Essentially the way we sound the words and sentences when we speak is pronunciation.
Depending on what your native language is when you speak English you will have an accent, much like many native English speakers. Their accents depend on from where in their Anglophone country they come and indeed which country.
Often language learners want to speak the Queen’s English because it is cited as being the gold standard of pronunciation. However, sounding like a nonagenarian lady is not what I would want to teach my students. There is also Received Pronunciation [RP] or the old BBC English which is English without a regional accent. This suggests that the listener cannot tell from where the speaker comes. Both the Queen’s English and RP are a bit old fashioned and tired now and regional English is the norm. Nowadays BBC newsreaders and announcers come from the length and breadth of the UK and this gives the BBC a more modern sound which embraces all the different regional accents. This, of course, doesn't mean there are no RP speakers; there are plenty, me included; it's just that other accents are now celebrated more and rightly so.
As an English teacher I think that exposing students to different kinds of accents is important as in their real life they will hear and meet people from diverse places all of whom will have a different accent.
Students also need to be understood when they speak, so clear pronunciation is important. Also, when students take English language exams, like the YLE, KET, PET and FCE to prove their level, there is always a speaking test and pronunciation is always examined. Examiners listen for stress, rhythm and intonation as these are important markers of fluency and can change the meaning of a word or sentence. I won’t go into too much detail here but this is what they are:
This is the speed and cadence of how you say a sentence. So some beginner students might say – each - word- in – a - sentence - at - the - same - speed and sound a little like a robot. Developing different speeds and know when to slow down and speed up can give your spoken English more interest.
This is the ‘music’ of the language. Often questions can be asked with a rising intonation where the pitch goes up. This might be a genuine question to which you don’t know the answer. ‘John’s still on holiday?’ said with a rising pitch means it’s a question which needs answering. If it’s said without a rising intonation it’s information that you already know and you may just need confirmation. Intonation can also show emotions like surprise etc.
This is saying a syllable or part of a word more strongly and can be at word level. RECord is the noun for example of an athletics world record perhaps, whilst reCORD is what you do to a song when you copy it onto a CD.
Stress is also important at sentence level where the meaning can be changed depending on which whole word you stress. I left you with a question last week about how many ways the meaning of a sentence can be changed. Here we go: the words underlined should be stressed. See how it changes the implied meaning.
I thought your brother was a bus conductor. [you thought someone else thought….]
I thought your brother was a bus conductor [you thought I knew he was a bus conductor]
I thought your brother was a bus conductor [not your friend’s brother]
I thought your brother was a bus conductor [not your sister]
I thought your brother was a bus conductor [I didn’t know he still is a bus conductor]
I thought your brother was a bus conductor [before I thought he was an orchestral conductor]
I thought your brother was a bus conductor [not a bus driver]
So the implied meaning of this short sentence can be changed seven times depending on which word is stressed! Actually, if you stress more than one word in the sentence….let’s not go there!
So how important is all this and what or who should I try and sound like?
Well, I think it’s quite important to improve students’ pronunciation as communicating effectively is the end goal of learning a language. If you decide you like the British accent then try for that but the North American, Australian and New Zealand accents are all good too.
If when you are speaking and people are always asking you to repeat yourself or saying they don’t understand, then you might have to improve your pronunciation. To do so by yourself is quite easy. A good way is to watch your favourite English TV programme or listen to a song and mimic what is being said [say exactly what you hear]. Try this one for starters. Record yourself and play it back to see if you sound exactly the same. Do it again and again, over and over. Try to get the correct rhythm, stress and intonation. Listen to yourself again and repeat. You will eventually pick up the slight differences and learn to use them effectively. If you do this you will be speaking like a 90-year-old Monarch in no time!
I haven’t decided what to blog about next week. If you or your children have a difficulty with any aspect of learning English, feel free to drop me an email and I’ll see if I can blog about it.
James Carson, Head of EAL