How to be Understood in English

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English as a Foreign Language (EFL) By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: English » English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
Last updated: 18/02/2011
Tags: intonation, mimic, pronunciation, tonic syllable, understood



When we try to learn English, there is such a lot to think about, isn't there? We have to learn vocabulary (words and phrases), grammar, word-order, verbs - and all those tenses! But we often forget to focus on pronunciation, intonation and the tonic syllable. However, these make a big difference to how well we are understood.

We can learn vocab for hours, and practise our tenses until they are perfect, but if we don't pronounce our words like an English speaker, our listeners will struggle to understand what we are saying - and then all our other work is in vain!

Another area which is often forgotten is intonation. This is the up and down flow of our speech. Every language has its own unique intonation - even tonal languages. If we can get this right, our listeners will not only understand us more easily, they will say how well we are learning English - even if we sometimes choose the wrong words or use incorrect grammar!

How do we get pronunciation and intonation right? The simple answer is, 'Be a good mimic' (in other words, carefully copy your teacher and other native speakers). Also, ask them to correct you when you get it wrong. Most people are happy to do this (especially teachers!) It is good, too, to ask your teacher to give you some special exercises in pronunciation and intonation. You will be surprised at how much fun it is in the process!

One final thing to mention is the tonic syllable. Every word is made up of at least one syllable. Now, we normally think of syllables at the word level, but we need to think of them at the sentence level too. Why? Because every sentence has one syllable which is stressed (or emphasised) more than all the rest. This is called the tonic syllable. If you can identify which one it is in a sentence, you will be able to pronounce the sentence like a native speaker. Again, try to mimic a good speaker in order to practise this, and ask your teacher for some exercises.

It is interesting that we can change the meaning of a sentence just by stressing it in a different way. Take this sentence, for instance:

'I came by bus today'

If the tonic syllable is 'day', then this indicates that it is today that I got on the bus, and not yesterday. If, however, we emphasise the word 'bus', then this suggests that usually I come by a different mode of transport. A third variation can be obtained by emphasising the word 'I'. Then the implication is that usually other people come by bus, but I do not.

To summarise, we may spend lots of time learning vocabulary and practising grammar, but we also need to listen carefully to pronunciation, intonation and the tonic syllable. If we can get these right, we will be more easily understood and our listeners will praise us for how well we are progressing - and that has got to be a good thing! So enjoy your language-learning and be a good mimic.

Richard Brassington English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Teacher (York)

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