Language and rhythm

Language and rhythm are inextricably linked, according to a blog post I found the other day. The post is about reading scripts for theatrical performances, but much of it applies just as much to every day speech.

The main point is that language has inherent rhythms which are crucial because they are where the meaning is found. When you read a text in your mother tongue, you naturally break it up into meaningful chunks and adjust your rhythm as appropriate. If you apply unnatural rhythm to a text, it will be difficult to follow and you may not understand what you’re saying, neither will others.

When learning a foreign language, one of the things you need to acquire is that language’s natural rhythms. If you use the rhythm of your native language when speaking the foreign one, people might find you difficult or impossible to understand, unless they’re used to hearing non-natives speaking their language. Acquiring native-like rhythms takes a lot of listening and mimicery, and even then, you’ll might end up sounding slightly foreign, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Do you have any suggestions on how to acquire the rhythms of a foreign language?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning, Pronunciation.

7 Responses to Language and rhythm

  1. Joe says:

    I personally think that prosody is one of the hardest things to master, and I think that, in the pursuit of better pronunciation, this is the trickiest. I think that when people have noticeable accents even when their pronunciation is good it’s mostly due to this.

    For example, I have a lot less of a problem getting into the rhythm of German or Dutch than I do with French or the other Romance languages, even if I find the Romance languages a lot easier to learn. I think perhaps it may have to do with them being Germanic languages and perhaps the prosody is close enough within language families.

  2. Alright, it does not address rhythm alone, but for me, exploring the local hip hop music is fun and helpful (w.r.t. intonation, prosody as well as word plays and the country’s political issues).

    Of course, the benefit is maximized if you have a native speaker as friend who patiently repeats individual sentences from the songs’ lyrics and explains them bit by bit. 🙂

  3. Junko Salmon says:

    I try mimicing my favorite Welsh speakers (northerners!) using the old fashioned tape recorder.

  4. James says:

    it´s a hardy and it´s where the edge of my Spanish is at the moment. I´ve pretty much got the subsegmental phonology taped: I am told that I don´t sound English, that it´s very hard to tell where I am from, though people in the Southern Cone say I sound a bit central american or mexican, and central americans say I sound a bit Spanish (I could tell you why in both cases, but´s that´s probably TMI)

    Super segmental is the next stage, and I have a problem as I can´t stand the Chilean patterns. the only way is to listen and listen and listen, and then practice reading out loud. Read poems and the newspaper and bits of books and bits of text that you see around town. And listen and listen and listen: to speach, to poetry, to songs, to the radio. Listen to many different varieties to spot the common things and be able to recognise the differences. in Spanish the BBC world service is great as it has many different accents. I also listen to Colombian, Mexican, Guatemalan and sometimes Spanish radio as these are the accents I like most.

    I don´t think there is any other way.

  5. David says:

    I don’t think there’s any magic to it. You just need to mimic native speakers of your target language. One thing that often happens though, is that since many languages have sounds that the learner is not familiar with, they don’t *hear* the sounds, and can thus not mimic them very well. A good exercise is to record yourself speaking the target language and try to analyze where your rhythm and pronunciation is off.

  6. Lyydie says:

    This is very interesting. I find that when I memorize texts in different languages, it doesn’t take me very long to pick out the sounds and rhythm.

  7. ROBERTO says:

    I am a teacher of various foreign languages(English,French,Spanish,Portuguese, Italian and German.) I live in Mérida, Mexico. Consequently, there is not a large foreign language community as in New York or London and other big cities. I require that all students in my courses rent a foreign language movie each week. I stress that they should listen to the dialog only for the natural rhythms of the language and under no circumstances at this point are they to try and understand what is being said. I find that this is the best way to grasp the rhythms of the language. I also believe that the student should have exposure to the diffferent accents of the language, i.e. in English, American, British, Australian, West Indian, etc. By the way, you have a great website and I will recommend it to some of my advanced students.

    Thank you,

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