December 29, 2014 13:51 UTC

Getting in Tune With Spoken English Means Thinking in Thought Groups

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- English teacher Lida Baker in Los Angeles talks about improving English pronunciation by understanding the idea of thought groups.

RS: Thought groups are something we don't even think about as native speakers of English. It's a way to break long sentences into shorter pieces, separated by slight pauses, to help listeners organize the meaning.

AA: But English learners need help to develop this skill when they study pronunciation. Lida says over the last twenty years, many teachers of English have come to focus not just on vowels and consonants, but also on stress and intonation.

LIDA BAKER: "So we're talking about the way that the voice moves up and down and where we pause and things of that sort. This is a much more authentic way of learning about spoken language."

RS: Take a sentence like: "I took the milk from the table and I put it in the refrigerator."

BAKER: "This is not right: [robotic monotone] 'I took the milk from the refrigerator and I put it on the table.' Nobody talks like that."

AA: "You sound like a robot."

LIDA BAKER: "That's right. But that's not how we speak English. What we do is, the voice moves up and down, and there's also an alternation between syllables that are stressed and pronounced clearly, and syllables that are unstressed and therefore are reduced and spoken very quickly. So 'I took the milk' becomes 'I took the milk,' puh-PAH, puh-PAH, OK?

"So within each thought group you will also find that there are these variations in pitch, with the voice moving up and down, and then syllables that are pronounced more clearly, syllables that are reduced and pronounced unclearly. So you get this effect of 'I took the milk,' puh-PAH, puh-PAH, 'from the table,' puh-puh-PAH-PAH, 'and I put it,' da-da-DAH-DAH, 'in the refrigerator,' puh-puh-PAH-puh-puh-puh."

AA: "You've got a hit there!"

LIDA BAKER: "Funny you should say that, because one of the easiest ways to learn about thought groups is to listen to popular music. And it happens that my daughter is absolutely crazy about the Beatles and she plays the guitar, so yesterday she was singing 'Can't Buy Me Love.'"

MUSIC: "Can't Buy Me Love"

Can’t buy me love, love,
Can't buy me love
I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright
I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright
'cause I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love ...

LIDA BAKER: "First of all 'can't buy me love,' that's a thought group right there. 'I'll buy you a diamond ring, my friend,' -- so, 'I'll buy you,' 'a diamond ring, 'my friend.' That's three thought groups right there."

RS: "What about for those who speak English as a foreign language, are there some rules, or do they have to learn by doing."

LIDA BAKER: "Well, I can't give you any rules, but I can give you some guidelines. Generally speaking, the pauses occur, they sort of correspond to grammatical units such as phrases and clauses and things like the complete subject of a sentence. So if you have a sentence like 'a big black cat sat on a tall white fence.' So the subject there is 'a big black cat,' and that's a thought group. 'A big black cat sat on a tall white fence,' 'on a tall white fence is also a thought group, and that's a prepositional phrase.

"Now pop music isn't the only way to learn this. A great way to learn this, I'm going to put in a plug here for the Voice of America -- is to go the Special English broadcasts and look at the transcripts and then listen to the announcers. Because on Special English the language is slowed down, it's a wonderful way for learners to pick up on the way sentences are broken down into thought groups.

"Another way is to use a video cassette recorder and tape any television program and do something called tracking. You tape a segment of a show and then you play it back and what you try to do is to imitate what they're saying, just one beat behind them. And incidentally it doesn't have to be done with television. It can be done with radio as well."

RS: "Anywhere there's sound going on in English."

LIDA BAKER: "That's right!"

AA: Lida Baker teaches at the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. She also writes and edits textbooks for English learners. And, by the way, those Special English programs she mentioned are all available online at voaspecialenglish.com.

RS: You can also find a link from our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster. And our e-mail address is word@voanews.com. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Learn with The News

  • Kenya Dying Rhino Species

    Audio Conservationists Try to Save Rare Rhino

    Wildlife conservationists in Kenya are trying to save a rare kind of rhinoceros. So many northern white rhinos have been hunted and killed that they are almost extinct. There are only five northern white rhinos left. The workers hope they can save the rhinos by helping them breed. More

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Watch and iPhone 6  on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, in Cupertino, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

    The Year in Technology: 2014

    Today, we look back at some of the top technology stories from 2014. From the introduction of new Apple products to new innovations in three-dimensional printing, 2014 featured many moments of technological developments. More

  • FILE - A death-sentenced criminal is taken on a truck to an execution ground in Zhuzhou, central China's Hunan province.

    Audio China May Lower Number of Crimes Punishable by Death

    In 2011, China removed 13 crimes from a list of crimes that could result in the death penalty. Earlier this year, China announced plans to remove nine more crimes from the list. Even with the changes, China’s execution rate is still much higher than that of any other country. More

  • Singer Taylor Swift performs on ABC's "Good Morning America" to promote her new album "1989" in New York, Oct. 30, 2014.

    Video Party Like It's '1989' - The Music of 2014

    As 2014 comes to an end, we look back at some of the most popular music of the year. We also bring to your attention some music you may have missed from Lenny Kravitz, Pinnick Gales Pridgen, Crobot, Nonpoint and Sevendust. More

  • Seoul, South Korea, site of nuclear operations headquarters, site of recent cyber attack

    Audio S. Korea Raises Security after Cyberattack on Nuclear Plants

    Computer criminals entered computer networks, stole and released sensitive documents; South Korean officials are now trying to show the public that the country’s 23 nuclear power centers are secure. The attack was very similar to what North Korean hackers did in earlier attacks. More

Featured Stories

  • Audio Family Makes Friends and Memories on World Trip

    The Rivenbarks are about six months into their year-long trip around the planet. They have floated in kayaks in Italy, flown in hot air balloons in Myanmar, hiked to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal, and gone on safari in South Africa. But, much is still ahead. More

  • A large poster offering reward for the capture of the murderer of President Abraham Lincoln is held to view by Gwendolyn Plate, an employee of Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York, February 15, 1952, where the $250,000 Lincoln collection of the late Oliver

    Audio Actor Shoots Lincoln, Calls Him a Tyrant

    ​On Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was enjoying a play at the Ford's Theater when a man came from behind and shot him. To millions of Americans, Abraham Lincoln's death was a personal loss. They had come to think of him as more than the President of the United States. He was a trusted friend. More

  • dark chocolate

    Chocolate Improves Memory and Heart Health

    Researchers are realizing what chocolate-lovers have known for a long time -- that chocolate is good for you. Their study found that large amounts of flavanols, substances found in cocoa, tea and some vegetables, may help to reverse age-related memory failure and can help prevent strokes. More

  • Nuclear fusion display at the Weiss Energy Hall, Houston Museum of Natural Science

    Audio Is a Fusion Nuclear Reactor Coming Soon?

    The United States technological organization Lockheed Martin says it will produce a working fusion nuclear reactor within five years. Lockheed Martin says it may have an operating prototype by 2017, and a version for sale by 2022. Fusion involves forcing together atomic nuclei. More

  • Obama National Christmas Tree

    Audio The History of Christmas in America

    In the first half of the 19th century, Christmas was a very different kind of holiday than it is today. People did not have a set way of celebrating. Christmas was not even an official holiday yet. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs