If you’ve been speaking English for years but you still have to repeat yourself, it’s very likely you’re having trouble with the rhythm, or intonation, of English.
Being able to use English intonation patterns correctly is like being able to sing a song in tune, to the right beat. People recognize it right away, even if you don’t get all the words right. But if the rhythm is off, people won’t know what you’re singing.
Speaking English with the right intonation pattern and rhythm requires you to be able to hear it in native English speakers. Being able to hear the rhythm of English intonation can sometimes be difficult, even if you’ve been speaking English for years.
Specifically, you need to be able to hear how native speakers use pauses and word stress to create the rhythm of English. Please refer to my post on thought groups for a review on how to uses pauses in your speech; refer to my post on pronunciation tips for a review on how to use word stress.
Luckily, there are free resources online that can help you practice identifying pauses and word stress in spoken English. When using these various resources, repeat what the speaker says, exactly how he or she says it. What feels different? Do you notice vowel sounds being stretched longer? Would you have stressed the same words? Analyze the differences and keep practicing!
I recommend starting with audio news broadcasts. It’s true that a spoken news story is not how the average English speaker sounds in conversation. However, it’s a great place to start your listening practice specifically because reporters tend to heavily stress focus words, making them easy to identify. Their speech rate is slower and their pronunciation is more precise, making it easier to hear proper syllable stress and pauses between thought groups.
Voice Of America
A great place to begin is the Voice of America (VOA) website, which has special features for English learners. I recommend this even if you’re a proficient English speaker with years of experience. If you’re having trouble with English intonation, it starts slow to train your ear to tune into stress patterns and pauses.
VOA has video and audio based news stories from around the globe. The news stories are divided into three levels of English. Level one stories are spoken at a slow pace with each word spoken very clearly. Start here to develop a solid base to build on.
Once you’re comfortable identifying the intonation features at a slower pace, you can practice listening to news broadcasts at a conversational pace. National Public Radio (NPR) has many stories online with recorded audio. Just look for the speaker icon next to the headline. The reporters speak at an average pace, but still heavily stress focus words. Interviews with people in the story allow you to hear natural intonation patterns of conversational English in short segments at a time.
When you’re ready to move on to identifying stress patterns and pauses in real conversational English, I recommend picking an interview from Story Corps. These are recordings of conversations of friends and family members discussing important life events. The language is conversational and very natural. It’s the next step in listening to English intonation so you can incorporate it in your speech.
Another interesting resource for native English intonation patterns is the IDEA International Dialects of English Archive. Pick a region of the world, such as North America, and select a recording to listen to a native speaker. After a scripted reading segment, the speakers give brief monologues about their lives. This is an excellent way to hear many examples of every day, native English speakers.
Using these sites, you’ll soon be able to hear longer vowels in other peoples’ speech. You’ll be more observant of speaking rates. You’ll hear stressed words stand out better. When you really listen for it in other’s speech, you’ll begin to add it to your speech. With practice, you’ll be speaking in a “tune” that every English speaker will understand.