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Topic 9A – Description of the phonological system of the English language. Learning models and techniques. Perception, discrimination and emission of sounds, intonations, rhythms and accents. The phonetic correction.

Sistema fonológico de la lengua inglesa II: Acento, ritmo y entonación. Comparación con el sistema fonológico de la lengua o lenguas oficiales de la Comunidad Autónoma correspondiente.


    1. Phonetics and Phonology
    2. Phonemes and Speech Sounds
    3. Stress/Rhythm and Intonation
    1. Degrees of Stress
    2. Position of Stress
    3. Stress in the Canarian Dialect/ Spanish language
    1. Weak and Strong Forms
    2. Regularity of Rhythm
    3. Rhythm in the Canarian Dialect/ Spanish language
    1. Falling Tone
    2. Rising Tone
    3. Fall-rise Tone
    4. Rise-fall Tone
    5. Level Tone
    6. Fall+rise Tone


The most noticeable feature of a foreign language is often intonation and rhythm. Some languages are described as sounding “like music”, other languages as being “flat and without melody”. If the pronunciation of individual sounds can be compared with the individual notes in a piece of music, the intonation can be compared with the melody or tune.

When studying the pronunciation system of a language we differentiate two categories:

  • Segmental elements: Vowel and consonant sounds.
  • Prosodic elements: rhythm, stress and intonation.
    1. Phonetics and Phonology

PHONETICS: is the science that studies the language sounds; how sounds are produced in general.

PHONOLOGY: is the study of the sound system in a particular language. It includes intonation, rhythm, sounds patterns, etc.

    1. Phonemes and Speech Sounds

PHONEME: is the smallest unit of speech that can change the meaning of a word.

SPEECH SOUND: is any unit of sound produced by the speech organs. They are the muscles and parts of the mouth, which we use to speak.

The Phoneme is also defined as “only in terms of its differences from the other phonemes in the same language”.

Ex: Ship sheep

Minimal pairs: Such pairs, which differ only in one phoneme.

    1. Stress, Rhythm and Intonation

When dealing with the concepts of Stress, Rhythm and Intonation, we should start by referring to the concept of prominence

  • Prominence: is the characteristic in common with all stressed syllables. Four different factors are important:
  1. Loudness
  2. Length
  3. Pitch: is closely related to the frequency of vibration of the vocal cords.
  4. A syllable will tend to be prominent if it contains a vowel that is different in quality from neighbouring vowels.
  • Stress concerns the relative prominence with which one part of a word or a longer utterance is distinguished from other parts.
  • Rhythm concerns the relative prominence, or pattern of the stresses being perceived as peaks of prominence, occurring at somewhat regular intervals of time. English is a language with a tendency for a stress-timed rhythm.
  • Intonation is the association of the relative prominence with pitch, the aspect of the sound which we perceive in terms of “high” or “low”.

Other prosodic systems include factors such as tempo and the relative speed of utterance. Perception of the rhythm base may involve observing variations of loudness, pitch and speed.


We can study stress from the point of view of production and of perception. The production of stress is generally believed to depend on the speaker using more muscular energy than is used for unstressed syllables. Many different sound characteristics are important in making a syllable recognisably stressed.

In English, stressed syllables are longer then unstressed ones, the vowels are more voiced within them. Stress is not marked in the spelling system, but it can be transcribed phonetically.

The importance of stress should be noted, given that incorrect stress on syllables is an obstacle to communication, because it may lead the speaker to understand a different word, that follows a different stress pattern.

    1. Degrees of Stress

We can distinguish between the primary and secondary stress. The first one is also called tonic strong stress, while the second one is also called non-tonic strong stress.

Ex: ‘presup,ose

There are other authors who consider that there exist three stresses.

Ex: ‘many ‘lovely ‘’girls

    1. Position of Stress

Normally stresses are in a fixed position in a word.

  • First syllable: ‘precept
  • Second syllable: to’night
  • Third syllable: engi’neer
  • Fourth syllable: misunder’stood
  • Fifth syllable: palatali’zation


  1. Native words and early French loans

Ex: ‘kingly ‘kingliness un’kingliness

  1. All abstract nouns ending in –ion

Ex: ‘mission

  1. Nouns ending in –ity

Ex: ‘vacuous va’cuity

  1. Nouns and adjectives ending in –ian

Ex: ‘liberty liber’tarian

  1. Adjectives ending in –ic

Ex: ‘phoneme pho’nemic

  1. Words with more than one function

A wide selection of words that can operate equally well as nouns/adjectives or verbs, are differentiated by their stress in the two functions:

Ex: ‘present (Noun or adjective) pre’sent (verb)

  1. Compound nouns

They are generally stressed on the first element with a secondary stress on the second element in contrast to the normal noun phrase stress pattern:

Ex: ‘black ,bird (compound nouns) a ,black ‘bird (noun phrase)

  1. Stress in phrases

When we come to stress in phrases and other syntactic units, we provide different underlying relations between juxtaposed items.

Ex: An ‘English ,teacher (someone who teaches English)

An ,English ‘teacher (a teacher who is English)

    1. Stress in the Canarian Dialect/ Spanish language
  1. Lexical and secondary stress

The Canarian speakers should keep in mind the different importance given to the secondary accent in Spanish as compared with English. The pronunciation of isolated words rarely occurs in Spanish, it only happens in Adverbs ending in “-mente”, and in a few compound adverbs.

Ex: símpleménte óptico-acústico

  1. Contrastive secondary stress

The secondary stress occurs in the Canarian dialect as well, but it is not prominent:

Ex: las cuestiones tanto ‘interiores como ‘exteriores

Although English compounds generally turn into a secondary stress the one which was the primary in the root, and this secondary stress still keeps a considerable strength; Spanish moves the stress to the suffixes:

Ex: ‘central / ,centra’lize centrál / centralizár

A secondary stress does not appear except in the cases where the general rules of Spanish regulate it.

  1. Stress position and Effect

In two-syllable words both languages have a preference for stressing the syllable before the last; English tends to stress the antepenultimate syllable in three or more syllables words whereas Spanish keeps the penult position for stress.

English vowels are deeply affected by their stress, whether primary or secondary. Stressed vowels have a precise and clear pronunciation, whereas unstressed vowels have a tendency to become indistinct.

Finally , in Spanish the stress is represented in the spelling, what makes it easier to be remembered and pronounced , whereas in English it’s not represented.


Rhythm may be defined as the regular succession of strong and weak stresses in utterances. The notion of rhythm involves some noticeable event happening at regular intervals of time. The theory that English has stress- timed rhythm implies that stressed syllables will tend to occur at relatively regular intervals whether they are separated by unstressed syllables or not.

Some writers have developed theories of English rhythm in which a unit of rhythm, the foot is used. Some theories of rhythm go further, and point to the fact that some feet are stronger than others, producing strong-weak patterns.

    1. Weak and Strong forms

The weak form, in which the vowel is pronounced with the schwa vowel, is more common than the other.

The strong form in which the vowel is pronounced as it is written.

Obviously the use of one or another form may affect the meaning of the utterance.

Ex: ‘Jane and her ‘mother ‘’are ‘stupid = it is not true that they are not stupid

‘Jane ‘’and her ‘mother are ‘stupid = not just one, but both are stupid

Weak forms are a manifestation of stress and rhythm in English, and must not be avoided in teaching, or the learner will sound unnatural in connected speech.

    1. Regularity of Rhythm

The natural rhythm of English provides roughly equal intervals of time between the stressed items.

The prevailing tendency in unstressed syllables and words is to reduce the vowels to the obscure / /, thus we have / / in a great many syllables:

Ex: a kilo of potato / ‘ki:l v p ‘ te t z/

Regularity of rhythm is used for specific pourposes:

  1. Counting:

Ex: ‘one, ‘two, ‘three,…, seventy ‘four, seventy ‘five

  1. Inventory or lists
  2. Emphasis:

Ex: you should ‘always ‘look be’fore you ‘cross the ‘’road

    1. Rhythm in the Canarian Dialect/ Spanish language

It is essential in English to have a sentence rhythm, which does not exist in Spanish.

In an English sentence certain words which are too close to the initial rhythmic beat lose their lexical stress in spite of having lexical stress. This does not happen in Spanish.

Ex: Mary’s younger brother wanted fifty chocolate peanuts

In this example we can see the difference with the Spanish stress, in Spanish all the words will be stressed; however, in English only the syllables in bold type are really stressed, thus favouring rhythm.

The behaviour of prepositions and conjunctions differs in both languages: they are usually stressed in English; in Spanish only the preposition “según” is stressed.

Stress also varies in English depending on whether it is used on strong or weak forms of the same words. There is nothing in Spanish, which resembles the English strong and weak forms so this will prove difficult for Spanish students.


Intonation is the tune within the sentence that may alter the meaning. Here the pitch of the voice plays the most important part. We describe pitch in terms of high and low. There is another necessary condition and that is that a pitch difference must be perceptible.

Intonation is generally found in sequences of stressed and unstressed syllables, though it can be a single word. We call it the tone unit, within which there is the nucleus (capital letters). The first stressed syllable in a tone unit is a onset (‘), the end will be (‘’)

The rise and fall of pitch throughout is called its intonation contour. English has a number of intonation patterns which add conventionalized meanings to the utterance: question, statement, surprise, disbelief, sarcasm, teasing. An important feature of English intonation is the use of an intonational accent (and extra stress) to mark the focus of a sentence. Normally this focus accent goes on the last major word of the sentence, but it can come earlier in order to

emphasize one of the earlier words or to contrast it with something else.

Ex: She ‘told SOMeone’’

She ‘bought it for a PARty’’

” ”

onset nucleus

Tone unit

    1. Falling Tone

This is the commonest tone in English affirmative sentences, wh-word question, one word answers to questions, and on words, names, numbers and letters said in isolation.

Ex: ‘What’s the TÍME’’




    1. Rising Tone

It is used to suggest that what is said is not final.

Ex: Counting: ‘ÓNE’’ ‘TWÓ’’…

Or because a response is needed (though not in wh-word question):

Ex: Are you ‘HÁPpy’’

Or when two clauses are joined together:

Ex: When I ‘GÉT there’’ I’ll HÍT him’’

A question will use a rising tone while the question tag uses the falling tone.

The fall and rise are by far and away the most common of the nuclear tones.

    1. Fall-rise Intonation

It often occurs in the nucleus of a doubtful condition, but it is particularly common with the initial adverb:

Ex: I’ll’ see him if he CÓMES’’

    1. Rise-fall Intonation

It expresses as it does both genuine and assumed warmth, as well as feelings of shock or surprise.

Ex: ‘That’s GRÉAT’’

    1. Level Tone

It sometimes used to the exact predictability of what is to follow:

Ex: he DRÁNK’’ he WÓManised he ‘DÍED

    1. Fall-rise Intonation

It is common in everyday usage:

Ex: She looks FÍNE to MÉ’’

It is often used with marked focus, the fall coming on the focus item and the rise on the last lexical item in the tone unit:

Ex: It’s his ‘MÁNners that I can’t STÁND’’ = ‘What I don’t LÍKE ‘’ are his ?Mánners’’


All languages have their own intonation patterns. Why is intonation important? Intonation conveys both meaning and attitude, so when a non-native speaker gets the intonation wrong, s/he can be misunderstood or sometimes misinterpreted as sounding rude or demanding when this is not intended. If a non-native speaker is almost fluent in the English language, intonation is often the only way in which one can tell that s/he is foreign. Moreover, if a foreign speaker is advanced in terms of grammar, vocabulary, etc., native speakers will make fewer allowances for intonation problems than they would with speakers who are obviously at a more elementary level. For example, if an advanced level speaker unintentionally sounds rude or demanding, the listeners will assume that s/he means it.

What can be done to improve intonation? First of all students should be aware of the differences between their intonation and the English one:

  • Spanish intonation is much more measured, so we have to teach the students how to intonate the different English elements.
  • Intonation in Spoken Spanish does not rise and fall as much as English. Students should try and keep the voice as levelled as possible.

Some useful techniques may be :

  • Listen to as much spoken English as possible (on cassette if you are unable to listen to native speakers) and be aware of where the voice rises and falls. When you listen, try to consider the attitude and feelings being conveyed. One word, for example, can be said in several different ways, depending on the meaning you wish to convey.
  • Stories motivate children to listen and learn, and help them to become aware of the sound and feel of English. A selection of ready-to-tell stories is included although the activities can be used with any story.
  • Creating Drama with poetry is an exciting language learning experience. The use of poetry as drama in the English as a second language (ESL) classroom enables the students to explore the linguistic and conceptual aspects of the written text without concentrating on the mechanics of language. Through this technique, apart from several other aspects the teacher can model student’s pronunciation, intonation, stress, rhythm, and oral expression;

We as teachers have to take into account all the differences existing between L1 and L2 patterns of stress, rhythm and intonation, and try our students to differentiate them. So English people can understand their speaking.

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