December 29, 2014 13:51 UTC

Getting in Tune With Spoken English Means Thinking in Thought Groups


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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

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

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