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Learning American English Speech Rhythm and Stress

Learning American English Speech Rhythm and Stress

Many people think that to learn English (and specifically American English) means to learn vocabulary, grammar, consonants and vowels...

And while that is part of learning American English, and helps form a basic foundation on which you build your American English skills, if you want to be understood like a native speaker, it is imperative that you improve and perfect your rhythm and stress.


By means of pauses in our speech, we can divide all (except the shortest) of sentences into two or more parts, or thought groups. A thought group is a portion of a sentence set off from the rest by a pause or pauses.

When we make a pause in a sentence, it is for one of usually three reasons:

  1. To make the meaning clear: (When the wind blows / the cradle will rock.)
  2. For emphasis: (Frankly my dear, / I don’t give a damn.)
  3. Simply, to allow the speaker to catch his breath when saying a long sentence.

There are no set rules for the division of sentences into thought groups. Different people will emphasize different ideas and speakers vary as to their ability to talk without stopping for a breath. This does not mean that a pause may be made anywhere in a sentence. In general, no pause is made within closely related word groups. If pauses are made too often, the effect is choppy, hard to follow and unpleasant to listen to.

The ESL speaker’s most frequent error with pauses is the failure to organize their sentences into thought groups.


Learning to use stress properly will help you become a more confident American English speaker. Stress in speaking means that a speaker makes a syllable or word: louder, longer, and/or higher in pitch.

3 Easy rules to follow for learning to correctly stress syllables in American English when you speak.

  1. Stress compound nouns on the first part. Which means, when you speak, emphasize the first part of the word. For example: CELL phone, NEWS paper, LAP top
  2. Stress compound verbs on the second part of the word. For example: under STAND, stressed OUT, over DUE
  3. Stress phrasal verbs on the second part of the word. For example: log OUT, sign IN, work OUT

Research has shown that learning to correctly stress syllables the way North American native speakers do is one of the MOST effective ways to improving your communication skills in American English.

Working with a coach can greatly improve your ability to stress correct syllables AND improve your rhythm and people WILL be able to better understand you.

We will further discuss stress next week with an expanded post about the Basic Concepts of Intonation. Don't miss it!


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