Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Article: "The Importance of Intonation in English"

In this article, I am going to search for the possible answers to the following questions and try to figure out the importance of intonation for a correct pronunciation:
Ø  Why is it important for an EFL learner to use intonation in English?
Ø  How can we make the students improve their use of intonation in English?
I have chosen “Intonation” as the subject of my study because I think it is one of the most important aspects effecting the pronunciation of EFL learners.
Most learners of a foreign language transfer their native intonation patterns (i.e. the melody of speech utterances) to the new language and retain them even after they have improved in other respects. Consequently, though most Danes may have been exposed to English for quite some time, their English is usually far from authentic.
Intonation is closely interrelated with other factors – not only grammar and vocabulary, but also non-linguistic factors like the roles of the speaker and hearer (who is talking to whom, in what capacity and in what type of situation).This means that a given sentence can have different intonation patterns in different situations. (Livbjerg,I. & Mees,I.M. 2002)
This problem with intonation is quite common in Turkey because English is not so widely used and there are not that many native speakers of English living there. Another reason is that nearly most of the English teachers in Turkey are getting their education in the country and they are not given the chance to spend some time in UK or any other European country. Teaching of intonation gains more importance in countries like Turkey because there is not a natural environment for acquiring the intonation of English. Thus, we, English teachers, should explain every aspect of intonation to our students to make the best out of it.
What Is Intonation?
The term intonation refers to the way the voice goes up and down in pitch when we are speaking. It is a fundamental part of the way we express our own thoughts and it enables us to understand those of others. It is an aspect of language that we are very sensitive to, but mostly at an unconscious level. We perceive intonation, understand it and use it without having to examine the intricacies of everything we say or hear. (Kelly, 2000)
Apart from the difference between the alphabet, word formation and sentence formation of English and Turkish, there is also difference between the intonations of these two languages. In Turkish, the intonation is a little bit flatter than in English. When Turkish EFL learners speak English, they tend to speak as if they were reading in Turkish. As phonetics alphabet is not thought at primary or secondary school, students are having difficulty in differentiating between the pronunciations of most of the English words (phonetics alphabet is thought especially at ELT departments of universities), so they prefer to pronounce the English words according to Turkish alphabet. According to Celik,(2008) Turkish EFL learners tend to use these strategies when coming across a word the pronounciation of whish is not familiar with them :
ü  Utilizing across major varieties such as Received Pronounciation and General American,
ü  Collapsing similar sounds based on their perceptions of similarity between English and Turkish phonological features, and
ü  Resorting to the orthographic pronunciation of a written symbol in Turkish when they have no idea as ti the correct pronunciation.
Although certain aspects of intonation may be common to many languages, some of the ways in which intonation is used may be specific to particular ones. Scandinavian languages, for example, tend to pronounce unstressed syllables on a higher pitch than stressed ones, whereas we usually do the reverse in English. Italian tends to change the order of words in a sentence to stress a particular word where we would do this through intonation. Spanish intonation tends to have a noticeably narrower range than English. Speakers of these languages will almost inevitably carry their habits of intonation over into spoken English. (Kelly, 2000)
Intonation is a wide term including “the nucleus”, the prominent stressed syllables, “tone groups and intonation tunes”, and “completeness versus incompleteness”.

Why is it important for an EFL learner to use intonation in English?
            In order to be more authentic and sound like a native speaker of English, it is important that an EFL learner should learn how to use intonation. In today`s world, English is the most widely spoken language and it is gaining more and more importance every other day because of the technological developments and diplomatic reasons. It is also beneficial for EFL learners to be familiar with intonation in that, knowing about usage of intonation in English makes it easier to understand a communication between native speakers of English. For example, when watching a movie, it helps us understand the situation even though we are not sure about the meaning of some words used by the actors.
            When teaching of pronunciation is taken into consideration, the importance of intonation becomes clearer as the way in which a word is pronounced is quite affected by the place of stress or rising and falling tones. However, it is not going to be an easy task to teach intonation to EFL learners that easily because of the fact that concentration on grammar and vocabulary often takes their attention away from this feature.
            In order for negotiation of meaning be present in a communication, being understood by an English speaker is as important as understanding him/her. This makes another reason showing that, apart from grammar and vocabulary, intonation is among the crucial things to be learned by EFL learners.

How can we make the students improve their use of intonation in English?
According to Kelly, (2000) in dealing with intonation in the language classroom, we need to examine the nature of these unconscious processes, bring them to the surface and show how we believe they work. To be of use to students, work on intonation in the classroom needs to focus on practice rather than theory. We need to show learners how the choices they make with regard to intonation serve to determine the meaning of utterances. Traditionally, theorists have attempted to show links between grammatical constructions and certain patterns of intonation. Although these theories are not a hundred per cent watertight, they give us some useful and teachable rules of thumb for helping students to use intonation successfully.
We can make use of games and communicative approach based activities while teaching about intonation in our classes. Besides the activities in the class, we can help the students make use of media, for example, they can revise what they have learned during the classes by watching TV channels like BBC or any other channel using the Received Pronunciation.
As a conclusion, we can say that intonation is a wide term covering important aspects of a language and it has a big impact on the pronunciation of EFL learners. As this subject is not taught in primary and secondary schools in Turkey, Turkish EFL learners are more likely to have problems in sounding like native speakers of English. Furthermore, they have difficulty in understanding a native English speaker with whom they have never had a chance to communicate before. Also, as Turkish EFL learners are not exposed to the language during their daily life, it is not likely that they grow a sense of awareness about how it is like to pronounce words like native speakers do. So, as language teachers, we had better give explicit information about intonation patterns and concentrate on communicative aspects of language and try to make students be active during the classes. The more they use the language, the better they pronounce.


Celik, M. (2008, 4 1). A Description of Turkish-English Phonology for Teaching English in Turkey. Journal of And Theory Practice in Education , pp. 159-174.

Kelly, G. (2000). How to Teach Pronunciation. England: Longman.
Livbjerg, I. &. (2002). Practical English Phonetics. Denmark: Schonberg.

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