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ESL materials & ideas developed in Korea

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Stress, Rhythm, Intonation - Student Presentation


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: 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 called syllable timing.

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. However, even Chinese might not be so clearly syllable timed. See this example of Chinese speech).

6. Fast speech drill: Each class we will 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) Make a 5 minute tape recording of an English speaker whose voice you like. Make sure that the speech is clear.

b) Each day for several weeks, take ten minutes to "shadow talk" the tape recording. "Shadow talking" means you follow the voice as closely as you can: the speaker's voice goes up, your voice goes up; the voice goes down, your voice goes down; it goes fast, you go fast; it becomes loud, you become loud ... and so on. Don't worry if you don't understand the meanings of the words. You are learning the music, not the meanings.

c) 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. 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!

A technical note on Syllable Timing Vs Stress Timing:  Some recent research has challenged the long-held theory that the world's languages are spread along a simple scale from syllable timing to stress timing. It seems that at each extreme people can clearly distinguish a difference in rythmic patterns - for example, English as "stress timed" and Chinese as "syllable timed" (but see this example of Chinese speech timing) - but that a large number of the world's languages cannot be judged so simply. Some of these researchers believe that actual timing might not be the important difference. For example, it might be that some languages like English simply allow fast speech to crush syllables together (e.g. what do you => /wodaya/ => /woja/ ) whereas this might be less accepted in some other languages. More investigation is needed on this subject. In the meantime, at least the old explanation alerts teachers and students to compare the rhythmic patterns of their speech to native speakers. If you would like to study this further, here is a technical reference:

Arvaniti, Amalia (2009) Rhythm, Timing and The Timing of Rhythm. Phonetica. 2009 April; 66(1-2): 46–63. Online at


"Stress, Rhythm & Intonation - Student Presentation" copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved

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