Stress, Rhythm and Intonation

Thor May


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 & Prosody


note: these reference links are only current up to about 2004. A search of the Internet will obviously find you many more! - 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. - 'The Language Index' - a page of links to material by Christopher Dugdale, with especially interesting material on mimicking, or shadow talking. - 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


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


'Intonation in the Classroom' :







 ©Thor May 2013  All rights reserved