Accessibility links

Breaking News

Talking in Rhythm: How to Manage the Stresses of American English

AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on WORDMASTER: our guest is linguist Herb Stahlke to talk about rhythm in English speech.

HERB STAHLKE: "Learners of English really have to master the rhythms of English early, and the teaching has to be aimed at rhythm, because the structure of an English sentence is determined so much by the rhythm of speech. And English speech rhythms are really characteristically English -- very different from other languages. And if you can spend time getting those rhythms down, then the words will fit in better."

AA: "What are some really common rhythms in English?"

HERB STAHLKE: "In English we have strongly stressed syllables that we have at roughly equal intervals when we're speaking. And then we have weakly stressed syllables that get kind of scrunched up in between the strong stresses. And we can have a sentence like 'John left' -- two stresses, two words. 'JOHN'S gonna LEAVE,' and the reason we say 'gonna' instead of 'is going to' is because we've got to fit it between those two stresses.

"And it's those unstressed syllables that we have to scrunch down and fit into the space between the stresses that lead to what some people call sloppy speaking but which is in fact really good English speaking, because that's what gives English its rhythm. And if you don't speak English with that rhythm, English speakers will have a hard time understanding it."

AA: "So you've got to master some of those reductions [gonna, for example]."

HERB STAHLKE: "That's right."

AA: "What's another common rhythm?"

HERB STAHLKE: "Well, on top of those rhythms we've got something called accent, where what you're doing is identifying the most important thing in a sentence. So usually it comes toward the end. I could say 'I'm going to the STORE after supper.' 'I'm going to the STORE after supper.' Store is what's important there -- 'I'm going to the STORE after supper.'

"But that accent can go in various different places, and it's kind of independent of the rhythm. And that idea that you can make one word or one syllable stand out is really important to how we put meaning together. And a lot of other languages don't work that way."

AA: "So, right, if you emphasized 'I'm GOING to the store after dinner' that has a different -- I guess that would have a different meaning. Or if you say 'I'm going to the store after DINNER -- "


AA: "Then you're emphasizing that, and that has its own meaning. You're sort of emphasizing when you're going."

HERB STAHLKE: "That's right."

AA: "And is there another sort of rhythm that comes up that may take some work learning for English learners?"

HERB STAHLKE: "Well, there's a lot of work involved in mastering this layering of the regular rhythm, roughly equally spaced stresses, and layering accent on top of that to show what's important.

"That's the kind of things that if you get students practicing that early on, their speech is going to be a lot more comprehensible. And ultimately they're going to understand more easily, too, because they'll understand why all these reductions occur."

AA: "What sorts of tips do you have for teachers who are trying to teach this to non-native English speakers -- how to gain some skill with first recognizing the rhythms, and then mastering them?"

HERB STAHLKE: "There are some good sources out there that have been in use for a while. Oh, it came out in the seventies, was something called 'Jazz Chants' -- "

AA: "By Carolyn Graham."

HERB STAHLKE: "Yeah, right, where you've got rhythmic speech, hand clapping involved with it, or any other kind of rhythm reinforcement that you can get, and the idea is to do a lot of that early. We learn -- speakers of any language learn the melodies and rhythms of their mother tongue before they're born, when you hear melody and rhythm in the womb. And so you know that when you're born, which means that it's really deeply planted in us. And when you start learning another language, what you automatically do is you import your own rhythm and melody into that new language, and it's not going to work."

AA: Linguist Herb Stahlke is professor emeritus in the English department at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives are at And our e-mail address is I'm Avi Arditti.