Thought groups English Pronunciation

I’m working so hard on my English pronunciation. Why am I still asked to repeat myself?”

If this is happening to you, you may be overlooking the importance of thought groups.

Speaking English clearly is more than just pronouncing vowels and consonants correctly, or putting the stress on the correct syllable of a word. If you want native English speakers to understand you when you speak, you also have to know how to speak in thought groups.

This is what helps drive the natural rhythm of American English.

Focus on the main idea

Thought groups are short phrases, each containing a main idea, and are separated by slight pauses. You can have more than one thought group in a sentence.

The main idea is the one word in a thought group that is emphasized clearly. This main word is also known as the focus word.  All the other words in a thought group are spoken much faster and less clearly.

Native English speakers listen for the main idea, the one clearly emphasized word, in a thought group.  If you strung together only the important words in a sentence it would sound like a telegraph message (“Chicken…dinner…six thirty“)

If you don’t make it clear which word is your main idea, your rhythm will be off and your listener will have difficulty following you.

For example, listen to the main word agreed in the phrases below:

He agreed.

He agreed to it.

He said he agreed to it.

Did you notice it takes roughly the same amount of time to say any of those phrases? That’s because the other words are said faster before and after the main idea.

General guidelines for main ideas in thought groups.
  • The main idea is typically the last word in a phrase that carries new or important information
  • Main ideas are usually
    • nouns
    • verbs,
    • adverbs (always, usually, very, often, so, rarely, etc.)
    • adjectives
    • negatives (don’t, can’t, won’t, etc.)
    • interjections (what?!, wow!, yes!)
  • We do not stress little words like articles, pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions.
    • he, she, it, the, a, of, am, but, are, him, her, etc.
    • Exceptions to this rule are when you need to correct an error or clarify a statement.
      • It was his report, not her’s.
      • The keys are in the basket.”
Listen for the pause

It’s common to have more than one thought group in a sentence. This means there will be subtle pauses within your sentence.

The speeding up of less important words, the emphasis of main ideas, and the pauses in-between, create the rhythm of English native speakers are expecting. When you speak in a rhythm they expect, they will understand you better.

Listen for the main ideas in the sentences below. Pay attention to which words are said faster, which words are emphasized, and where the pauses occur:

It was so cold outside so we decided to stay home and watch a movie.

I think the meeting starts at 10. Did John forward you the e-mail?

Hearing the pauses native English speakers use in conversation takes practice. You have to be able to hear it before you can speak the same way. That’s why I developed additional recordings and practice material for you to download.

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How to practice

When you’re reading, think about which words in sentences would fit the definition for a main idea. Practice speaking these sentences in your head using thought groups. Record yourself saying them out loud.

Listen to native speakers around you and try to identify which words they are emphasizing in their message. It’s subtle, but once you know what to listen for it will become easier to identify.

In addition to the bonus recordings mentioned above, you can practice by reading news articles while listening to broadcasts of the stories. NPR and Voice of America post several audio or video versions of their stories accompanied by a transcript. Listening and reading at the same time will help you anticipate which words should be emphasized.

Knowing what to listen for makes thought groups easier to identify in a native speaker’s conversations. Being able to identify the components of American English rhythm make it easier to imitate. The more you imitate, the more natural it becomes.

Thought Groups: the Rhythm of English Pronunciation

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