Lesson 4 of 4: Rhythm

As promised, this week is all about the rhythm of American English.
I bet you’ve never thought of rhythm as part of a language. It belongs to the realm of music, not speech. Well, when it comes to English, rhythm is a major player in improving clarity and spoken English.

 

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As promised, this week is all about the rhythm of American English.
I bet you’ve never thought of rhythm as part of a language. It belongs to the realm of music, not speech. Well, when it comes to English, rhythm is a major player in improving clarity and spoken English.

English is a stress-timed language. That means, some syllables are long (stressed words) and some are very short.
Many languages are syllable-timed languages (for example Spanish, French, Italian, and Hebrew) where the length of all syllables is equal.
But what does it actually mean??

Try thinking of a drummer, who is using a constant beat in the same intervals: ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta and the only change is in the pace, which can be fast or slow. Now think of a drummer, who uses different and changing beats. For example: ta-ta-taaa, ta-taa-ta, ta-taaaaaaaa… These are two very different rhythms.

Now, let me explain it, using words:

A sentence like:
‘I think that I want to go there today as well’
may sound like
I-think-that-I-want-to-go-there-to-day-as-well’
when spoken by non-native speakers, and

I THINK that I want to GO there today as WELL
when spoken by native speakers.

In the second case, note how the important words are stressed and long, while everything else is reduced. Using the right rhythm helps to get your point across.

When English is spoken in a syllable-timed manner all words receive the same length and are perceived the same, whether or not they are important. It is less effective and less clear.

Another important aspect of American rhythm is phrasing.
Phrasing is breaking a sentence into chunks, or thought groups, and taking a small pause between them. This helps to clarify the idea or emphasize an important point.

Phrasing is KEY to having your thoughts delivered clearly and confidently.

Let’s put it to practice:

Check out the following speech by Obama, and try to detect (and feel) the rhythm. What are the stressed words? Are they any longer than unstressed words? What are the breath groups?
Can you hear the changes in pitch when he stresses a word?
Try it yourself. Go ahead. Do it now.

There is one last thing I’d like you to notice.

While stressed words are elongated, unstressed words are reduced.
It is another important feature that helps our clarity greatly.
Unstressed words are usually function words: all those little words that connect content words, for example, prepositions (on, in, at), verb be (am, is, are), determiners, and articles (a, an, this, that), and so on.
Function words reduce into a Schwa, while content words become longer and higher in pitch.

Let’s look at the following examples:
Bread and butter – bread-n-BUTTER (should sound like one connected word)
Cup of coffee – cup’v COFFEE
Black or white – black-er-WHITE
I’m from there – I’m from THERE.

When reducing some words and stretching others, it creates distinction between the important and the unimportant and results in the special rhythm of English.

Well done,
You’ve reached the end of the course.
Pretty amazing, you did the work and made it until the end. I know it’s just the beginning, but it’s a good start.
Even if you don’t feel the change yet, I bet English doesn’t sound exactly the same to you anymore. You know what to listen to and what to work on.

There’s one more email waiting for you next week.
It’s not the final goodbye.

Have a great week,
xoxo
Hadar