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How to improve your pronunciation for IELTS: rhythm and chunking

In the previous post in this series on pronunciation, we looked at how you can use intonation to guide the listener when you connect several ideas to make your message easier to follow.  However, there are two more pronunciation features – rhythm and chunking – which are important if you want to sound more relaxed and natural in the IELTS Speaking test. These features are the focus of this blog post.    Three examples To understand how rhythm and chunking make someone sound relaxed and natural, I’d like you to watch three videos.  First, watch the start of the videos and answer these questions: What hobbies has Tina chosen? {"preview_thumbnail":"/sites/default/files/styles/video_embed_wysiwyg_preview/public/video_thumbnails/m0UGhSufSJk.jpg?itok=GRAh6L9z","video_url":"https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0UGhSufSJk&t","settings":{"responsive":1,"width":"854","height":"480","autoplay":0},"settings_summary":["Embedded Video (Responsive)."]} What kinds of people does Xin say become famous in China?  {"preview_thumbnail":"/sites/default/files/styles/video_embed_wysiwyg_preview/public/video_thumbnails/lBkffRImTwE.jpg?itok=EOzE4HfE","video_url":"https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBkffRImTwE","settings":{"responsive":1,"width":"854","height":"480","autoplay":0},"settings_summary":["Embedded Video (Responsive)."]} What kinds of people does Kenn say become famous in Singapore?  {"preview_thumbnail":"/sites/default/files/styles/video_embed_wysiwyg_preview/public/video_thumbnails/4ta4CESUj94.jpg?itok=P4TBh3C0","video_url":"https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ta4CESUj94","settings":{"responsive":1,"width":"854","height":"480","autoplay":0},"settings_summary":["Embedded Video (Responsive)."]} Tina likes shopping, picnics and volunteering; Xin says actors, sports stars and rich business people become famous in China; Kenn says politicians, prominent businessmen and television celebrities become famous in Singapore.    Now, you probably found Xin and Kenn easier to understand than Tina. You may also have thought that Kenn sounded more natural and relaxed than Xin. But why is this? Why do you think Xin and Kenn are easier to understand than Tina? Why does Kenn sound the most relaxed and natural?    Chunking One of the major differences between Tina and the other two candidates is that Xin and Kenn divide their speech into meaningful groups of words – ‘chunks’ - while Tina does not. For example, early in her answer Tina says: For shopping, I think when I feel stressed out [breath] I can shopping, I can relax with… er… [breath] to buy a new clothes [pause] …te… for me …er… in the special days [breath]…uh… and in picnic [breath] I think …er… [pause] picnic and travel I think I can …er… [breath] widen my knowledge…’ In contrast, Xin starts his answer as follows: You know, those actors [pause] especially the movie actors [breath] and the sports ac …..sorry, the movie actors and sports stars…um…. [pause] They are very famous now in China [pause] because [breath] they can be seen by the people every day… Kenn starts his answer with: Mainly politicians [short pause] prominent businessmen [longer pause] and a growing number of television celebrities. In several places, Tina hesitates and breathes in the middle of her ideas. As a result, we have to put separate parts of her speech together in order to understand her message. In contrast, every ‘chunk’ of Xin’s and Kenn’s answers has a clear meaning. As a result, it is easy for us to understand their message. These differences between Tina and Xin are part of the reason that Tina scored a Band 5.0 for pronunciation, while Xin scored a 6.0.   Rhythm Xin and Kenn both ‘chunk’ their speech, but Kenn sounds more natural and relaxed than Xin? Why is this?       One of the most important differences between Xin and Kenn is the rhythm of their speech.     Watch the first part of the videos again, and focus on the phrases highlighted below. What differences do you notice in the way that they are pronounced?  Xin: ‘Those actors, especially the movie actors and the sports stars, they are very famous now in China because they can be seen by the people every day.’  Kenn: ‘Mainly politicians, prominent businessmen, and a growing number of television celebrities.’  You probably noticed that every word Xin says is pronounced clearly. This is because all Xin’s syllables are a similar length. As a result, all the words in the highlighted phrase have a similar amount of stress.  In contrast, in Kenn’s phrase highlighted above, some words – growing, number, television, celebrities – are long and slow, while other words – a, of – are said extremely quickly. Kenn stresses the important information, words that communicate his message, and he ‘unstresses’ the less important grammar words that join the information words together. This contrast between the stressed information words and ‘unstressed’ connecting words helps to highlight the information that Kenn thinks is most important, and this makes his message very easy to follow. It also makes him seem more relaxed and natural: it is natural to stress the words that we think are the most important, and English speakers only tend to stress other words – the connecting words – when they are not relaxed (for example, if they are nervous or annoyed).  Xin’s more regular stress means the important information words are less clearly highlighted, and we have to concentrate harder to identify the words that Xin thinks are the most important. His message is therefore slightly more difficult to follow. Additionally, because he stresses both his information words and his connecting words, he sounds less relaxed and natural than Kenn.       These differences are part of the reason why Xin scored a Band 6.0 for pronunciation, while Kenn scored a 9.0, with the examiner commenting that Kenn ‘sustains… use of features’ and is ‘effortless to understand’. Xin’s examiner commented that his speech is ‘mainly syllable-timed, so his rhythm is rather mechanical’.    Syllable-timed and stress-timed rhythm Xin’s speech is mostly syllable-timed - the syllables are all roughly the same length. Conversely, Kenn’s speech is stress-timed – there is a significant contrast between the length of stressed and unstressed syllables.  In a stress-timed rhythm, the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables is achieved partly by making stressed syllables longer, but also by making unstressed syllables shorter. When English speakers do this, the vowel sounds in the unstressed syllables also change – they are ‘reduced’. For example, in the example above, the word ‘a’ is reduced to an extremely short /ə/, and the ‘o’ sound in ‘of’ is also reduced to a /ə/. This ‘reduction’ of unstressed vowel sounds is a key part of stress-timed rhythm. In fact, it happens so often that the /ə/ sound – known as the schwa – is the most common sound in English.     Interestingly, whether you are from Europe or Asia or Latin America, it is quite likely that your first language is syllable-timed, and the rhythm of your speech in English is more syllable-timed than stress-timed. The only exceptions to this are Arabic and Russian speakers, whose rhythms are closer to that of English. If your first language is French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese (or many others), you probably need to develop a more stress-timed rhythm if you want your English to sound more relaxed and natural.   Developing stress-timed rhythm and chunking:          1. Pause, breathe, plan The key to chunking is to pause between ideas, and not to hesitate in the middle. For many IELTS candidates – like Tina – this means you need to slow down and give yourself time to plan before you start speaking. Then, when you finish your first phrase or idea, pause, breathe and plan what you’re going to say next. If you continue like this, your speech will be divided into meaningful groups of words – ‘chunks’. 2. Slow down to improve your word stress A stress-timed rhythm is partly the result of stressing important words. You may think you do this already, but compare your word stress to Kenn’s. Do you give important information words as much time and space as Kenn gives ‘politicians’, ‘businessmen’ and ‘television celebrities’? Stressed words are louder and longer, and making them longer means you need to slow down when you say them. For more guidance on developing word stress, look at the third blog post in this series.  3. Learn to ‘unstress’ As we have seen, a stress-timed rhythm is partly the result of stressing important words; however, it is also the result of ‘unstressing’ less important words. To learn how to do this, listen to recordings or watch videos of native speakers – www.elllo.org is a great resource for this.  First, make sure you understand what the speaker is saying and check any vocabulary you don’t know in a dictionary. Next, choose a short section – just a single phrase or sentence. Write it down, then listen again and mark the words the speaker stresses. Next, focus on the pronunciation of the unstressed words. How many of the vowels are reduced to a /ə/ sound? When you think you have identified all the unstressed sounds, try saying the whole phrase yourself. You may need to divide it into chunks at first, and build up. You can also use this method with your own speech. Record yourself answering some IELTS Speaking Part 1 questions, write down a short section, mark the words that should be stressed and unstressed, then listen again to check if you did this successfully. If not, practise, then record yourself again.    4. Learn how to produce the schwa Like many learners of English, you may find the /ə/ sound difficult to pronounce because it doesn’t exist in your language. The key to producing the /ə/ sound is to mostly close your mouth and relax your jaw. In contrast, the stressed vowel sounds - /æ/ /e/ /ɒ/ /u:/, and so on – are pronounced with an open mouth and tensed jaw.  For example, to pronounce the word ‘politicians’ with the correct stress and unstress (like Kenn): (Click image to enlarge) When you do this, place the back of your hand under your chin. When your jaw is tensed on stressed syllables, it should be impossible to close your mouth with your hand. However, when your jaw is relaxed on unstressed syllables, it should be possible to push your mouth shut with your hand. Developing stress-timed rhythm is therefore partly about training yourself to relax between stressed words and syllables. To do this, you need to stop trying to pronounce every sound clearly.   You can use this same approach to stress and unstress words in chunks of language. Here’s Xin’s phrase we looked at earlier, which was very syllable-timed: (Click image to enlarge) Can you follow the instructions to give this chunk a stress-timed rhythm? What’s next? Rhythm and chunking are the final pronunciation features we are focusing on in this series. In the final blog post in this series, we will review  all the features we have covered so far, and look again at what this means for ‘good’ pronunciation in the IELTS Speaking test.   

Paul Dixon

1 December, 2021

How to improve your pronunciation for IELTS: rhythm and chunking

People with speech bubbles above their heads

In the previous post in this series on pronunciation, we looked at how you can use intonation to guide the listener when you connect several ideas to make your message easier to follow.
However, there are two more pronunciation features – rhythm and chunking – which are important if you want to sound more relaxed and natural in the IELTS Speaking test. These features are the focus of this blog post.  

Three examples

To understand how rhythm and chunking make someone sound relaxed and natural, I’d like you to watch three videos.

First, watch the start of the videos and answer these questions:

  • What hobbies has Tina chosen?
  • What kinds of people does Xin say become famous in China?
  • What kinds of people does Kenn say become famous in Singapore?
  • Tina likes shopping, picnics and volunteering;
  • Xin says actors, sports stars and rich business people become famous in China;
  • Kenn says politicians, prominent businessmen and television celebrities become famous in Singapore.  

Now, you probably found Xin and Kenn easier to understand than Tina. You may also have thought that Kenn sounded more natural and relaxed than Xin. But why is this? Why do you think Xin and Kenn are easier to understand than Tina? Why does Kenn sound the most relaxed and natural?  

Chunking

One of the major differences between Tina and the other two candidates is that Xin and Kenn divide their speech into meaningful groups of words – ‘chunks’ - while Tina does not. For example, early in her answer Tina says:

  • For shopping, I think when I feel stressed out [breath] I can shopping, I can relax with… er… [breath] to buy a new clothes [pause] …te… for me …er… in the special days [breath]…uh… and in picnic [breath] I think …er… [pause] picnic and travel I think I can …er… [breath] widen my knowledge…’

In contrast, Xin starts his answer as follows:

  • You know, those actors [pause] especially the movie actors [breath] and the sports ac …..sorry, the movie actors and sports stars…um…. [pause] They are very famous now in China [pause] because [breath] they can be seen by the people every day…

Kenn starts his answer with:

  • Mainly politicians [short pause] prominent businessmen [longer pause] and a growing number of television celebrities.

In several places, Tina hesitates and breathes in the middle of her ideas. As a result, we have to put separate parts of her speech together in order to understand her message. In contrast, every ‘chunk’ of Xin’s and Kenn’s answers has a clear meaning. As a result, it is easy for us to understand their message.

These differences between Tina and Xin are part of the reason that Tina scored a Band 5.0 for pronunciation, while Xin scored a 6.0.

Rhythm

Xin and Kenn both ‘chunk’ their speech, but Kenn sounds more natural and relaxed than Xin? Why is this?

One of the most important differences between Xin and Kenn is the rhythm of their speech.
 
Watch the first part of the videos again, and focus on the phrases highlighted below. What differences do you notice in the way that they are pronounced?

Xin: ‘Those actors, especially the movie actors and the sports stars, they are very famous now in China because they can be seen by the people every day. 

Kenn: ‘Mainly politicians, prominent businessmen, and a growing number of television celebrities. 

You probably noticed that every word Xin says is pronounced clearly. This is because all Xin’s syllables are a similar length. As a result, all the words in the highlighted phrase have a similar amount of stress.

In contrast, in Kenn’s phrase highlighted above, some words – growing, number, television, celebrities – are long and slow, while other words – a, of – are said extremely quickly. Kenn stresses the important information, words that communicate his message, and he ‘unstresses’ the less important grammar words that join the information words together.

This contrast between the stressed information words and ‘unstressed’ connecting words helps to highlight the information that Kenn thinks is most important, and this makes his message very easy to follow. It also makes him seem more relaxed and natural: it is natural to stress the words that we think are the most important, and English speakers only tend to stress other words – the connecting words – when they are not relaxed (for example, if they are nervous or annoyed).

Xin’s more regular stress means the important information words are less clearly highlighted, and we have to concentrate harder to identify the words that Xin thinks are the most important. His message is therefore slightly more difficult to follow. Additionally, because he stresses both his information words and his connecting words, he sounds less relaxed and natural than Kenn.

These differences are part of the reason why Xin scored a Band 6.0 for pronunciation, while Kenn scored a 9.0, with the examiner commenting that Kenn ‘sustains… use of features’ and is ‘effortless to understand’. Xin’s examiner commented that his speech is ‘mainly syllable-timed, so his rhythm is rather mechanical’.  

Syllable-timed and stress-timed rhythm

Xin’s speech is mostly syllable-timed - the syllables are all roughly the same length. Conversely, Kenn’s speech is stress-timed – there is a significant contrast between the length of stressed and unstressed syllables.

In a stress-timed rhythm, the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables is achieved partly by making stressed syllables longer, but also by making unstressed syllables shorter. When English speakers do this, the vowel sounds in the unstressed syllables also change – they are ‘reduced’. For example, in the example above, the word ‘a’ is reduced to an extremely short /ə/, and the ‘o’ sound in ‘of’ is also reduced to a /ə/. This ‘reduction’ of unstressed vowel sounds is a key part of stress-timed rhythm. In fact, it happens so often that the /ə/ sound – known as the schwa – is the most common sound in English.

Interestingly, whether you are from Europe or Asia or Latin America, it is quite likely that your first language is syllable-timed, and the rhythm of your speech in English is more syllable-timed than stress-timed. The only exceptions to this are Arabic and Russian speakers, whose rhythms are closer to that of English. If your first language is French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese (or many others), you probably need to develop a more stress-timed rhythm if you want your English to sound more relaxed and natural.

Developing stress-timed rhythm and chunking:  

1. Pause, breathe, plan

The key to chunking is to pause between ideas, and not to hesitate in the middle. For many IELTS candidates – like Tina – this means you need to slow down and give yourself time to plan before you start speaking. Then, when you finish your first phrase or idea, pause, breathe and plan what you’re going to say next. If you continue like this, your speech will be divided into meaningful groups of words – ‘chunks’.

2. Slow down to improve your word stress

A stress-timed rhythm is partly the result of stressing important words. You may think you do this already, but compare your word stress to Kenn’s. Do you give important information words as much time and space as Kenn gives ‘politicians’, ‘businessmen’ and ‘television celebrities’? Stressed words are louder and longer, and making them longer means you need to slow down when you say them. For more guidance on developing word stress, look at the third blog post in this series.

3. Learn to ‘unstress’

As we have seen, a stress-timed rhythm is partly the result of stressing important words; however, it is also the result of ‘unstressing’ less important words. To learn how to do this, listen to recordings or watch videos of native speakers – www.elllo.org is a great resource for this.

First, make sure you understand what the speaker is saying and check any vocabulary you don’t know in a dictionary. Next, choose a short section – just a single phrase or sentence. Write it down, then listen again and mark the words the speaker stresses. Next, focus on the pronunciation of the unstressed words. How many of the vowels are reduced to a /ə/ sound? When you think you have identified all the unstressed sounds, try saying the whole phrase yourself. You may need to divide it into chunks at first, and build up.

You can also use this method with your own speech. Record yourself answering some IELTS Speaking Part 1 questions, write down a short section, mark the words that should be stressed and unstressed, then listen again to check if you did this successfully. If not, practise, then record yourself again.  

4. Learn how to produce the schwa

Like many learners of English, you may find the /ə/ sound difficult to pronounce because it doesn’t exist in your language. The key to producing the /ə/ sound is to mostly close your mouth and relax your jaw. In contrast, the stressed vowel sounds - /æ/ /e/ /ɒ/ /u:/, and so on – are pronounced with an open mouth and tensed jaw.

For example, to pronounce the word ‘politicians’ with the correct stress and unstress (like Kenn):

How to pronounce politician

(Click image to enlarge)

When you do this, place the back of your hand under your chin. When your jaw is tensed on stressed syllables, it should be impossible to close your mouth with your hand. However, when your jaw is relaxed on unstressed syllables, it should be possible to push your mouth shut with your hand.

Developing stress-timed rhythm is therefore partly about training yourself to relax between stressed words and syllables. To do this, you need to stop trying to pronounce every sound clearly.

You can use this same approach to stress and unstress words in chunks of language. Here’s Xin’s phrase we looked at earlier, which was very syllable-timed:

Pronunciation features

(Click image to enlarge)


Can you follow the instructions to give this chunk a stress-timed rhythm?


What’s next?

Rhythm and chunking are the final pronunciation features we are focusing on in this series. In the final blog post in this series, we will review all the features we have covered so far, and look again at what this means for ‘good’ pronunciation in the IELTS Speaking test.

Paul Dixon

Originally from the UK but now living in New Zealand, Paul has been helping people prepare for the IELTS test since 2005. His main teaching interests are helping learners improve their pronunciation and develop their reading skills.

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