Rhythm is very Important
Rhythm is very important because it conveys a lot of meaning. In fact if English rhythm is bad then the meaning becomes very difficult to understand. Also, nuances in the rhythm can change the meaning of the sentence.
Poor pronunciation and Rhythm
Many students often confuse poor rhythm for poor pronunciation. They say they need to work on pronunciation, but in fact they really need to improve their rhythm when they speak English. It is difficult to study rhythm. More than intellectual understanding, it’s a skill. Skills are best improved by constant practice and making lots of mistakes. In fact for my students I tell them the best way to improve their rhythm is to practice each week and get constant feedback from me. They can practice at home in their homework and have me check it the next week, plus we can also practice rhythm in class for a short part of each class.
Syllables and Rhythm
Having a basic knowledge of syllables is very important to master rhythm. I usually start class by giving them a list of words. They have to count the syllables in the word by listening speaking and clapping. This is frustrating for some students because the way you count syllables in English is different from the way you count syllables in Japanese. But with my reassuring guidance most students begin to feel comfortable after even just a few minutes of practice. Then we try to find the syllables in words that are written on the board. The students can say the words and I can correct them if they say the word incorrectly. Then they can mark the syllables on the board and this gives them a sense of mastery and control.
Strong and Weak
Words have strong and weak syllables in them. Naturally if the word has only one syllable there is no weak syllable. On the other hand if the word has two or more syllables there is certainly one strong syllable in the word. While the strongest syllable is often at the front, it is not always at the front and there are many exceptions.
Sentences also have strong and weak syllables. There is at least one strong syllable in every sentence. Sentences become complex and difficult to remember when there are many strong syllables in them. Some students like to think about which syllable should be strong. However, I try to set them on the path of listening. What I mean is, instead of thinking what should be a strong syllable, listen to the actual speaker’s voice and identify which syllable the speaker made strong.
The strong syllables in a sentence set the rhythm for the sentence. Since the strong syllables also convey the importance of meaning you could say that the rhythm indicates the meaning. That is the biggest reason why students feel their pronunciation is poor. They haven’t mastered rhythm in English yet and the listener has trouble understanding them. They feel this is due to poor pronunciation. In fact if their rhythm were more natural then it would be much easier to understand them. So it’s a really good idea to practice rhythm. The best way to practice rhythm is by shadowing a native speaker.
I like to say that rhythm is regular in English. Read more about it here. What I mean is that each strong beat takes about the same amount of time as every other strong beat in a sentence. The problem for learners of English is that the weak syllables have to get squeezed in to maintain the regular rhythm. Not only are they less strong but, they are also faster. This makes this week syllables very difficult to hear for a non-native speaker.
Content and Rhythm
Many students have noticed that the strong syllables tend to be content words. While this is often true there’s a problem with this thinking. The problem is that students then write down the sentence and they choose the content words and give them strong stress.
In fact the native speaker may not be stressing those content words. The correct stress or rhythm of the sentence is only coming from the native speaker, so it’s not something you can decide by reading the words. Rather you have to assign the rhythm based on the sounds of the speaker’s voice. Beyond this, many times the speaker the speaker doesn’t speak in simple strong and weak stresses. Rather there’s a range of stresses in each sentence. I tried to tell the students don’t think in turns of a range because that will be too complex. Instead, I tell them to separate syllables simply into strong and weak to keep it simple. Look for the simplest rhythm they can. When we do this together in class even for five minutes, they tend to get quite a bit better in a short period of time.
Finally, after we study rhythm in class, I ask students to practice the rhythm they hear by shadowing at home. I wrote a blog about shadowing here.