Learn the ‘music’ of English and improve your pronunciation!

So, you have learned lots of new vocabulary in class. That’s great!

But when you try to use it in conversation, people don’t seem to understand you.

If this sounds familiar, help is at hand!

English, like music, has its own melody and rhythm. Get it right and people will easily understand you.

Get it wrong and they won’t. So, how can we learn the music of English?

The pyramid below shows you the different parts of English pronunciation.

 

Prosody Englsih pyramid diagram 01

 (from Gilbert, 2005)

Let’s start at the bottom.

Thought Group

This means the main idea(s) in a sentence. We put small pauses between these ideas.

For example, how many ideas in this sentence?

Danny arrived late, so he missed half the movie.

If you said two, well done!

  • Danny arrive late, (2) so he missed half the movie.

This sentence has two thought groups (or ideas).

Example of thought group english

We put a short pause between 1 and 2.

Also, the pitch drops on the last word in each group: late ↘  movie   ↘

Finally, make the vowels longer (lAte and mOvie).

Doing this makes you much easier to understand!

Focus words

Which butterfly is easier to see? The one on the left or the one on the right?

Example of focus english word

Of course, the one on the right. This butterfly is like the focus word in a sentence.

We put extra stress on a word to give the listener the most important information.

For example:

Danny arrived late, so he missed half the movie.

The important point in this sentence is he was late.

But, by changing the focus word, we can change the meaning of the sentence.

For example:

Danny arrived late, so he missed half the movie.

Here, it is important that Danny was late (and maybe we are angry with him).

So, the meaning can change depending on which word(s) we focus on.

Stress and the peak syllable

The ‘music’ of English relies on correct syllable stress. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

 

stress and the peak syllable english

 Gilbert (2005)

 

The line above the sentence shows the pitch (how low or high the speaker’s voice is).

In 1, the speaker raises pitch on DAY. Also, DAY is said more loudly and clearly.

In 2, the pitch rises on HORRible, and HORR is said loudly and clearly.

This tells the listener the new (and most important) information.

Putting it all together

So, now we know about the ‘music’ of English, how can we use it?

Well, just like learning how to play a musical instrument, practice is key. Here’s how!

Log on to Ted Talks and choose an interesting talk

Click play and then turn on the subtitles.

Watch and listen for a few minutes. Then read along with the speaker and try to copy the way they speak. Follow their intonation, stress, melody and rhythm.

Listen to your teacher talk in class

When you study English online with us, and take a private lesson or a group lesson, write down a few things teachers say and draw an intonation line above the sentence (as above). Underline the focus words. How many thought groups are there? Practice saying the sentences with the same stress on focus words, intonation and rhythm.

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References

Gilbert, J. (2005). Teaching pronunciation using the prosody pyramid. Available at: http://www.tesol.org/docs/default-source/new-resource-library/teaching-pronunciation-using-the-prosody-pyramid.pdf?sfvrsn=0

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