Part of my work over the years as a culture educator has been spent teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)– and I do enjoy it! Students often ask questions like, “How can I improve my fluency?” or “How can I speak more like a native speaker?” or “How can I improve my pronunciation?” Interestingly enough, all three of these questions are addressed (at least in part) by one concept that is not often taught: English rhythm.
Let me illustrate it this way. Say the following 5 sentences as naturally and conversationally as you can out loud.
1. Men drink water.
2. The men drink water.
3. The men drink the water.
4. The men will drink the water.
5. The men might have been drinking the water.
Now do it again and notice how long it takes to say each sentence.
The interesting thing is that for a non-native English speaker, the longer the sentences probably took more time. In other words, the time it takes to speak the sentence is based on the number of words. However, for a native speaker, all five of the above sentences probably took about the same amount of time to speak.
Why? Because English is a stress-timed language and some words are longer or shorter based on their importance. They are given more stress if they are important and this takes more time. Each sentence above only has three “important” words (men, drink/drinking, and water) so the sentences are about the same length. The other, “less-important” words are spoken very quickly.
I developed a whole book and teaching series about this subject that was very helpful for intermediate and advanced ESL learners. It was so much fun to see the light go on in the heads of my students as we worked together on it. I believe studying English rhythm is important because:
- English speakers convey meaning by the rhythm and stress;
- Native speakers readily judge the level of English spoken by a non-native speaker according to whether or not the proper rhythm is used; and
- Proper rhythm greatly improves speaking fluency.
If you’re an ESL learner, pay attention and study more about English rhythm.
If you’re an ESL teacher, spend some time helping your students get a handle on English rhythm.
If you’re neither, just think about it as you speak today. It is an interesting concept and most native speakers have never thought about it before.