When I start working with my accent reduction clients on stress and intonation, there’s one comment I hear all the time: I never noticed this before.
And then this question follows: Why did I never notice this before?
Why did no one ever tell me that this was so important?
Even for people who have lived in the US or other English speaking countries for many years, the importance of stress and intonation still comes as a surprise.
Then they feel relief: This is what I needed to know.
I often receive comments from members of the community who say that they never realized the importance of stressing content words before.
Or they only started paying attention to stress recently.
Or they never really thought about how they were using their pitch to communicate meaning through intonation.
Even though stress and intonation are absolutely essential for a natural sounding accent, we don’t usually teach them inside traditional English classes.
Why You Can’t Hear English Rhythm and Melody
Somehow you discovered the importance of stress and intonation, but now you may be having trouble actually hearing it.
Not being able to hear stress, changes in pitch, or intonation is a common comment that I get from other members of this community:
Remember that your ear has been trained to hear a certain rhythm throughout your entire life of speaking your native language.
If you didn’t use that rhythm that you’re used to, you would sound funny when speaking your native language!
This rhythm is internalized in your body. You can feel it in your bones.
Let’s talk about this a little bit more.
As I explain in my video on word stress in American English, many languages are syllable-timed, which means each syllable is more or less the same length.
The beats come between syllables. That’s the rhythm you may be used to.
On the other hand, English is a stress-timed language, which means the beats come between stressed syllables. The rest of the syllables are reduced.
Even if you speak another dialect of English, like Indian English, Jamaican English, Singaporean English, or African English, these versions of English tend to be more syllable-timed because of influence from other regional languages.
Other stress-timed languages like German, Russian and Dutch may use stress differently than the way we use it in English.
In other words, it’s going to take work to adjust to the rhythm of English.
It’s just as important that you train your ear to hear the rhythm of English as it is to train your voice and mouth to produce it.
After all, if you can’t hear how we use stress and intonation, it’s going to be really hard for you to produce it, even if you know how important it is.
Training Yourself to Hear Stress and Intonation Takes Practice
If you feel like you have some work to do, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Please remember that there are native English speakers who talk with a monotone voice or who are less expressive.
There are also people who completely miss tone of voice or inflection when other people are speaking.
They also have to learn how to include more pitch variation when speaking or how to interpret emotions. They have to practice just as much as you do.
That’s what this is all about: practice.
If you think that native speakers talk quickly and it’s challenging to understand them, then your ear is probably not yet detecting this rhythm that will help you understand the words that truly matter.
So you have to practice!
Now that you understand how important it is to train your ear to hear English rhythm and melody, as well as your voice and mouth to produce it, let’s talk about some ways you can practice.
Here are some tricks to help you hear stress and intonation when listening to other people’s speech.
1. Try Changing The Speed of the Video
First, try experimenting with the speed feature on YouTube videos and podcasts.
Personally, I can hear the peaks and valleys, the ups and downs, the rises and falls in someone’s speech when I speed up the video.
Even if it appears that someone doesn’t have much pitch variation when I first hear them, when I speed up the video, I’m able to more easily detect these rises and falls in pitch in their speech.
You may also want to slow a video down.
See if you can notice transitions or if you can detect steps up and down or glides up and down in someone’s speech.
2. Try Listening to Shorter Examples
If you still think that you’re not able to hear English rhythm, notice stressed syllables, or identify pitch rises and falls, try listening to shorter examples.
For example, you can look up challenging words in a dictionary or on Google and listen for that stressed syllable.
Isolating particular words or phrases can help you detect which syllable is stressed.
Remember, when we talk about stress, we’re listening for a change in pitch, volume and syllable length. You’ll also hear that vowel that much more clearly.
3. Stop Listening for Meaning
When you’re listening to longer recordings or videos, try to stop listening for meaning.
Instead, simply listen for the rise and fall, the rhythm and melody of someone’s speech.
I talk more about how to do this in my video on how to use your listening skills to reduce your accent.
4. Follow Along By Clapping or Conducting
Next, try to follow along by clapping or conducting.
Like I said a moment ago, rhythm is something we feel inside our body.
Using your hands by clapping or conducting, like the conductor of an orchestra, can help you start to feel the rhythm in your own body.
It doesn’t really matter if you’re completely right. There’s no accuracy test that’s going to follow this exercise!
What matters is that you’re training your ear to hear the rhythm and your body to feel the rhythm.
5. Use an App to Visualize the Rises and Falls in Pitch
If you’re a visual learner, you can find apps and programs that can help you visualize and see the rises and falls in pitch in front of you.
(Audacity is one free option.)
Using an app can help you understand where pitch changes, lengthened syllables or volume increases are happening.
6. Train Your Ear Through Guided Courses and Programs
Part of the work inside my courses is to help you train your ear to start detecting these patterns that you probably never noticed before.
Remember: You Will Start to Hear Stress and Intonation With Practice
As you continue to develop sensitivity to stress and intonation, please be patient with yourself.
You simply didn’t have this information before.
On your accent reduction journey, you start by being completely unaware that something exists.
After all, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Then you know, and you have to work at it.
You have to slow down and be more deliberate when speaking and while listening.
Eventually, you’ll move towards doing it without thinking about it.
This can take time and that’s okay.
The important thing is to trust that it will get easier in time.
Trust the process.
My clients often report that they now hear it all the time, and then they start to detect different patterns on their own.
In your own accent reduction practice, make sure to include time to train your ear as well as your mouth and your voice.
Now it’s your turn! Let me know how you feel about your current sensitivity to stress and intonation when listening to spoken English:
- Can you hear stressed and unstressed words?
- Do you catch the rise or the fall at the end of a sentence as well as mid-sentence?
- Is it easy for you to hear which words truly matter?
Leave a comment and share where you’re at in your accent reduction journey.