Perfecting your rhythm when speaking English will help you sound more natural.
What is rhythm? Rhythm is the pattern of long and short syllables in spoken language. A syllable is a one beat unit of language that has a vowel sound. You can identify the number of syllables of a word by clapping along with the word.
To begin practicing your rhythm of standard American English you need to understand how it works.
We can begin by dividing the words of a sentence into two types, content words and function words.
Content words, which are our nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives and question words. These are very significant in a sentence because they carry the most meaning.
Function words are our articles, prepositions, possessive adjectives, helping verbs, modals and the TO BE verb.
Here is an example: “He said he didn’t drink the coffee.”
Without the function words, we get: “said didn’t drink coffee.”
We still understand the main message of the sentence, we’re just missing the details that get provided by the function words.
Since the CONTENT words provide the main message they are stressed in standard American English.
He said he didn’t drink the coffee.
When you listen to this sentence you’ll hear that there is a pattern of short and long syllables.
The content words stressed syllables are slower and longer whereas the function words syllables are short and rushed.
To practice rhythm correctly you need to remember two things.
1. Hold the vowel sound in stressed syllables of content words longer.
Example: want sounds like waaaant
This will feel awkward at first if your native language doesn’t use lengthened vowels. Often students will underestimate how much they need to elongate this sound.
2. Make sure that you only lengthen the vowel sound of the stressed syllable and not the whole word.
Example: tomato, computer, table, pizza, microphone
Shadowing is a great way to practice your rhythm. I even encourage you to record your voice and compare it to how my voice sounds in the lesson below.
The shadowing exercise begins at 4:14.