The rhythm of any spoken language is absolutely fascinating if you're a language nerd like me! Of course it varies a certain amount between languages, but, generally speaking there are three main groups of rhythm differentiating languages around the world.

This article will just focus on two of these. If your mother tongue is Italian, Spanish, Catalan, French or Romanian, then you have a syllable-timed language. Whereas, if your first language is English, German or Portuguese, you have a stress-timed language.

Now what do I mean by these two types of rhythm?

A syllable-timed language gives each syllable about the same amount of time to be said. Certainly, there will still be variation in stress, where certain syllables are louder and a higher pitch, however, one 3-syllable word will take the same amount of time to say as another. It is also quite likely that the stress pattern is more regular. For example, most multi-syllabic words in Italian have the stress on the penultimate syllable, although there are of course exceptions, which generally have specific rules to follow depending on the suffix.

Here's a quick example of syllable-timed rhythm for you:

On the other hand a stress-timed language, like English, means we do not have regular stress patterns in our words or our sentences. We stress the key words in our speech and unstress the words which are not carrying any key meaning. This leads to an interesting phenomenon where one phrase, such as 'I'm really happy' could take the same amount of time to say as 'I'm actually really happy today'!

A more common example is counting - like a conductor in front of an orchestra. They may simply count, '1, 2, 3, 4', or they could say '1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and', they could also add an 'a': '1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a', they could even go as far as: '1 and then a 2 and then a 3 and then a 4 and then a...'. All of these phrases would take the same amount of time to say, because we only stress the numbers, the other words are all unstressed and do not take much time at all, in fact they get quicker the more words we add in.

Here's a quick example of stress-timed rhythm for you:

How does this affect our communication?

For those of you who have a syllable -timed first language, it can be really challenging to hear and produce a stress-timed language. However, if you're talking with people who have English, German or Korean as their mother tongue, they will find it much more difficult to understand you if you apply the syllable-timed rhythm to a stress-timed language.

Getting the rhythm right doesn't just help with our fluency, it increases our comprehensibility. It allows proficient speakers to understand us better, as they only have to focus on the stressed keywords, rather than every word in the sentence. Once we are able to balance our stress, our pitch, our word length, and the volume of the words that we are saying, we can make our messages much clearer. And once we understand how these work, we can also understand a lot more. This leads to better communication with those we are speaking to.

How can I work on my stress-timed rhythm?

The first step towards a more natural rhythm in English is being aware of this difference. Reading this article could be the first step for you, but there's plenty more information online. Have a look.

Secondly, listen out for the rhythm of speech when you're listening to podcasts or watching series on Netflix. Once you start noticing the variation in the speaker's language, you'll be more able to identify your own rhythm and any differences.

Thirdly, shadow fluent speakers focussing on their rhythm – take short sentences from video or audio clips and copy them. The best way to do this, is by using a device to record your own voice, in order to compare it with the original. You can then make improvements to your own speech in order to work towards your ideal fluency.

After enough practice you will be able to speak with a natural rhythm, improving your own comprehensibility, as well as enhancing your communication. So, what are you waiting for, get listening and start shadowing!

If you would like more support from me, please get in touch; you can find more details of my current courses here: Pronunciation Courses | Excellence in English Education