Intonation in English is an Important Part of Pronunciation for ESL Teachers

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I would have to say that something that is sometimes missed when teaching ESL students English pronunciation is intonation.  For ESL students English intonation is an important part of learning English because it not only gives English its rhythm, it also helps you in understanding what a person is saying.

English Intonation comes from the extra emphasis (stress) that native speakers and good non-native speakers place on certain words.  The rhythm in English comes from the emphasis that is placed on some words and not on others.  Native speakers place extra emphasis on the key words when they speak to make them stand out.  The key words are the nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and some other words when needed.  If you are able to only hear the emphasized words, you will still be able to understand most of what the person said.  You will also notice that native speakers from different countries may place different emphasis on some words.  

Importance of Intonation in English 

Native speakers listen for the stressed words because the unstressed words are not as important for understanding what is said.  “I like walking in the park because it gives me a feel for nature.” is a complete sentence.   Which words you emphasize can have a big effect on the listeners understanding.  The two following sentences show you what happens if certain words are emphasized correctly or incorrectly:

Emphasized correctly – “I like walking … park … gives me … feel … nature.”  From this you have a good idea about what the person said.

If the emphasis is on the non-important words you might hear “in the … because it … a … for.”  If these are the only words you hear then you will have a hard time understanding what was said.

The example shows that the emphasized words make a difference to your understanding of what the person has said.  From this we can see that placing emphasis correctly is important in speaking understandable English.  This extra emphasis on the word is done in a few ways, but the most common is to elongate (make longer) the main vowel sound in the word.  This emphasis helps in understanding what the person has said, and it also produces the rhythm of English.  This makes Intonation am important part of pronunciation because it makes the important words stand out, it gives a rhythm to the English language, and it affects the pronunciation of the emphasized and non-emphasized words.

Problems of Improper English Intonation

Given the importance of intonation it is surprising that some or many ESL teachers don’t spend more time stressing intonation when they are teaching English.  I see this as a problem because not emphasizing the right word and emphasizing the wrong word can cause comprehension problems for the listener.  It can also change the pronunciation of the word such that it sounds like a different word.  This is because an emphasized vowel sound can sound different than a non-emphasized vowel sound for the same vowel.  It is the difference between the long vowel sounds and the short vowel sounds for a particular vowel.

The effects of improper intonation are that by placing stress on the wrong word it can change the vowel sound on two words.  The two being the one you stressed but should not have stressed, and the word that should have been stressed and was not stressed.  The difference is that a long vowel sound has been made into schwa sounds (ə) and a schwa vowel sound is now a long vowel sound.  Improper intonation will cause this.  The non-emphasized vowel sound may not be the schwa sound, but the short vowel sound will usually be different than the long vowel sound.  This decreases comprehension by the listener which will lead to misunderstandings or not understanding.

Pronunciation of the improperly emphasized word and the improperly non-emphasized word affects the understanding by the listener.  The key word does not stand out and the listener has trouble understanding what is said.  There is more confusion when the word that stands out is not a key word and is not essential for understanding what the speaker is saying.  Additionally, changing the vowel sound in a word can lead to further confusion, because the word may now actually sound like a different unrelated word. 

Methods to Improve Intonation in English

The above is why ESL teachers should spend some time working on their students’ intonation as part of their pronunciation learning.  One good method is to take an audio or video file for which you have the transcript.  First, have the students identify the nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs and mark them.  Then check to see if all the words that will be emphasized have been found by listening to the words that the speaker emphasizes.  The students can now practice speaking along with the person in the file and putting the same emphasis on the same words as the speaker on the file.  This can be repeated until the students’ intonation matches with the person from the file.  You can also assign this type of exercise as homework for the students.  If you search on the internet for something like “English emphasis when speaking”, or something similar, you will find some sites that have useful intonation exercises.

To see if your students need help with intonation, listen for the students’ rhythm when they are speaking.  Does it sound right?  If it sounds too rhythmic or not right you can work with them to correct it.  If the wrong words are being emphasized or if some of the right ones and some of the wrong ones are being emphasized you can work with them.  Start with simple sentences and tell them which words are emphasized and why, and then have them read along with you. 

After correcting or improving intonation the teacher can then work on other pronunciation problems.  They will now be more apparent when many incorrect long vowel sounds are removed and many schwa sounds are not made into long vowel sounds. 

As you can see, intonation important for non-native English speakers because of the effect it has on pronunciation and listener comprehension.  If you do a little more work on English intonation you will find that your ESL students’ pronunciation will also improve.

John’s Online English’s Business English Course contains intonation lessons as well as other courses such as English for Job Interviews, and English for Presentations

You can see this article posted in Ezine at

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