Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Intonation for ESL Speakers

I've mentioned before that most of my adult ESL students are advanced level English speakers. They know the rules of English grammar better than me! Yet, when it comes to speaking and listening skills, my students always have room for improvement. Many come to me saying that they want to improve their pronunciation.

I use a three-pronged approach to teaching adult ESL students "pronunciation." Often, when they come to me and say that they want to work on their English pronunciation, they say that they want to learn how to say different words correctly. Well, this is indeed one of the prongs. The other two are specific sounds and intonation.

To me, intonation is perhaps the most important part of pronunciation. I believe that even when someone does not say a word or sound correctly, I (the listener) will still be able to understand the student if the intonation is correct, or nearly correct. On the other hand, perfect word and sound pronunciation with "terrible" intonation is not going to communicate the message of the speaker correctly; not even for a native English speaker.

After I show my ESL students how intonation can totally change the meaning of a sentence (using the "red hat" exercise: "I did not say you stole my red hat"), then they start to see the importance of intonation. Often, just the initial awareness of intonation and the "music" of English will help a student to improve his or her speaking skills dramatically.



bilinguru said...

While I agree with your opinion about pronunciation being less important than other aspects of speech, I think you are confusing 'stress' with 'intonation.'

Intonation is the change in pitch (up and down) to reveal emotion. 'Stress' is the use of volume and speed to reveal emphasis. Of these two, I would say that stress is the most important to teach and the hardest to learn.

Mulit-syllabic words have stress points, which can change according to the form of the word. (i.e. the verb 'produce' is stressed on the second syllable, while the first syllable of the noun 'produce' is stressed.

Furthermore, stressing specific words in a sentence is largely a matter of speaker choice and is entirely context dependant. As your red hat exercise shows.

Most students beleive stress is acheived mainly through volume, but it is my belief that focusing on speed is the most effective way to help students understand stress and develop natural rhythm.

For example, when saying the sentence, "I'm not going to buy those shoes, I just want to try them on." If we ask the student to stretch the words 'buy' and 'on' (i.e. say them very slowly in comparison to the rest of the sentence, they understand the idea of stress very clearly. The other benefit of this method is that while focusing on slowing down the stressed words, they automatically say the rest of the sentence more quickly and fluently. It ends up sounding like this, "I'm nogonna BUY thoshoes, I'm jusgonnatrythem ON." A very natural native sounding rhythm!

Name: Debra Garcia, M.A. said...

Hi Bilinguru,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative comment!


Anonymous said...

Thank you to both of you for your comments on the music of English. I agree that stress is different from intonation, but intonation is much more than emotion-based. It is very much syntax-based, in that it signals grammatical structure. Take for example, the words "who is taking this course." One intonation pattern is used when we signal that we want information (the question) and another intonation pattern is used when we want to signal that the clause receives the action of the verb (direct object): "I know who is taking this course."

What I would like to know is whether either of you know of any good ESL speaking skills textbooks that teach intonation patterns. Thanks much.