Learning to pronounce a language
is a very complex task, and the learning process can be facilitated if the learner is
aware of exactly what is involved. It is obviously difficult for learners to do this for
themselves. So the teachers job is to help learners by dividing the language into
its components, such as sounds, syllables, stress, and intonation. The learner needs to
understand the functions of these components as well as their forms.
Once learners are
aware that English words have a stress pattern, that words can be pronounced in slightly
different ways, and that the pitch of the voice can be used to convey meaning, they will
know what to pay attention to and can build upon this basic awareness. Learners also need
to develop an awareness of the way they pronounce words. Egyptian students face certain
problems related to pronunciation. Some of these problems are related to stress, others
are related to intonation. However, most of these problems can be attributed to the
differences in pronunciation between English and Arabic.
It is important for students to know which words of a sentence are stressed and which
are not. English words can be divided into two groups:
a) Content words: These express independent meaning. Content words include nouns, main
verbs, adverbs, adjectives, question words, and demonstratives. Content words are usually
b) Function words: These have little or no meaning in themselves, but they express
grammatical relationships. Function words include articles, prepositions, auxiliaries,
pronouns, conjunctions, and relative pronouns. Function words are usually unstressed
unless they are to be given special attention.
While all content words receive major word stress, one content word within a particular
sentence will receive greater stress than all the others. This type of emphasis is
referred to as the major sentence stress. In most cases, the major sentence stress falls
on the last content word within a sentence.
In English there is a special relationship between the different parts of a word. In an
English word of two or more syllables, one of these will have a stress. If the learner
does not stress one syllable more than another, or stresses the wrong syllable, it may be
very difficult for the listener to identify the word. The stress pattern of a word is an
important part of its identity for the native speaker and may affect comprehensibility.
Generally speaking, stressed words are different in three ways:
They are louder.
They are spoken with a different pitch.
They are usually lengthened.
Stress is also used to emphasize information in a sentence. Usually the words that are
stressed are the ones that give new information to the listener, information that the
listener does not really know. In the following statement, the speaker is introducing the
subject: "I went to the movies last night" (no change in pitch). But if it is an
answer to the question "Where did you go last night?" the answer should stress
"the movies." If the question is "Who went to the movies last night?"
the answer should stress "I," and so on.
When using someones name, we separate the name a bit from the rest of the
sentence. The pitch is often different from the rest of the sentence, and the name is
stressed. Look at this example:
"Ali, Id like you to meet Carol."
This is an introduction. "Ali" is slightly separated from the rest of the
sentence and it is stressed. The teacher can use countless examples to show students how
stress affects the meaning.
Speech is like music in that it uses changes in pitch. Speakers can change the pitch of
their voice, making it higher or lower at will. So speech has a melody called intonation.
The two melodies are rising and falling. These can be very sudden or gradual and can be
put together in various combinations (rise-fall-rise, fall-rise-fall, etc.).
Speakers use pitch to send various messages. For example, if Ali had said "There
isnt any salt on the table," Carol might have repeated the same words but with
gradually rising pitch. This would have had the effect of sending a message such as
"Are you sure? I am amazed. I was sure I put it there." Alternatively, Carol
might want to send the message "There is salt somewhere, but not on the table,"
in which case she could do this by using a falling then rising pitch on the word
What does intonation do?
1. Intonation is used to put certain words in the foreground. Speakers use pitch to
give words stress. There are two ways in which pitch is used: a) the speaker can emphasize
a word by jumping up in pitch, and (b) the speaker can use varying pitch, rising or
falling sharply, to make a word stand out.
2. Low pitch is used to put things in the background, to treat something as old,
to show anger, or as shared information.
3. Intonation is used to signal ends and beginnings in conversation.
4. It is used to show whether a situation is open or closed. A high or rising pitch
indicates an open situation, whereas a falling pitch indicates a closed situation.
5. Intonation is used to show expectations. Strong expectations are shown by low or
falling pitch, whereas lack of expectations is shown by high or rising pitch. The best
example here is the use of the question tag. With a falling pitch on the tag, this shows
that we expect the answer to be "No." (He doesnt speak Russian, does he?)
Teaching pronunciation to Arabic-speaking students
There is a difference in the comparative force of pronunciation of stressed and
unstressed syllables in English and Arabic. In English there is a great difference in
force: unstressed syllables can be pronounced very weakly; stressed syllables can be fully
pronounced. In Arabic this difference is not nearly so extreme; unstressed syllables can
have full vowels and be pronounced fairly clearly.
Sentence stress in Arabic is similar to that in English. Content words are usually
stressed, and function words are usually unstressed. However, there are two differences
that can lead to problems:
1. Function words in Arabic do not have two forms. Vowels in words in an unstressed
position keep their "full" value, unlike vowels in unstressed words in English,
which are reduced to "schwa."
2. Verb phrases do not occur in Arabic. Therefore, teachers of English have to pay
special attention to errors such as the use of full forms of auxiliary verbs when the weak
form should be used ("I can /kan/ do it" instead of "I can /k2n/ do
it"). It will sound as if the speaker is protesting or denying a previous statement
("I can do it even though you say I cant"), when this meaning is not
The most noticeable difference between English and Arabic with regard to intonation is
that Arabic tends to use a narrower range of falling pitch over the phrase or clause. To
the English speakers ear, this may be interpreted as a lack of the correct
completion signals and may give an impression of inconclusiveness.
Another difficulty that teachers of English to Arabic-speaking students usually
encounter is the absence of certain English sounds in Arabic, like /p/ and /v/. This makes
it difficult for students to pronounce correctly words containing such sounds.
Avery, P., and S. Ehrlich. 1992. Teaching American English pronunciation. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Kenworthy, J. 1987. Teaching English pronunciation. New York: Longman.
1995. Speech Works. University of Maryland Baltimore County Computer Lab. Software