Intonation is the “music” of a language, and is perhaps the most important element of a good accent. Every language is different in terms of its intonation. When you listen to a French speaker, a Spanish speaker, an Italian or German speaker – even if you can’t make out the words, you can still hear from the intonation and the rhythm which of the languages you’re hearing.
Stress, rhythm and intonation, or prosody of a language, are the most distinguishable characteristics of a language. Learning prosody of a language takes many years, and some people acquire this function very well; for others, it may involve a lifelong struggle. The details of a language’s prosody depend upon its phonology and it is really a matter of the importance of having some background knowledge of phonetics and phonology that helps you to understand the learners’ problems.
There are a lot of English language teachers who are not native English speakers and who are very good teachers but, however hard they try, their pronunciation isn’t really anything like a native accent of English. In my opinion, it is a serious problem when an English teacher can’t manage a very good pronunciation, and what the pupils are hearing from their teacher doesn’t sound at all like what they’re hearing on recorded exercises.
Why do we have to learn intonation?
According to Professor Peter Roach ‘the most important thing about doing exercises in intonation is to sensitise yourself, so that if you are trying to sound a little bit more like a native speaker of the language you’re learning, you just get a feel for the way the pitch moves.’ And he thinks that the more you practise these things, the more you absorb the characteristic rises and falls – the melody of the language if you like. Even if you find it difficult to do really finely targeted exercises on ‘is this a rise or is it a fall, is it coming on the second syllable or is it coming on the fourth syllable’. Even if you can’t cope with those, you can get something out of these exercises by just absorbing the feel of the prosody of the language.
Peter Roach is Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at Reading University, principle editor of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary, and Cambridge has just published the fourth edition of his highly popular course English Phonetics and Phonology. If you love the ‘music’ of the English language I highly recommend it to you.