Learning how to speak a new language is more than just learning words and sentences.  It is also necessary to learn how to avoid the interference of our mother tongue which creates so many mistakes in our students' writing and speaking  who by being non-native speakers, tend to take structures from our mother tongue and fit them into the English language. 

Following these patterns  the purpose of this essay is to show how important,   intonation  is in the process  of  learning another language , in this special case ,  the English Language.

It wil also be shown  the role of mother tongue influence  in  language acquisition  and finally   the  use of rhythm and stress when applied to the same process of acquisition.



There is no completely satisfactory definition of intonation, but any attempt at a definition must recognize that the pitch of the voice plays the most

important part.1

One of the most commom problems when learning another language   is related to intonation. Students by themselves observe that there's something wrong when they are asked to say certain sentences or to write them, but can't identify the problem, either because they have  a low level of English or they have a high level of proficiency but don't have much contact with the language.  Sometimes it is because they are taught by teachers who have a good level of proficiency but speak what we  call  * ingles aportuguesado . In this scenario the missing part, sometimes or always, is called intonation.

Intonation is the music of the language. In English, we use tone to show emotion or to ask questions. It is important to recognize the meaning behind the tones used in conversation, and to be able to use them so there will be no misunderstandings between the speaker and the listener.  It is true that mistakes in pronunciation of sounds can be overlooked, but you would be aware of them. 2

Intonation determines comprehension. Even if you pronounce each word clearly, if the intonation is not standard, the meaning probably will not be clear, leading to a loss of some comprehension .

Language deals with expressing emotions and contextual importances in differents ways. Some languages, such as French, stress the end of the sentence to indicate important features . Other languages such as Chinese have a pitch change that indicates different vocabulary words.  Intonation in English is the rise and fall of the pitch in order to express meanings, emotions or situations.

This is the point of Standard English intonation, nouns and verbs equally carry the weight of a sentence.

In English the syllables are not said with the same force.  One syllable is said very loudly while the others, very quietly. When talking to native speakers it is easy to observe that they pay  attention to the stressed syllables not to the weak ones.  That is one of the reasons why non -native speakers are misunderstood by them, not because of the native language accent by itself, but because incorrect stressing in the correct syllables.

It is  assumed that in the process of speaking, every syllable or word is pronounced with a variation in pitch, only in usual conversation we speak with a pitch that does not change.

From the linguistics point of view, intonation is the main concern of those who intend to speak the language as fluently as a native speaker.  This is unlikely. Besides articulation, stress and intonation, there is a very important  item to be considered  which  is the accent.

The language background , culture and  social status take an  important role in the process of second language acquisition which ,  is primarily linked to the fact that some people have such difficulties related to  mouth articulation and production of sounds. Some non- native speakers make themselves hard to be understood in conversations if they do not stress or put the right intonation in their sentences because of their mother tongue's influence ,  this is, they bring  some of their mother´s tongue sounds to the English Language . A good example of this is the Japanese or Indian people who have  diffiulties in pronouncing the / l / sound  due to their mouth articulation which is completely different in terms of pronunciation from the English language. Aspects like these represent important points when pronunciation , intonation , and stress are  discussed

1 ROACH,(1991, p, 133)

2 Available on :  http://


Language learners who perceive sounds in the target language to be phonologically identical to native language sounds (despite possible phonetic differences between the two languages) may base whatever phonetic learning that does occur during the acquisition process on an acoustic model provided by pairs of similar sounds in two languages, rather than on a single language specific acoustic model as in first language acquisition.  1

In other words , the ears of the learner will not recognize the sounds of a foreign language the way they are. They will keep trying to immitate  and to relate  the mother's tongue sounds instead of finding and recognizing the real sound. This is a strong statement in order to lead to  research the different contrasts between the two languages such as  pronunciation, stress and intonation.

Non- native speakers  tend to think that fluency is likely connected to accent's improvement, but this is not true, at least not completely true, if you start to the point  that,  first of all, it is really hard to get rid of our native accent  specially in adulthood. Second, even if your accent is close to the target language not always this will help , if  we consider that what makes a clear conversation  is also the right stress, intonation and rhytm given to the  words.

Second,  language learners should  never  be leaded to compare  English and Portuguese sounds in order to learn it. They should be explained that these two languages have different kinds of sounds and therefore they should be pronounced in different ways especially concerning mouth articulation wich is completely different.

By doing this a lot of mistakes would be avoided concerning mother's tongue interference in the  target language.

1 Flege apud Schultz (2004)


The rhythm of speech is one of the distinctive features of a language. It is acquired in childhood and hard for an adult to change According to rhythm, languages are classified in syllable-timed and stress-timed. Japanese is probably the most perfect example of a syllable-timed language, but French and Brazilian Portuguese are also syllable-timed while Russian and English are markedly stress-timed languages. 1

According to the statement above there are two classifications to languages wich are: syllable-timed and stress –timed . Brazilian Portuguese is classified as syllable –timed  while  English is marked as stress-timed.In syllable –timed  languages the speech is based on the syllable, each  syllble take the same amount of time to be pronounced  , in this way the time to say a given sentence will depend on the number of syllables, while in the stress-timed language the sentences will depend on the kind of stress put on them  to determine the time  to say a given sentence. This explains why some syllbles almost disappear when the word is pronounced, there is a row in between unstressed syllables wich tend to compress the other ones.

The words that carry the stressed syllables responsible for sentence rhythm are usually content words like nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs; while in function words like prepositions, articles, determiners, pronouns, and auxiliary verbs (in affirmative and interrogative sentences) are normally unstressed and often contracted. Auxiliary verbs in negative sentences will also be stressed.2

In order to achieve a good rhythm in English, you need to slow down, stretch out, and very clearly pronounce one-syllable content words and the stressed syllables of longer words. And you must reduce unstressed function words and other unstressed syllables. 3

A common error made by non-native speakers of English is pronouncing one-syllable content words too quickly, without the necessary stress. But a bigger  and more common error made by non-native speakers whose mother tongue is syllable-timed is not reducing  words and other unstressed syllables enough when they pronounce the words in English making it hard to understand and to be understood.

As a result, the listener will have difficulty perceiving which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed. Since stress is the main cue to word boundaries in spoken language (equivalent to spaces in written language), the listener will therefore have problems figuring out where words begin and end. 4       

It would be impossible to understand any language without following a certain pattern of phonological stress because languages depend on the stress,  rhytm and intonation to be determined and distinguished between them,  and,  these  should be the main concern of any person who aims to communicate in any  language other than  the native one.

1 Schultz available on:

2 Schultz available on:

3 DAUER, (1985,p.85)

4 DAUER, (1985,p.85)


It is concluded  that every language is unique and carry its  particular aspects. In order to be fluent in a second language  it is necessary more than just knowledge of vocabulary and structures, but  it is also necessary  to be aware of the main differences between mother's tongue and the target  language .It was also observed,  that , ridding ourselves from the accent is not enough to a good pronunciation because what determines someone to be understandable or not in other language,  is the way that the syllables and consonants are stressed  and the rhythm that you put in your speaking.

And finally, it was understood in between the lines that learning  another language is a duty of patience, effort, and  specially research in terms of particular aspects of the aimed language



DAUER, Rebecca M. Accurate English: a Complete Course in Pronunciation. Prentice Hall Regents, 1993

ROACH , P.  English Phonetics and Phonology. Cambridge University Press 1991

SCHULTZ, R . Fonologia Diferenças entre Português e Inglês.  Available on http://  Researched  on November 3rd , 2005

SCHUlTZ, R. Intonation and Stress. Available on http://  Researched on  November 3rd ,  2005

         INTONATION.  Available on :  http://

          Researched on November 7th, 2005

Autor: Rosemeire Parada Granada Milhomens da Costa

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