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Melody of speaking in English : Pronunciation

Speech stress and Rhythm in sentences. How does that happen?

All humans have an inbuilt rhythm and beat. Just as we do, languages have their own rhythm as well. It would be very unnatural to speak any language in a robot-like manner if you think about it.

We are so used to the rhythm of our own language, such that we forget to listen to the rhythm of another language. When we don’t learn the melody of another language, we will sound like trying to squeeze the words of a March into a Waltz.

The STRESS and INTONATION create speech Melody, and they are very closely linked. The Stress and intonation are formed by the following features.

  • Pitch : rise and fall of voice
  • Loudness : volume of voice
  • Length: how long you hold a sound or syllable
  • Vowel quality: How is the vowel said in connected speech.

STRESS: The word ‘stress’ means to emphasize something important. In speech, it refers to the importance of syllables in a word, ( WORD STRESS) , words in a sentence ( SENTENCE STRESS). When you first learn English, you notice that each word has many syllables. However, each syllable does not have equal emphasis.

In English, each word has its own stress pattern. If you get the word stress wrong, it reduces your chances of being understood. Listeners may be able to work out the meaning from the context of your speech, however, frequent stressing errors in your speech will tend to annoy listeners and give the impression that you don’t speak the language well.

PITCH : Many languages around the world are tonal, which means, the meaning of the word changes when the pitch is different. However in English, when the pitch of the sound changes, it does not change the meaning. Most Asian languages are tonal languages, most European languages, Japanese and Korean are not tonal. The change in pitch changes the intention of attitude, but not the meaning. Hence “ NO” spoken in a falling or rising pitch will mean the same.

VOWEL LENGTH:  When you emphasise a syllable, that means you are making that vowel sound longer than any other vowels within the word. Stress is often most noticeable in long vowels. So when practising your vowels, ensure that you are making the long vowels long when the length is needed.

LOUDNESS: When you are a beginner learning English, you can make stressed syllables louder than normal. However it will be more effective to emphasise the relative LENGTH of the vowel, rather than the pitch and loudness.

  • Rule of thumb: Stressed syllable: longer and louder,
  • Unstressed syllable: shorter and softer.

In English, there are no set stress pattern rules, unfortunately.  This is why it is imperative that you tune into stressing and rhythm in a very specific way. Each stress in a word must be learnt as every word is different.  The following words have the stressed syllables in CAPs.

PHOtograph       phoTOgraphy     photoGRAphic

DEmocrat           deMOcracy        demoCRAtic

Moving onto to sentence stress. In sentences, you can choose to emphasise any word you  wish. So, simple rule : If you wish to make a point in a sentence, choose a word and emphasise it.

EG:  i DO NOT want chips.            I do not want chips.

If you want further rhythm training, then you should look at traditional English Poetry, where there is an even beat between rhythms. English is a STRESS – timed language, not a syllable – timed language.

Conclusion: English is a STRESS timed language, not a syllable timed language. Stress and Intonation create Melody. English does not have any set of rules for stress patterns in words. Rhythm can be further trained by practicing Poetry.

Have you read any traditional English Poetry? Share some of your favourite ones below!


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