Nord Anglia Education
Nord Anglia
03 May, 2019

Stress, Rhythm and Intonation in Phonetics

When we speak, the way that we sound out the words and sentences is known as pronunciation. Depending on what your native language is, when you speak English, you will have an accent. Someone’s accent depends on from where in their Anglophone country they come and indeed which country. 

English language learners often want to speak the Queen’s English because it is cited as being the gold standard of pronunciation. However, sounding like a nonagenarian lady is not what I would want to teach my students. There is also Received Pronunciation [RP], or the old BBC English, which is English without a regional accent. This suggests that the listener cannot tell from where the speaker comes.  

Both the Queen’s English and RP are a bit old fashioned and tired now, and regional English is the norm. Nowadays, BBC newsreaders and announcers come from the length and breadth of the UK, and this gives the BBC a more modern sound which embraces all the different regional accents.  

This, of course, doesn't mean there are no RP speakers; there are plenty, me included. It's just that other accents are now celebrated more—and rightly so. 

Stress, rhythm, and intonation 

As an English teacher, I think that exposing students to different kinds of accents is important. In real life, students will meet and speak to people from many diverse places, hearing many different accents. 

Students need to be understood when they speak, so clear pronunciation is important. Also, when students take English language exams, like the YLE, KET, PET and FCE to prove their level, there is always a speaking test where pronunciation is always examined. Examiners listen for stress, rhythm and intonation, as these are important markers of fluency and can change the meaning of a word or sentence. Read about what stress, rhythm and intonation are below, including stress, rhythm and intonation examples. 

Rhythm in phonology 

Rhythm in phonetics is the speed and cadence of how you say a sentence. Some beginner students might say - each - word - in - a - sentence - at - the - same - speed and sound a little like a robot. Developing different speeds and knowing when to slow down and speed up can give your spoken English more interest. 

Intonation in phonology 

Intonation is considered the ‘music’ of the language. Questions can be asked with a rising intonation, where the pitch goes up. This might be a genuine question to which you don’t know the answer. For example, ‘John’s still on holiday?’ said with a rising pitch means the statement is a question which needs answering. If the phrase is said without a rising intonation, it’s information that you already know and may just need confirmation on. Intonation can also show emotions like surprise. 


Stress in phonology

 Stress is saying a syllable or part of a word more strongly and can be at word level. For example, RECord is the noun of an athletics world record perhaps, whilst reCORD is what you do to a song when you copy it onto a CD. 

Stress is also important at sentence level where the meaning can be changed depending on which whole word you stress. Below is an example of how the meaning of a phrase is changed when the words underlined are stressed. 

I thought your brother was a bus conductor. [You thought that someone else thought he was a bus conductor]. 

I thought your brother was a bus conductor. [You thought I knew he was a bus conductor]. 

I thought your brother was a bus conductor. [Not your friend’s brother]. 

I thought your brother was a bus conductor. [Not your sister]. 

I thought your brother was a bus conductor. [I didn’t know he still is a bus conductor]. 

I thought your brother was a bus conductor. [Before, I thought he was an orchestral conductor]. 

I thought your brother was a bus conductor. [Not a bus driver]. 

The implied meaning of this short sentence can be changed seven times depending on which word is stressed! 


Importance of stress, rhythm and intonation 

I think it’s quite important to improve students’ pronunciation as communicating effectively is the end goal of learning a language. If you decide you like the British accent, then try for that, but the North American, Australian and New Zealand accents are all good too. 

If you are speaking and find that people are always asking you to repeat yourself or saying that they don’t understand, then you might have to improve your pronunciation. Improving your pronunciation by yourself is quite easy. A good way is to watch your favourite English TV programme or listen to a song and mimic what is being said. Try recording yourself and play it back to see if you sound exactly the same. Do this again and again to try get the correct rhythm, stress and intonation. You will eventually pick up the slight differences in language and learn to use them effectively—you will be speaking like a 90-year-old Monarch in no time! 

For more information on the English curriculum taught at The British International School Shanghai, Puxi, visit our curricula guide page.