How to Breathe When Speaking English | Get Started with Breathing, Pausing, and Thought Groups

When was the last time you thought about your breathing when speaking English?

After all, breathing is an automatic process, right?

When you run out of air, you breathe again.

We usually don’t pay that much attention to our breathing unless we have a cold, or we’re feeling short of breath, maybe we’re nervous, or doing a sport or other activity like singing that requires breath support.

That’s why I’m here to remind you that breathing properly will help you speak English more clearly and confidently.


Breathing Deeply to Relax Before Speaking

Let’s start off by talking about the simple act of breathing.

Taking a few deep breaths will help you relax if you feel nervous or anxious when speaking.

These deep breaths will also distribute more oxygen throughout your body, which can help you feel more energized and alert.

Any time you know that you’re going to have to speak at length, whether that’s in a social situation or when giving a presentation, be sure to pause and take a few deep breaths before you begin.

Let’s take a few deep breaths together right now.

We’re going to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.

One reason that we breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth is that it helps us notice these parts of the body.

Pause and take a deep breath right now, in through the nose, out through the mouth.

Really sigh out that exhale at the end of your breath.

Take a few more deep breaths before continuing.

How are you feeling right now?


Belly Breathing When Speaking English

Now let’s think about using our breath to speak more powerfully.

Take your hand and place it on your belly, just below your rib cage.

As you breathe in, you should feel your belly expand.

As you breathe out, you should feel your belly release and your hand should move back in.

Try taking a deep belly breath right now.

Notice your hand move away from you as you fill your lungs with air and your belly expands.

As you release the breath, notice your belly move back in.

Let’s try a few more deep belly breaths.

This deeper breathing while you’re speaking will help you get more power behind your words.

If you’re finding these deep belly breaths a little challenging, you’re not alone.

A lot of people take more shallow breaths from their chest.

This may happen because you’re nervous and you’re breathing more quickly, or it may just be out of habit.

It can take some practice to start breathing more deeply.

Remember, your body loves these deep breaths, so build them into your routine. Take a few moments every day for some deep belly breaths.

In fact, you can take a few moments for deep belly breaths right now!


Breathing Through the Nose vs. the Mouth When Speaking English

At this point, you may be wondering if you should breathe through your nose or your mouth when speaking English.

For most of us, it’s more natural and more efficient to breathe through the mouth when speaking.

If you feel a little uncomfortable about how you sound when breathing through your mouth when speaking, try this little trick:

Try to relax the back your tongue as you’re breathing in.

When you relax the back of your tongue when breathing in, your breath will sound a little quieter.

It will sound less like you’re gasping for air and more like you’re breathing comfortably.


Breathing and Pausing When Speaking English

Now that you understand the importance of taking deep breaths and you feel a little more relaxed, let’s talk about how to breathe when speaking English so that you sound more natural, speak more clearly, and are more easily understood.

If you’ve ever listened to a non-native speaker who has an awesome accent in English, you’ve probably noticed that they seem to be breathing or pausing in the right places.

In other words, if you’ve ever wondered how to breathe in English, you’re probably thinking about these natural-sounding pauses or breaks in our speech.

These pauses may seem subtle, but they play an important role in how we communicate and make our ideas easy to understand.

Of course, these pauses give us time to breathe regularly so that we’re able to keep on speaking!


Where to Breathe When Speaking English

A simple way to think about where to breathe in English is to take a breath every time you would write a punctuation mark.

When you come to the end of a sentence [.], question [?], or exclamation [!], take a full breath.

When you would write a comma [,], semi-colon [;], or colon [:], pause and take a small breath if you need it.

Let’s practice with a few examples.

Listen to the examples in the video and pay attention to where I breathe.

The weather is beautiful today. [breathe] Have you gone for a walk outside? [breathe] This is the most wonderful time of year. [breathe] I went to the park earlier, [breathe] and I enjoyed some sunshine. [breathe] The weather has been great recently; [breathe] I hope it stays that way. [breathe] The best part of summer is this: [breathe] the sunshine. [breathe]

 Now it’s your turn! Try it along with me.

The weather is beautiful today. [breathe] Have you gone for a walk outside? [breathe] This is the most wonderful time of year. [breathe] I went to the park earlier, [breathe] and I enjoyed some sunshine. [breathe] The weather has been great recently; [breathe] I hope it stays that way. [breathe] The best part of summer is this: [breathe] the sunshine. [breathe]


Pausing and Thought Groups in English

Obviously, when you’re speaking naturally, you won’t actually be using any punctuation marks.

Instead, you’re going to break your ideas into smaller, more manageable chunks, or what we call thought groups.

If you want to speak more clearly, be more easily understood and, of course, sound more natural, you want to work on pausing between thought groups.

I find that when people are asking about breathing in English, they’re actually talking about thought groups because you’ll often breathe during these short pauses.

In natural speech, we use a variety of sentences.

Some are shorter; others are a little bit longer with a few more details.

At times we string a series of ideas together in a sentence that seems to go on and on and on and on.

If you waited to breathe until the very end of this idea, you would definitely run out of breath and you’d probably pass out.

That’s one of the biggest reasons why we use thought groups: they give us time to breathe.


Why Thought Groups Matter for Clear Communication

Let’s talk a little more about why thought groups matter.

When you use thought groups, you divide or separate your ideas logically.

It makes your thoughts easier to understand because you’re keeping key concepts together.

The pause between ideas gives your listener extra time to process what you’re saying.

Without these pauses, they may get tired from listening so carefully to identify your main points.

When you separate your ideas into thought groups, you’re able to communicate your meaning more effectively.


How to Use Thought Groups When Speaking English

Now, let’s talk about how to use thought groups when speaking.

As I mentioned a moment ago, a thought group is a chunk of language about three to seven words long.

Don’t get too concerned about the number. There are no specific rules for length. Your meaning is what’s most important.

Instead of worrying about how many words should be in a thought group, think about how you can divide your ideas for effect, emphasis, and clarity.

To start thinking about dividing your speech, consider short phrases and grammatical clauses.

You want to make sure you’re dividing your ideas logically, and you’re not separating words that should stay together.

For example, take this sentence: I’ve been speaking English for a long time.

You don’t want to break up that verb phrase: have been speaking.

You probably don’t want to separate the object from the verb: speaking English.

And you definitely don’t want to break up that prepositional phrase: for a long time.

Then where would you chunk or break up that sentence?

I’ve been speaking English for a long time.

You’re going to pause or breathe slightly after the word “English”: I’ve been speaking English // for a long time.

After the word “English,” you’re going to pause slightly and perhaps take a micro breath.

Try it out loud and pause after the slashes: I’ve been speaking English // for a long time.


Focus Words, Stress, and Intonation in Thought Groups

What else do you notice about these thought groups?

You’ll notice that one word in each chunk receives the most stress.

This is what we call the focus word.

That’s why you may have noticed different levels of stress on content words.

In this example, the focus words are “English” and “time”: I’ve been speaking English // for a long time.

Try it out loud: I’ve been speaking English // for a long time.

You may also notice a slight rise in intonation after a thought group.

I’ve been speaking English [slight rise] // for a long time.

I call this slight rise “holding intonation,” because you’re holding the person’s attention and signaling that you’re not done speaking yet.

Try this slight rise in intonation out loud: I’ve been speaking English [slight rise] // for a long time.


Practice Thought Groups, Pausing, and Breathing in English

Let’s try a few more examples.

Take a moment and think about where to break this longer sentence into thought groups:

When I got to the park, I went for a walk, and then I read my library book under my favorite tree.

Here’s where I would break the sentence into smaller chunks:

When I got to the park, // I went for a walk, // and then I read my library book // under my favorite tree.

Now try to identify the focus words. Which words in each thought group should be stressed?

Let’s look at the example again:

When I got to the park, // I went for a walk, // and then I read my library book // under my favorite tree.

In this example, the focus words are “park,” “walk,” “library,” and “tree.”

When I got to the park, // I went for a walk, // and then I read my library book // under my favorite tree.

Now think about using a slight rise in intonation after each thought group.

Try it out loud: When I got to the park, [slight rise] // I went for a walk, [slight rise] // and then I read my library book [slight rise] // under my favorite tree.

Be sure to pause between each thought group!

If you need to take a breath, this is your opportunity.


More Practice Exercises for Thought Groups

Let’s try another example.

The last time I was here, we waited for a table for over an hour.

Think about where to break this longer sentence into thought groups.

Where can you pause logically between ideas?

The last time I was here, we waited for a table for over an hour.

Here’s where I suggest breaking the sentence into smaller chunks:

The last time I was here, // we waited for a table // for over an hour.

Now let’s think about which words are the focus words of each chunk.

In this example, the focus words are “here,” “table” and “hour.”

The last time I was here, // we waited for a table // for over an hour.

Be sure to stress or emphasize the focus word in each thought group by making it the longest, the loudest and the highest in pitch in that particular chunk.

In the video, you can hear me hit one word in each thought group with more emphasis.

Remember to include a slight rise in pitch after each thought group. You’ll use falling intonation at the end of the sentence.

Try it one more time:

The last time I was here, [slight rise] // we waited for a table [slight rise] // for over an hour.

Let’s look at one more example.

After you finish the project, give me a call, so that we can celebrate with dinner and a movie.

Take a moment and think about where to divide this sentence into thought groups.

Where is a logical place to pause in order to keep ideas together?

Here’s where I suggest pausing:

After you finish the project, // give me a call, // so that we can celebrate // with dinner and a movie.

Now think about the focus word in each thought group.

Which word should receive the most emphasis?

In this example, the focus words are “project,” “call,” “celebrate,” and “movie.”

After you finish the project, // give me a call, // so that we can celebrate // with dinner and a movie.

Once again, remember to include a slight rise in pitch after each thought group and then fall at the end.

After you finish the project, [slight rise] // give me a call, [slight rise] // so that we can celebrate [slight rise] // with dinner and a movie.


Use Thought Groups in Your Own Speech

Now that we’ve practiced with these examples, are you starting to notice where you should pause in order to keep ideas together?

Can you hear the word that receives the most stress and the slight rise in pitch that you often hear mid-sentence?

As you get started working on thought groups on your own, focus on chunking your ideas in logical, comfortable places.

Stress the most important content word in the chunk, lift your pitch slightly to signal that there’s more to come, pause, and perhaps take a little breath if you need it.

As you’ve learned, pausing more regularly to breathe and separate your ideas into thought groups will improve your accent, and most importantly, help people understand you.

As you continue to work on thought groups, you can experiment with pausing more frequently to emphasize key points or to say certain words dramatically and with feeling.

You can also rush through longer chunks without pausing in order to signal that these words don’t matter as much.


Tune Your Ear to Thought Groups and Pausing

In addition to practicing thought groups with your own ideas, be sure to tune your ear to how other people use thought groups when speaking.

Listen to other people speaking English, both native speakers and non-native speakers.

Pay attention to where they pause and where they breathe.

Notice how often they pause and whether or not it helps you understand their ideas.

Do you notice their breathing?

Does it help support these thought groups?

Does it help you follow what they’re saying?


Your Turn

Now it’s your turn to practice thought groups.

In the comments, write down a longer sentence. Separate the ideas into thought groups using a slash [/].

I’ll let you know if those seem like good places to separate your ideas.

For extra practice, try reading your sentence out loud a few times and let me know how it goes.

Is it a little easier for you to use thought groups now that you understand them better?

For more practice with stress and intonation, be sure to check out the accent advice I share here.

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