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Feel the Rhythm of English and Improve Your Pronunciation!

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Want to improve your pronunciation?

Then put down that textbook and learn to feel the rhythm of English!

Many English learners focus on improving their vocabulary and grammar without thinking much about rhythm—even though this is just as important for you to quickly improve your English pronunciation!

In fact, if you want to speak like an advanced learner of English, you have to feel the rhythm.

You might be asking yourself, “What is English rhythm, and why does it matter?”

Below you will find the answers to those questions, along with some practical pronunciation exercises that will help you identify and reproduce natural English stress-timing and rhythm.


All Rhythm, No Blues: An Introduction to English Rhythm

What Is English Rhythm?

Rhythm is defined as “a strong pattern of sounds, words, or musical notes that is used in music, poetry, and dancing.” The rhythm of English language depends on two types of stress. When we say “stress” here, we mean that we emphasize or say a syllable or word more strongly than the other parts of the word or sentence, which makes those “stressed” syllables and words stand out and become more noticeable.


English has two basic types of stress:

1. Syllable stress

2. Word stress

Let’s take a quick look at them both.



Syllable stress

Syllable stress refers to a syllable (or segment of a word) that is stressed more than other syllables in the word.

While native English speakers find this intuitive, English learners can refer to patterns that will help them remember which parts of the words to stress.

Syllable stress patterns in English are not as regular as in some languages, and memorizing the rules for syllable stress requires patience—and a lot of listening practice! Knowing how to read the phonetic version of a word (found in dictionaries or pronunciation guides) is also very useful for English learners, as the phonetic pronunciation guide will also indicate which syllable is stressed. Here is an example of syllable stress, with the stressed part in bold:

Happy birthday!

English student

identification

explain

In each of these cases, speakers say the parts in bold noticeably louder and with more emphasis. If you put the stress on the wrong syllable—for example, if you say “Happy birthday!“—there is still a good chance people will understand you, but they will definitely notice that something strange is going on with your pronunciation.


Word stress

Word stress refers to a word (or parts of a word) that is stressed more than others in a sentence.

Certain words are stressed for many different reasons. Sometimes it is because they are important to the meaning of the sentence, because they are a question word or because they clarify or distinguish something. Here are examples of word stress in a sentence:

What time is it?

I’m going to a birthday party.

Would you like coffee or tea?

Learning the rules for word stress is challenging—for now, we will simply focus on practicing stress-timing for more natural English rhythm.


What Is a Stress-timed Language?

You may have noticed in the intro that I mentioned “stress-timing,” but you may not know what that means. English is a stress-timed language, and knowing about and practicing stress-timing will help you improve your English rhythm.

Now, you might be thinking, “Exactly! English stresses me out all the time!” But you should understand that we are talking about a different kind of stress. This kind of stress is connected to rhythm.

In English, some words are pronounced louder, higher and longer, while other words are very short and quiet. You have probably noticed this when watching an English movie with subtitles. Even though you might see a certain word (like “for” or “the”) in the subtitles, when you listen, it seems like the actor never said it. That is because some words are quiet and quick, making them hard to hear.

That is because English is a stress-timed (or stress-based) language. This basically means that when someone says a sentence in English, they will emphasize certain words (or parts of words) according to how important they are in the sentence. Stress-timed languages contrast with syllable-timed languages (like Japanese), where the word stress in a sentence follows a regular, predictable pattern.

Perhaps the best way to understand this concept is with an example. Look at these two sentences:

1. I looked in the car but I didn’t see my keys.

2. I don’t like tea unless it has milk.

The sentences are different lengths: the first one is longer and has more words than the second one. However, because English is a stress-timed language, both of these sentences will take about the same amount of time for a native speaker to say.

This is because both sentences have the same number of important, or “content” words. These content words give meaning or critical information in the sentence. Content words include verbs, nouns, negatives (not, don’t), question words (who, why, etc.) and more, depending on the sentence and what is important.

Using the same examples, now notice the content words (in bold):

1. I looked in the car but I didn’t see my keys.

2. I don’t like tea unless it has milk.

There are four content words in each sentence. The content words are stressed: they are pronounced higher, louder and longer. The other words are “de-stressed”: they are pronounced quieter, shorter and lower.

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