This essay deals with the English phonological system and how it can be taught. We will focus on both, segmental elements –vowel and consonant sounds- and prosodic elements, which include rhythm, stress and intonation.
It is important to distinguish two concepts: 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 of a particular language. It includes stress, rhythm and intonation. Our topic, therefore, has to do with phonology rather than phonetics.
The sounds of English consist of some 48 different phonemes which are required to pronounce English with an RP accent. RP, or Received Pronunciation, is a standard accepted accent spoken by a very small proportion of the population of Great Britain (the country’s elite), but it has great prestige and therefore a significant number of people (both native speakers and foreigners) either aspire towards it or their speech approximates towards it. Extending the sounds of English to all the accents of Britain and North America would expand the number of phonemes considerably.
Identifying the individual sounds of English is a great skill and involves a lot of listening practice. Conveying or presenting those sounds in writing is a further skill which involves learning the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA.
PHONOLOGY IS IMPORTANT when teaching/learning a language for the following reasons:
The English phonological system is more complex than the Spanish one, especially as regards vowels: there are 12 English vowels, whereas Spanish only has five. The number of consonants is approximately the same in both languages. English has 22 consonant sounds. The problem with vowels is that students need to be able to perceive, distinguish and pronounce correctly a number of vowels that do not exist in their mother tongue. If they don’t, their communication skills will suffer, especially as regards listening and speaking, because they will confuse words such as
sad / / and said /e/ beat / i:/ and bit /i/ hut / / and heart /a:/ etc.
In fact, a mispronounced phoneme, either a consonant or a vowel, can often change the meaning of the word. For example, if we pronounce feet with a Spanish /i/ an English listener will probably hear the word fit. If we pronounce the word BATMAN referring to someone who is half-man half-bat with a Spanish T, which is softer than English T, and English listener will perceive BAD MAN, which means something completely different.
So, vowels are what we might call a “problem area”, to which we, as teachers, need to pay a lot of attention.
Another reason in favour of phonetic training in the classroom is that there is some pattern of relationship between English spelling and pronunciation. A learner who pronounces the diphthong /ei/ in the words take, make, same, etc, intuitively knows that words with a + consonant + final-e is pronounced with the diphthong /ei/ and will therefore pronounce words like crane (grua) or brake (freno) correctly.
But perhaps the most important reason for phonetic training in the classroom is that “bad habits die hard”: If a child internalizes an inaccurate or bad pronunciation of English, this bad pronunciation will be difficult to improve in the future.
PHONEME AND LETTER
Before we go on, it is convenient to make a distinction between “letter” and “phoneme”: A letter is one of the written symbols of the alphabet: “a”, “b”, “c”, etc, are letters. Gimson describes phoneme as “a sound of contrastive significance“. The dictionary defines the phoneme as: a member of the set of the smallest units of speech that serve to DISTINGUISH one utterance from another in a language.
In English, there is no fixed correspondence between vowel letters and vowel phonemes. One vowel letter may represent several vowel phonemes, we can this is we compare
the a’s in father, fall, any, fat ; The u’s in use, put, hut, or the i’s in wind, machine, bird
On the other hand, a vowel phoneme may be represented by two letters in written English. For example, the long
i-sound /i:/ can be represented by different vowel letter combinations as in meet, eat, receive. On the other hand a single letter often represents a diphthong: /ou/ and /ai/, for example, may be represented by one letter: go, wild.
As a result of the above, the fact that a child has learnt to read in Spanish does not improve pronunciation of English words. On the contrary it has a negative influence on pronunciation as it induces students to pronounce written words with the wrong vowel in English. For example, pronouncing mOther with a Spanish /o/ instead of with an English / /, or pronouncing cAt with a Spanish /a/ instead of an English / /.
The 12 English vowels are exemplified in the following words. The phonetic transcription of the vowel is given in brackets:
See /i:/ it /i/ men /e/ man / / car /a:/ hot / / walk / / put /u/ food /u:/
son / / the / / work / /
Five English vowels are distinguished by their length. They are the vowels in: see, car, walk, food, work. However,
vowel length is affected by sentence stress as we will see further on. Apart from their length, vowels are classified according to their point of articulation. Vowels are (1) open / close / half-open / half-close depending on the height of the tongue and (2) front , back or central depending on what part of the tongue that is raised. For example, the vowel in see /i:/ is close, front and long ; and the vowel in hot is half-close , back and short..
Most vowels found in unstressed syllables are pronounced with the neutral or schwa vowel / /: the (in its weak form), again, library, complete, etc. This is important because learners tend to give such unstressed vowels the values that they have in Spanish, especially when the Eng word resembles the Spanish word (complete, etc). On the other hand, most words having two or more syllables contain a schwa / / in the unaccented syllables, so this vowel has a very high frequency of occurrence in English.
It is characteristic of English that short words, among them prepositions, pronouns and auxiliary verbs are pronounced with a short or weak vowel, / /, when they are not inside the nucleus of the information focus.
When an “r” follows a vowel in the same syllable, the “r” tends to make the vowel long: sir / :/, car /ka:/, short / :/ etc. unless the syllable in unstressed: oppor‘tunity / /. “r” is also responsible for many triphthongs, e.g., fire /ai /
Monosyllabic words with with “o” in middle position will always be / /: not, rock.
if the wovel in middle pos. is “i” the result will be /i/ : sit, six, etc.
if the vowel in middle pos. is “a” the result will be / / : man, sad, can, etc.
if the vowel in mid-position is “e” the result is normally /e/ : met, let, red, etc.
“ee” in spelling = long i /i:/ : see, feet, speed, etc.
“oo” in the spelling results in an u-sound, short or long: food, foot,etc.(except: door, floor).
These rules, and a few others, may help learners of English pronounce better, but the truth is that the only thing that can really help improve pronunciation is LOTS OF LISTENING, and LOTS OF PRACTICE, which the teacher must, of course, provide.
As regards consonants, many of them are articulated and pronounced the same as in Spanish. This is the case with M, N, F, K, S, and a few others. But in other cases, the pronunciation of a consonant is different in both languages, so students have to be trained to pronounce them correctly in English. This is the case with “V” (which Spanish students tend to pronounce as /b/ ) , as well as several consonant combinations, for example,
(the phonetic transcription is given in brackets)
TH / / in the, this, that, they, bathe, etc.
TH / / in maths, bath, author, etc
SH / / as in shop, fish, fashion
J /d / as in June, July, John. Spanish speakers tend to use a Spanish “y”-sound
H /h/ as in hot, behave. Spanish speakers tend to use Spanish “j”-sound.
Students also need to be trained to pronounce consonants in final position, in words like LAST, MONTH, etc, because they are not used to pronouncing these sounds in final position in their mother tongue.
CONSONANT CLUSTERS are another issue that needs lots of practice, since they are not normally found in Spanish words, and children are not familiar with their pronunciation. I am referring to words like asks, or changed where we need to pronounce three consonants in a row (en fila) without any medial vowel.
Classification of consonants.
Consonants are classified according to their POINT of articulation and MANNER of articulation.
According to POINT of articulation, that is, according to the speech organs involved, consonants are
Bilabial , e.g., /m/ and /b/ labiodental: /f/ and /v/
dental : / / and / / the two sounds of “th” in this and bath respectively
velar: /k/ /g/ and / / (represented by NG in writing)
glottal: /h/ There are a handful of words in which H is mute: hour, honest, heir, heiress
palato-alveolar /t / and /d / as in the words church and judge respectively
alveolar: /n/, /s/ , /z/ represented in writing by the letter Z, and by S when it is between two vowels (e.g., easy)
/t/ /d/ These two consonants are lingo-dental in Spanish
According to the MANNER of articulation, consonants are:
Plosive /p/, /t/, /k/, /b/, /d/, /g/
Fricative , which are characterised by a « hissing » sound , such as is heard in /f /, /v/ / / or / s /
Affricates begin as plosives and end as fricatives / d / and / t /
Nasal /m/, /n/ and / /
Lateral: the air escapes through the side of the mouth: /l/
Approximant, which means that the tongue approximates the alveolar area of the mouth cavity without touching it : /r/
Semiconsonants, also called semivowels, /w/ qnd /j/ represented in writing by W and Y respectively.
Consonants are also voiced or voiceless depending on whether the vocal folds (cuerdas vocals) vibrate or not.
The technical name of a consonant includes the three characteristics we have mentioned. The consonant /v/ for example is labiodental, fricative and voiced.
Through knowledge of the point of articulation, teachers can help students pronounce English consonants that do not exist in Spanish. For example, we can teach students to pronounce /v/ by asking them to pronounce /f/ while making the vocal folds vibrate, since /f/ and /v/ share the same manner and point of articulation with the difference that for /v/ the vocal cords vibrate so that voice is audible.
Students of English need to work on three core elements of the spoken language. These core elements are:
1. Sound distinctions that convey information about grammar
2. The rhythmic effects of syllable number and variable vowel length
3. Intonational highlighting of the most important word.
1 As regards sound distinctions related to grammar, the two most important are /s/ and /d, t/.
/s/ at the end of a noun indicates either possession or plurality (girl’s – girls) ; /d/ and /t/ indicate that a verb is in the past tense (played – looked) or that the verb is a past participle.
2 The second point is related to stress. Clarity in spoken English depends on the rhythm produced by a systematic variation of the length of syllables so students need lots of practice hearing and producing this variation. There are two types of stress: word stress and sentence stress.
The term word stress refers to the syllable of a word that is pronounced with greater force. This type of stress also exists in Spanish. In phonetic transcription word stress is marked with a small vertical stroke placed at the beginning of the stressed syllable. Long words often have a secondary stress.
Sentence stress patterns pose greater difficulty for Spanish students because these patterns are not used in Spanish. English is a stress timed language. This means that stress in a spoken sentence occurs at regular intervals and the length it takes to say something depends on the number of stressed syllables rather than the number of syllables itself.
3 Intonation is the music of the language. An ‘intonation unit’ is a piece of utterance, a continuous stream of sounds, bounded by a fairly perceptible pause. This pause sometimes influences the meaning of an utterance. For example (the slash represents a pause):
Those who sold quickly / made a profit
(A profit is made by those who sold quickly.)
Those who sold / quickly made a profit
(A profit was quickly made by those who sold.)
In English, intonation is also used to signal emotion, questioning, and parts of the sentence among many other things. It’s important to recognize the meaning behind the tones used in everyday speech, and to be able to use them so that there are no misunderstandings between the speaker and the listener. It is generally true that mistakes in pronunciation of sounds can be overlooked, but mistakes in intonation make a lasting impression.
EMPHASIS: STRESS AND INTONATION. The English speaker uses stress and intonation combined in order to highlight which words the listener should notice. The most essential element of this system is contrastive stress through the lengthening of vowels of the focused words. In English this signal means PAY ATTENTION TO THIS WORD! Because language-specific systems for emphasis are learned early in childhood, native speakers use it unconsciously. But students of English need to be trained.
There four main types of intonation in English: fall – low-rise – high-rise – fall-rise
The falling tone is by far the most common. It is used to signal that a sentence is “finished”. It is also used to signal imperatives, exclamations, wh-questions, Yes/No questions and tag questions: In a Yes/No question structure, if the speaker uses a falling tone, we assume that he already knows the answer, or at least he is sure that he knows, and the purpose of asking the question, as far as the speaker is concerned, is to put the answer on record. In the following exchange, the speaker is sure to get a ‘Yes’ answer from the addressee:
a) Have you MET him? b) YES.
The low-rise tone is used in genuine ‘Yes/No’ questions where the speaker doesn’t know the answer.
High-Rise is used when the speaker when the speaker is asking for a repetition or clarification, or indicating disbelief, as in b) : a) She passed her DRIving test. b) She PASSED? (disbelief)
The fall-rise intonation normally expresses surprise or scepticism. It is also used in what may be called ‘dependent’ intonation units such as those involving subordinate clauses. In this case the fall-rise intonation signals dependency, continuity, and non-finality.
To conclude, our students need to build an awareness and concern for good pronunciation. English pronunciation has various components such as sounds, stress, and variation in pitch (intonation), and the learner needs to understand the function of these as well as their form. Once learners are aware that English words have a stress pattern, that words can be pronounced in slightly different ways, that the pitch of the voice can be used to convey meaning, then they will know what to pay attention to and can build upon this basic awareness. Teachers must also help students become aware that poor unintelligible speech will make their attempts at conversing frustrating both for themselves and for their listeners. In this case, the keyword for success is lots of practice, which the teacher must, of course, provide.
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- Brown, G. 1977. Listening to Spoken English. Harlow (Essex): Longman.
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- Dickerson, W. B. 1989. Stress in the Speech Stream: The Rhythm of Spoken English. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
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- Kenworthy, J. 1987. Teaching English Pronunciation. London: Longman.
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Intonation and Stress: Key to Understanding and Being Understood
Try this short exercise
Say this sentence aloud and count how many seconds it takes.
The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance.
Time required? Probably about 5 seconds. Now, try speaking this sentence aloud.
He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn’t have to do any homework in the evening.
Time required? Probably about 5 seconds.
Wait a minute the first sentence is much shorter than the second sentence!
The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance
He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn’t have to do any homework in the evening
You are only partially right!
This simple exercise makes a very important point about how we speak and use English. Namely, English is considered a stressed language while many other languages are considered syllabic. What does that mean? It means that, in English, we give stress to certain words while other words are quickly spoken (some students say eaten!). In other languages, such as French or Italian, each syllable receives equal importance (there is stress, but each syllable has its own length).
Many speakers of syllabic languages don’t understand why we quickly speak, or swallow, a number of words in a sentence. In syllabic languages each syllable has equal importance, and therefore equal time is needed. English however, spends more time on specific stressed words while quickly gliding over the other, less important, words.
Let’s look at a simple example: the modal verb “can”. When we use the positive form of “can” we quickly glide over the can and it is hardly pronounced.
They can come on Friday. (stressed words underlined)
On the other hand, when we use the negative form “can’t” we tend to stress the fact that it is the negative form by also stressing “can’t”.
They can’t come on Friday.
As you can see from the above example the sentence, “They can’t come on Friday” is longer than “They can come on Friday” because both the modal “can’t” and the verb “come” are stressed.
So, what does this mean for my speaking skills?
Well, first of all, you need to understand which words we generally stress and which we do not stress. Basically, stress words are considered CONTENT WORDS such as
- Nouns e.g. kitchen, Peter
- (most) principle verbs e.g. visit, construct
- Adjectives e.g. beautiful, interesting
- Adverbs e.g. often, carefully
Non-stressed words are considered FUNCTION WORDS such as
- Determiners e.g. the, a, some, a few
- Auxiliary verbs e.g. don’t, am, can, were
- Prepositions e.g. before, next to, opposite
- Conjunctions e.g. but, while, as
- Pronouns e.g. they, she, us
Let’s return to the beginning example to demonstrate how this affects speech.
The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance. (14 syllables)
He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn’t have to do any homework in the evening. (22 syllables)
Even though the second sentence is approximately 30% longer than the first, the sentences take the same time to speak. This is because there are 5 stressed words in each sentence. From this example, you can see that you needn’t worry about pronouncing every word clearly to be understood (we native speakers certainly don’t). You should however, concentrate on pronouncing the stressed words clearly.
Now, do some listening comprehension or go speak to your native English speaking friends and listen to how we concentrate on the stressed words rather than giving importance to each syllable. You will soon find that you can understand and communicate more because you begin to listen for (and use in speaking) stressed words. All those words that you thought you didn’t understand are really not crucial for understanding the sense or making yourself understood. Stressed words are the key to excellent pronunciation and understanding of English.
I hope this short introduction to the importance of stress in English will help you to improve your understanding and speaking skills.