Module 1 | Describing language and language skills : Phonology

Phonology is one of several aspects of language. It is the study of sound features (e.g. phonemes, word stress, intonation and sentence stress) used to communicate meaning.

 

Phoneme

A phoneme is the smallest of the perceptually distinct units of sound that have meaning in a language, e.g. the s in toys has meaning because it makes the word book plural. Various sounds are used in various languages and only some of them have meaning in other languages, not all, e.g. in English, /s/ and /sh/ are two separate phonemes and they are very important because they help to distinguish between words like so and show, sell and shell, sot and shot. However, in Cantonese they can be used in words without the meaning of the word being changed. They are not separate.

We can replace phonemes with phonemic symbols, e.g. /i:/ and /aI/.

A phonemic symbol represents one phoneme.  If we know how to read phonemes, we can know how to pronounce a word exactly how it should be pronounced the correct way. A set of phonemic symbols is known as a phonemic script and it shows the pronunciation of words. There are many phonemic scripts and there are various, minute differences in the symbols which they use.

 

IPA - International Phonetic Alphabet

If you open a dictionary, you will find in the beginning a list of all the phonemic symbols with examples of the sound represented by each phoneme. Usually, the symbols are put into groups of consonants and vowels which are sometimes separated monophthongs and diphthongs. Monophthongs are single vowel sounds (e.g. got, hit or sock) and diphthongs are a mix of two vowel sounds, (e.g. the sound of the vowel in make, rake or so).

This whole collection of phonemic symbols is called “The Phonetic Alphabet”. The standard International Phonetic Alphabet is shown in the diagram below.

Word stress and sentence stress

When you look up a word in a dictionary, you can see that in the entry for that word the phonemic script is usually paired with another symbol. These are used to convey word stress.  The stressed part of the word is the part we say with more energy or emphasise the length and vowel sound more, e.g. grateful, bookstore). Syllables that are unstressed or weak are pronounced with less energy, or less emphasis. The vowels get shorted or even vanish completely, e.g. interested. In various languages, one syllable in a word is strongly stressed; in other languages, all syllables are given the same length and emphasis.       

When we speak, we stress different sections of our sentence more or pronounce them with less stress, i.e. sentence stress. Main stress is given to a single word in that sentence. This is because the speaker believes that that word is the most important in making the meaning of the sentence and other words are given secondary stress. Words with secondary stress are not as powerful as the word with main stress. There are some words in the sentence which do not have any stress at all. Here   example: ‘He went out late in the night’ or ‘I can’t believe what she did’. The underlined words are the ones with main stress and the ones with secondary stress possibly are went, out, night and can’t, what, did. The unstressed words are he, in, the, I, she.

Often, main and secondary stress are on the content words (nouns, adjectives, verbs or adverbs) instead of structural words (determiners, articles, prepositions or pronouns). Content words are ones that give more information. Structural words are ones that are used to build sentence grammar. Let us take this sentence as an example and see what the content and structural words are. E.g. ‘The boy walked to the car and got in slowly’. The content words of this sentence are: boy, walked, car, got, slowly. The others are all structural words. They are not stressed. However, we can also stress any word in this sentence if needed. Take a look at the examples given below.

  1. The boy walked to the car and got in slowly (i.e. he did it slowly and not in any other way)
  2. The boy walked to the car and got in slowly. (i.e. he did not walk to anywhere else but the car)
  3. The boy walked to the car and got in slowly. (i.e. only the boy did it and not anybody else)

Connected Speech and intonation

Connected speech is spoken language in which the words are all connected together to make a continuous flow of sounds. Sentence stress is a characteristic of this type of speech. Others are contractions and vowel shortening. All these aid in keeping the rhythm of the speech constant. the usual beat is on the main stress and the weaker syllables and words are shortened in order to stay with the rhythm.

Intonation is the movement of the level of voice, i.e. the tune of our sentences of words. It is also a very important part of pronunciation because it is used to convey feelings, ideas and opinions and to emphasise more or less what we are saying. It is also used to show others that we are beginning or ending our speech or whether we are asking something or stating something.

Try to say this sentence, ‘The shop’s just closed’ in these ways:

  1. With happiness
  2. With surprise
  3. As a statement of a fact
  4. As a question

Notice how the tone of your voice rises and falls with each expression. It will most probably rise when you say it as a question and fall and then rise again when you say it with surprise. 

The nerd baby says ...

  •  Those who are learning English should be able to comprehend various English accents since it is becoming rapidly a global language.
  • It is highly essential for learners pronunciation to be clear to others from other countries because it communicates a large part of our meaning. Therefore, they need to be able to pronounce their sounds correctly.
  • Educating learners about the importance of proper pronunciation should be done by focussing on various aspects of pronunciation.
  • Some materials used by teachers to educate students in English include tasks or exercises which elaborate on producing different sounds in a way so that words are recognized by just one phoneme, e.g. hit and hot, sing and sink, flip and slip.
expert

Test your knowledge

Practice saying phonemic symbols until you learn them well. Then test yourself or test someone else.

Use the IPA chart in the lesson. 

Look at the words below and count how many phonemes there are in each. Make a note of them.

Dog                  bookshop         limber              fifteen              evening

There is a stressed syllable in each of the words below. Fine and underline them.

       fifty          donkey                        difficult                       report               December

Read the sentences below carefully and decide which word you would put the main stress on in each sentence.

  1. His name is Bob, not Ben.
  2. France is a part of the European Continent, not a continent on its own.
  3. The lady was so much fatter than her husband. He was a skinny person.

Try to say the words ‘I’m sorry’ using these three different intonations:

  1. With surprise
  2. Requesting repetition
  3. Apologising

Given below are some comments made by teachers. Which of the comments would you agree with? Why or why not?

  1. My students don’t need to learn phonemic symbols. It’s quite useless for them.
  2. It is not necessary to teach good pronunciation to young kids. They learn it naturally.
  3. It is vital for good teachers to have an excellent understanding of phonology.
  4. Since English is not my students first language, I don’t expect them to pronounce it like it is.

Choose ten words to teach to your own students. Then take a dictionary and find the pronunciation for each of the words. Consider which of them might be difficult for your students to learn.

Take a dictionary and use it to find the meanings of these terms: consonant, syllable, voiced/unvoiced sound, vowel, linking.

The table below has been taken from a pronunciation syllabus. Which of these parts would be useful for you to teach to your students?

Lesson

Pronunciation focus

1

Polite intonation in questions

5

Intonation in question tags to show agreement

Progress check

/i/ and /i:/; being aware of speaker’s attitude

7

Stress and intonation when correcting someone

12

Word stress in sentences

15

Stress in compound nouns

(adapted from Rewardby Simon Greenall, Macmillan 1995)