Pronunciation is far more that the accurate production of individual consonant and vowel sounds. For assistance with this basic aspect of pronunciation, a good, basic text is recommended. Please refer to the section on Supplementary Resources for suggestions. At an intermediate or advanced level, it is important to learn the pattern, intonation and the rhythm of the language, and to understand how they can be used to give information about the language structure used, or gain information or clues from what you hear.
The intonation pattern used gives information about whether an utterance is a statement or a question, the type of question and expected response, or whether something is part of a series of items, or something on its own.
- In a statement, the intonation falls on the last syllable of a sentence.
- There is a similar pattern in an information (WH) question; these
structures are identified by both the question word that starts the
sentence and by the intonation pattern.
- An information question contrasts with a “yes/no” question
in which the intonation rises on the final syllable.
- In a series, the first item(s) has rising intonation and the last
one has falling intonation.
If the intonation pattern is incorrect, then the listener receives a confusing message and can be unsure of how to respond.
Word or syllable stress is used to identify the important or distinguishing information in a sentence; the items to which the listener must pay special attention. Many people have a problem hearing the difference between the words forty and fourteen. The difference is in the stress, or emphasis, given to the final syllable of these words; note the difference between FORty and fourTEEN. Similarly, if you are asked the question, “Did you go to a movie last night?” and you didn’t go to a movie, but you did go to the game, you will emphasize that information.
e.g., “Did you go to a movie last night?”
“No, I went to the game.”
or if you had gone to a movie another time, the emphasis would be on the time.
e.g., “Did you go to a movie last night?”
“No, I went to a movie on Friday.
The opposite of stress is unstress; the content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adjectives) usually receive more stress in a sentence than the other words. These other words are unstressed and it is important to recognize and use the unstressed vowel sound (schwa) that occurs in such words. Schwa is the sound you hear in the first and third syllables of the word banana; it is, in fact, the most common vowel sound in the English language. Use your dictionary to check on the pronunciation of new words; the schwa sound is represented by an upside down e. The schwa sound can be represented by many of the written vowels, e.g.,
‘e’ in excellent
‘i’ in medicine
‘o’ in common
‘u’ in future
‘ou’ in callous
‘io’ in nation
‘ia’ in special
‘iou’ in cautious
The individual words of the language are linked together to give the pattern of English. The individual words are not pronounced separately but form part of a stream of words that are linked together. There are two basic patterns to recognize and use.
- An initial vowel after a consonant
If a word ending in a consonant sound is followed by a word starting with a vowel sound, then the final consonant of the first word is “linked” to the initial vowel of the next word.
e.g., Take it away ® tay ki taway
- A consonant ends one word and starts another
If a word ends in a consonant sound and is followed by a word starting with another consonant sound, then the consonant sound at the end of the first word is almost unspoken. The tongue actually moves into position to make the sound, but does not complete the action; this situation is represented here by an apostrophe.
e.g., I just got a phone call ® I jus’go ta pho’call
A good way to practice is to take a short story from a newspaper (or elsewhere) and identify the pronunciation linkages and then read the article using the links.
All of these factors act together to give typical English pronunciation; your dictionary will give you the basic pronunciation. When you add the other information, however, not only will your listening skills improve, but also other people will understand you more easily.