19. Stress, Rhythm and Intonation

Abstract: These are notes on Eng­lish stress, rhythm and into­na­tion. Part A is for stu­dents and Part B is for teach­ers. The treat­ment here is “tech­ni­cal”, as by a lin­guist, but in very plain lan­guage. Even with poor for­mal Eng­lish, L2 speak­ers who “sound right” will gain social accep­tance, and this in turn will greatly accel­er­ate their learn­ing. Firstly the con­cept of “the music of a lan­guage” is intro­duced. It is noted that lan­guages are on a scale of “syl­la­ble timed” to “stress timed” (though this is not a sim­ple mat­ter). Eng­lish is a stress-timed lan­guage. Both word stress and sen­tence stress are essen­tial in Eng­lish. How­ever, proper word liaison and eli­sion marks native speak­ers from non-native speak­ers. Some advice is given on how to prac­tice pri­vately and in a class­room. The impor­tance of teacher talk as a model is noted.

Part A  – For Students

1. Recognizing the “music” of foreign languages:

I have a short wave radio. I can hear voices from many lan­guages. I turn the dial and hear Rus­sian. I don’t under­stand Rus­sian, but I know it is Rus­sian.

As I go through the sta­tions I hear Japan­ese and Span­ish, Viet­namese and Ger­man. I can’t speak these lan­guages, but I know what they are when I hear them.

HOW DO I KNOW? Well, my mind has learned a lit­tle of the MUSIC of those lan­guages. Each one sings a dif­fer­ent “song”.

2. The experience of immigrants:

Every year tens of thou­sands of immi­grants come to make new lives in Aus­tralia and Canada and Amer­ica. Some know no Eng­lish, but many have stud­ied Eng­lish in their home coun­tries.

Often they go into a shop or fac­tory and use the Eng­lish words they learned in some class. Very often, nobody can under­stand them, or some­times nobody wants to under­stand them. WHY?

Well, if some­body speaks Eng­lish words with “Korean music” (for exam­ple) in Aus­tralia, many peo­ple will not under­stand them. I usu­ally under­stand because I am an Eng­lish teacher, but the lady in the shop, or the fac­tory man­ager might not under­stand. This is very upset­ting for every­one, and causes a lot of unhap­pi­ness. For exam­ple, some­times immi­grants can’t get jobs because few peo­ple can under­stand the “music” of their speech.

3. Speaking syllables:

The biggest dif­fer­ence in the “music” of lan­guages is the way we speak syl­la­bles. All lan­guages can divide sounds into syl­la­bles. For exam­ple the Eng­lish word, beau / ti / ful has three syl­la­bles.

How­ever, Chi­nese or Korean speak­ers (for exam­ple) may say beau­ti­ful in three almost equal parts : 1–1-1.

Eng­lish speak­ers will say beau­ti­ful in three parts too, but the first part will be slow,long and strong, while the other parts are quick, short and soft. For exam­ple, they may time it some­thing like this : 2-.0.5–0.5

4. Timing:

Eng­lish speak­ers not only say words with unequal tim­ing. They also say phrases and sen­tences with unequal tim­ing.

For exam­ple, take this ques­tion:

What / are / you / go/ing / to / do 1–1-1–1-1–1-1
[equal syl­la­bles, more like Chi­nese]

When I’m speak­ing Eng­lish to friends, this is what I say:

wodya gunna DO 2–2-4

The syl­la­ble times I give here are not exact. They are just an illus­tra­tion. Notice that some syl­la­bles are so fast that they run together.

Now, try to say it the Eng­lish way!

5. Syllable timing and stress timing:

The Eng­lish way of speak­ing syl­la­bles is called stress tim­ing, and the Chi­nese or Korean way is more like syl­la­ble tim­ing (though not 100%).

In the world, there are about four to five thou­sand lan­guages. None are com­pletely stress timed, and none are com­pletely syl­la­ble timed. How­ever, they are all along a scale, either towards the Eng­lish way (stress tim­ing) or the Chi­nese way (syl­la­ble tim­ing).

6. Fast speech drill:

In each class ask your teacher to take a few min­utes to prac­tice speak­ing Eng­lish quickly with stress tim­ing. It is dif­fi­cult if your first lan­guage is syl­la­ble timed! You have to teach your mouth and throat mus­cles to move in a dif­fer­ent way.

7. Practice at home:

Here is a way that you can prac­tice the music of Eng­lish by your­self.

a) Step 1: Make a 5 min­ute tape record­ing of an Eng­lish speaker whose voice you like. Make sure that the speech is clear. First, study the tape the old fash­ioned way for mean­ing etc. When you know it well, you can go to the next step.

b) Step 2: Each day for sev­eral weeks, take ten min­utes to “shadow talk” the tape record­ing. “Shadow talk­ing” means you try to speak at the same time as the voice on the tape. This is hard, but do your best to keep together with the recorded voice as closely as you can. Become hyp­no­tized! For­get your own body! BE the other speaker! when the speaker’s voice goes up, your voice goes up; when the voice goes down, your voice goes down; when it goes fast, you go fast; when it becomes loud, you become loud … and so on. You are learn­ing the music, not the mean­ings.

c) How it works: When you shadow talk every day, as in b), you are becom­ing like an actor! You are also teach­ing your mus­cles and your mind to fol­low the new pat­terns auto­mat­i­cally. In fast speech, your mouth and throat mus­cles have to make up to 100 dif­fer­ent move­ments per sec­ond! This is just like learn­ing to dance, but harder. Some­one who learns ten dif­fer­ent dance steps sep­a­rately still can’t dance… When you put all the dance steps together, fol­low­ing with the music, THEN you can dance. When you put all the Eng­lish sounds together, fol­low­ing Eng­lish “music”, THEN you can speak Eng­lish!


Part B – Some Notes for Teachers

In 35 years of teach­ing Eng­lish as a Sec­ond Lan­guage I have found that stress, rhythm and into­na­tion have almost never been taught in any con­scious or sys­tem­atic way to the stu­dents who come into my classes. I’m afraid this is a sev­ere crit­i­cism of teacher igno­rance. No sin­gle fac­tor is more impor­tant to being under­stood and socially accepted than hav­ing con­trol of “the music of a lan­guage”.

In gen­eral, only cer­tain kinds of stu­dents ben­e­fit from being told ABOUT a lan­guage in any abstract way (e.g. com­plex gram­mar rules etc), espe­cially since few teach­ers have an insight­ful knowl­edge of lin­guis­tics them­selves. How­ever I have found that almost all stu­dents wel­come a sim­pli­fied expla­na­tion of STRESS TIMING in Eng­lish, as opposed to more marked SYLLABLE TIMING in lan­guages like Chi­nese, Korean and French. They are also intrigued to be given at least some fre­quent and con­trolled prac­tice in speak­ing fast and rhyth­mi­cally, as native speak­ers do, as against the stilted monot­o­nes typ­i­cal in class­rooms every­where.

Teacher Attitudes

Per­haps true to the “class­room talk” envi­ron­ments they have cre­ated, I have found that many native Eng­lish speak­ing teach­ers them­selves (let alone native speak­ers of another lan­guage who hap­pen to teach Eng­lish) are extremely resis­tant to teach­ing nat­u­ral speech rhythms.

After some years of teach­ing in non-native Eng­lish speak­ing envi­ron­ments, some develop a slow, class­room baby-talk even out of the class­room, so that their daily speech rhythms, although clear, no longer reflect the norm of their home coun­try speech com­mu­ni­ties. Other native speak­ers, espe­cially those doing a lit­tle “Eng­lish teach­ing” to pay back­pack­ing expenses, may gab­ble on regard­less of stu­dent incom­pre­hen­sion, then com­plain that the stu­dents are “pas­sive”.

Both of these teacher types are usu­ally quite naive about the ellip­sis (omis­sion of sounds — phonemes, syl­la­bles or whole words), and liaison (run­ning of words together) which occur in free con­ver­sa­tion, or any notion of stress tim­ing Vs syl­la­ble tim­ing. Some heat­edly deny speak­ing any­thing but dic­tio­nary Eng­lish. With that kind of guid­ance the stu­dents are dou­bly hand­i­capped!

Remedies for Teacher Speech

There are of course many ways to speak, both with native speak­ers and across speech com­mu­ni­ties. It would be fool­ish to make rigid rules about these things. How­ever as a teacher in a cross-lan­guage envi­ron­ment, it is worth think­ing crit­i­cally about one’s own speech pro­duc­tion.

How can your speech serve as a use­ful model for peo­ple who are men­tally pro­cess­ing your sounds much more slowly and inac­cu­rately than a native speaker? How can you do this with­out sound­ing like a retarded idiot?

Here is what you need to do as a speech model:

a) Keep the nat­u­ral rhythm of your speech;

b) Speak in short seg­ments. This roughly means “phrases”, as in stan­dard gram­mar, so long as they coin­cide with the way you would nat­u­rally pause your speech. “Short seg­ments” does not mean word—word—word.

c) The pur­pose of speak­ing in short seg­ments is to give your lis­ten­ers time to oper­ate their strug­gling men­tal machin­ery. The amount of time they need will depend upon their level in the new lan­guage. Are they men­tally trans­lat­ing? Or are they famil­iar enough with L2 to swim in the new ocean?. Watch their eyes. Learn to read when they are “not get­ting it”. Be ready to para­phrase.

Reading Aloud

Read­ing is a large topic which I will not deal with in depth here. How­ever, the spe­cial skill of read­ing aloud needs a note in any dis­cus­sion of class­room oral lan­guage. Stu­dents should never be per­mit­ted to read aloud while look­ing at a page. Nor should teach­ers!. That is almost guar­an­teed to lock any­one into a word-plus-word monot­one. The trick is to look down, remem­ber a few words, look up, and THEN speak; (this also hap­pens to be an effec­tive method of mem­o­riz­ing mate­rial). The best way to encour­age skilled read­ing aloud is to have stu­dents read­ing dia­logues in pairs, and requir­ing them to LOOK AT their part­ner while speak­ing].


Almost any teach­ing mate­rial can be adapted to learn­ing supra-seg­men­tal phonol­ogy (= the fancy name for stress, into­na­tion and rhythm). One of the few really use­ful books I have found which is pur­pose-built for teach­ing stu­dents (and teach­ers!) this stuff is W. Stan­nard-Allan, “Liv­ing Eng­lish Speech”, pub­lished Long­man 1954; ISBN 0 582 52361 3 … yes 1954. They did speak Eng­lish in 1954, and the book went through many impres­sions. It is unavail­able now unless you are lucky enough to pick up a sec­ond hand copy some­where. For that rea­son, I copied a few use­ful pages for my grad­u­ate TESOL pro­gram in 2004 at Busan, South Korea. You can see those pages at this link which also has a descrip­tion of supra-seg­men­tal phonol­ogy I pro­vided for those stu­dents. The same TESOL pro­gram site has some other links to stud­ies on into­na­tion which I have also included here.


Bibliography for Pronunciation, Intonation and Prosody 

note: these ref­er­ences are only cur­rent up to about 2004. A search of the Inter­net will obvi­ously find you many more!

http://www.thormay.net/lxesl/tesol/intonation/intonation1.htm – on this site : a dis­cus­sion of supra-seg­men­tal phonol­ogy, plus some scans from W. Stannard-Allen’s excel­lent (out of print) book, Liv­ing Eng­lish Speech.

http://members.ozemail.com.au/~cdug/language/original/homepage/index.html#mimic – ‘The Lan­guage Index’ – a page of links to mate­rial by Christo­pher Dug­dale, with espe­cially inter­est­ing mate­rial on mim­ic­k­ing, or shadow talk­ing.

http://www.dest.gov.au/ty/litnet/docs/teaching_pronunciation.pdf – Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment schools project and hand­book on teach­ing Eng­lish pro­nun­ci­a­tion to L2 learn­ers.

Tran­scrib­ing into­na­tion – some exam­ples and links

A good bib­li­og­ra­phy of printed works on into­na­tion can be found at http://www.ucm.es/info/fing1/entonacion.html

A use­ful dis­cus­sion of ideas about into­na­tion and prosody can be found in the intro­duc­tion to a book called Prosody and Spo­ken Dis­course (author unknown) at http://www.oup.com/pdf/0195143213_01.pdf

Into­na­tion in the Class­room’ : http://www.cels.bham.ac.uk/samplemats/scd/04sd.pdf

Stress, Rhythm & Into­na­tion” copy­righted to Thor May 2012; all rights reserved 

 These notes (slightly edited here) were first put together for stu­dents and teach­ers in South Korea in 2001.  You can still find the old notes at this link.

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