en avons tous…). 


4. écrire pour soi-meme (journal intime) et a autrui (courrier, méls). 

5. pratiquer des exercices langagiers écrits (exercices de style a la Raymond Queneau ; imitation d’un modele) 


6. dresser des comptes rendus a l’oral de choses entendues ou lues (se faire corriger si possible par un autre locuteur natif : a défaut, s’enregistrer et se réécouter d’une oreille critique, en recommençant au besoin). 

7. pratiquer des exercices langagiers oraux (exercices de style, exercices d’imitation : cf. activité écrite 5 ; memes conseils que pour activité 6). 


Par définition, la COMPRÉHENSION ORALE ne doit pas poser de probleme en langue A ! 

Langue B (français) 


8. pratiquer l’écoute attentive de la radio, de la télévision, de films en VO, d’enregistrements audio ou vidéo, de discours et d’interviews sur internet. 


9. lire attentivement textes littéraires et presse (cf. activités 20 & 21), rechercher (internet, dictionnaires unilingues, encyclopédies…) ET NOTER dans un carnet le sens des expressions inconnues. 


10. discussion sur un sujet donné avec un interlocuteur natif qui vous écoutera en prenant des notes pour vous corriger a la fin : il relevera les erreurs, mais SURTOUT proposera des formulations correctes, avec beaucoup de synonymes => donc trouver un locuteur A fiable. 

11. SHADOWING de la radio ou de la télévision (cad répétition du message a l’identique, avec une ou deux secondes de décalage). Attention : cet exercice ne prépare pas a l’interprétation simultanée. Il vise seulement a améliorer le débit et la fluidité ainsi que la fidélité phonologique et intonative. 

12. Compte-rendu oral (d’un texte ou d’un message oral) avec REPRISE A L’IDENTIQUE d’expressions issues de l’original (peut tout a fait s’associer a l’exercice 8 ou 9). 

13. PARAPHRASER oralement un message initial écrit ou oral (peut s’associer aux activités 8 ou 9), cad reformuler en s’obligeant cette fois-ci a NE PAS utiliser les memes expressions que l’original. NB : c’est une excellente préparation a l’interprétation (méthode). Attention toutefois a ne pas mélanger perfectionnement linguistique et interprétation…

14. Lecture a haute voix (on peut s’enregistrer, se réécouter, et recommencer en corrigeant les erreurs phonologiques que l’on aura relevées. Attention toutefois au perfectionnisme mortifere !). 

15. Apprendre par coeur un paragraphe argumentatif a la fois (tiré d’un essai ou article de presse), voire un poeme, un passage de roman ou de piece de théâtre. Le réciter ou le noter par écrit de mémoire. Vérifier la fidélité. Recommencer jusqu’a mémorisation parfaite, avant d’apprendre un nouveau passage. 


16. Compte-rendu écrit avec REPRISE d’expressions issues de l’original (cf. activité 11) 

17. Compte-rendu écrit avec PARAPHRASE SYSTÉMATIQUE (cad expressions systématiquement différentes de celles employées dans l’original — cf. activité 12) 

18. Écrire sur un sujet imposé (un paragraphe sur tel ou tel theme). 

19. Écriture personnelle (journal intime) ou courrier. 


20. Noter tous les faits de langue qui vous frappent au fil de la journée (lectures, conversations, informations a la radio ou a la télévision…), notamment les expressions que vous n’emploieriez pas spontanément, dans un petit carnet que vous aurez sur vous EN PERMANENCE (cf. activité 9). Les réemployer ensuite dans la mesure du possible dans les activités d’expression (10 a 19). 

21. Chaque jour, lire attentivement UN article et relever tous les mots et expressions que vous n’auriez pas utilisés spontanément (y consacrer environ 1/4 d’heure par jour). Les réemployer ensuite dans les activités d’expression écrite ou orale (10 a 19).