Believe it or not, languages have different rhythmic patterns, and these patterns help listeners understand the message that is being communicated. Most languages in the world, such as Cantonese, French, Korean, and Spanish, are syllable-timed languages. That means that each syllable receives equal stress. The rhythm for those languages, then, is very predictable, and sounds like this:
English, on the other hand, is not a syllable-timed language, some syllables receive no stress, while others are stressed. English, then, is a stress-timed language; listeners pay attention to the most prominent syllables to understand the message. Take a look at the word-phrase pairs below:
Counselor can be confused as: Count for her.
Identification can be confused as: We took a vacation.
Unbreakable can be confused as: We stayed with him.
If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that each word-phrase pair has the same stress. For longer sentences, one pattern could sound like this:
One sentence that has that rhythm is He’s interested in taking economics. Notice how some syllables are stressed while others are not? English language learners whose first language is syllable-timed might want to focus on learning some traits of English rhythm to avoid sounding “robotic,” and by doing so, these learners can improve their intelligibility.
Since stressed syllables are typically longer than unstressed syllables, sentences with the same amount of stressed syllables take nearly the same amount of time to say, regardless of the number of unstressed syllables. For example:
Kids beat drums.
The kids beat drums.
The kids beat the drums.
The kids will beat the drums.
The kids will be beating the drums.
The kids will have been beating the drums.
Despite the difference in the number of words, the time required to say each sentence is roughly the same. And why is this, exactly? In the following sections, learn about how content words, function words, and reductions create the rhythmic sounds of English, and use the practice exercises to assist you on your path to full intelligibility.