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Want to speak better English? Pronunciation tip #2: Rhythm & stress in spoken English

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If you are a speaker of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, or Romanian, you have probably noticed how the sounds created by rhythm and stress in English words contrast strongly with the sounds of similar words spoken in ‘romance languages’. This is because English is stress-timed language, while the romance languages are syllable-timed.

Think of the word ‘development’. In English it will usually be pronounced /de-VEL-əp-ment/ with the emphasis on the second syllable. In French, ‘développement’ will be pronounced more like /dé-vl-oppe-ment/ with some slight reduced stress on the second syllable, but generally even stress on all four syllables.

English achieves stress through stronger emphasis on one or more syllables in a word, but also through de-emphasis of the other syllables surrounding it. In the example /de-VEL-əp-ment/, this is indicated by the use of the ‘schwa’ symbol /ə/. The schwa sound is soft ‘uh’ sound and it is used everywhere in spoken English, so that we native English speakers often sound to others like we are mumbling our words, which in a way is true. Spoken English – especially in North America – does not articulate as clearly as, for example, spoken French.

It’s important to learn about rhythm, stress, and the role of the schwa (ə) in English at the word level, because these same features affect sentences and phrases, as well. At first, this might seem confusing and unfamiliar, but after some focused listening and practice you’ll find yourself able to recognize how English is being spoken at much greater speed!