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English Pronunciation Pod 57

Saturday Feb 20th, 2010
English Pronunciation Podcast 57-
The Rhythm and Intonation of English- Part II: Choosing the "focus word" in a phrase.

Learn an important rule for choosing which word in a phrase receives the most stress.


In this week's podcast, we're going to continue to learn how to speak in the rhythm of American English.
Speaking in the rhythm of English, will make you sound more like a native speaker and more
importantly, it will be easier for people to understand you. In order to speak with the right rhythm, you have
to stress the right words and right syllables. Stressing the wrong words can be confusing to your listener.

In last week's podcast, we learned which types of words of words are usually stressed in English.
I strongly recommend that you listen to that podcast if you haven't already.

As we learned in last week's podcast, content words such as nouns, verbs and adjectives are usually
the stressed words. However, there is more to speaking English with the rhythm of an American
than just that.

In every phrase, there is usually one word which receives the most stress.
This is known as" the focus word" and using focus words in your speech is a key part to being understood
by native speakers and an essential part of speaking with an American accent.

The focus of this week's podcast is:

  • To learn what a focus word is and the genral rule for choosing the focus word.
  • To practice using focus words in some key American expressions.

Review: What is "stress" and which words are stressed in English

As we previously learned in podcast 14 , stress in English is primarily indicated through the lengthening
of a vowel and a rise in pitch.

Stress = longer vowel + rise in pitch (intonation).

This rise in pitch , this rise in intoantion is also called "pitch emphasis."
Longer vowels and higher pitches
are the real way to indicate a stressed syllable or word.

In any phrase or sentence, certain words receive more stress and we can hear that their vowels
are longer and the pitch of their stressed syllable is somewhat higher. These are known as content words.
Content words include verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, wh questions words(what, where, who, how, why and when) and demonstratives(this, that, these and those).

These types of words are usually the most important and newest pieces of information
in our conversation.

Let's listen to a sentence and notice how the content words are stressed.
Listen for long vowels and higher pitches on the content words.

I waited for several hours.

Notice how I stressed "waited", "several " and "hours". Listen again :

I waited for several hours.

All of the words which I stressed are content words; "wait" is a verb,"several" is an adjective
and "hours" is a noun.
Most importantly, they contain the most important part of my message. By stressing these words, I highlight
the most important part of my message and make it easier for my listener to understand me.

The Focus Word Stands Out

However, perhaps you noticed that one of these words received more stress than the others. It's pitch was slightly higher and it's vowel was slightly longer. Let's listen again trying to find the word :

I waited for several hours.

If you chose the word "hours" you are correct.

Please listen again.

"Hours" is the the focus word. Every phrase in English has at least one word that receives the most stress
and this word is known as the focus word. It's extrememly important to have a focus word in each phrase.

I should also note that by phrase I mean a group of connected words that make a complete idea. It's not
necessary for the phrase to be a complete clause or sentence.

How do we know which word is the focus word?

There is a general rule for determining the focus word within a phrase:

Rule: The last content word of a phrase is usually the focus word.

Notice in the previous example there were three content words- waited, several and hours but the last content word, hours, had a longer vowel and a higher pitch.

Here's another example:

I thought the film was good!

In this example, there are 3 content words- thought, film and good. But notice how I stressed the last content word "good" a little bit more than the others.

Notice, that I did not say the phrase like this:

I thought the film was good.

The rhythm of this phrase was too even, too stacatto and monotone. In order to sound like a native speaker
I need to stretch the vowel and to make its pitch slightly higher that the other content words.

You may be wondering why the last content word is usually the focus word. This is difficult to explain
but it relates to the syntax, the structure of English grammar. For now, It' s best to simply accept the rule
almost as phenomenon of English.

Is the last content word always the focus word?

You may also be wondering if the last content word is always the focus word?

The answer to that is no. This is a general rule and there are exceptions.
But of course its important to master the essentials before the exceptions.

It is possible to stress a content word that comes earlier in the phrase.

It's going to depend on what I'm trying to say- what your point is. This is known as moving focus words. Moving focus words wil be covered
in a future podcast.

For now, remember that when all of the content words in your phrase are new and important information in your conversation you want to make the last content word your main focus word.

Avoid these Mistakes

It's very important to master this pattern. Many students of English make the following two mistakes:

Mistake 1) All of the words of their phrase are stressed too evenly.

This is confusing to the listener becasue the American ear has been trained to listen for content words
and to listen for one main focus word. Without those signals in the right place, it's not clear
what the point of the speaker is.

Mistake 2) Stressing the wrong focus word.
Some English students use focus words but choose the wrong one.
They might choose a content word that comes earlier in the sentence. Again, this is confusing to the American listener because we are accustomed to generally hearing the main focus word at the end of the phrase.

Now let's practice using focus words in some key expressions of English. Pay careful attention to your rhythm. We're going to use the expressions from last week's podcast but this time we're going to pay extra attention to the focus word in each phrase.
Remember to make the stressed syllable of the last content word longer and with a higher pitch.

Really try to feel the rhythm and intonation of the sentence- almost like it's music.

Exercise: Listen and repeat paying careful attention to the main focus word in each phrase: (Focus words are in italics.)

Nice to meet you.

When are you free for lunch?

Do you need to see a doctor?

It's time to raise the bar. (set a higher standard)

I'd like to make a reservation.

John and Lisa are tying the knot. (getting married)

Practice is Key!

Learning to speak English with a standard American accent and with an American rhythm is a gradual
process but if you work at it regularly and practice as often as you can, you're going to improve!

The Right Training Tools for Better Pronunciation:

It's important to have right training tools in order to improve your accent.

That's why I recommend that you check it out my English Pronunciation Course in mp3 format- Best Accent Training mp3s!

No matter what your first language is, Best Accent Training has the lessons you need
for speaking English clearly and correctly.

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You'll get all the vowels of English, all the consonants, syllable stress lessons, intonation lessons and connected speech!

Best of all, Best Accent Training is a fast and easy download that you can put on your mp3 player and take with you wherever you go! I specifically designed it for that purpose.

Any questions, comments or suggestions ? Contact us at:   contact@englishpronunciationpod.com

Thank you and see you next time!


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After practicing with Best Accent Training daily,
I can say that my English communication has improved 100%. "

- Domingo Ponce Rodriguez- - Marketing Manager USA (Spain)

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