The languages of
the world may be classified in many ways. One distinctive classification
is how the timing of tone groups are arranged. Tone groups
in speech are bursts of sound, or sound frames, which contain a chunk
of coded language patterns. A tone group is said in a single breath.
These chunks seem to be rather similar to the 'packets' of information
which are sent through packet-switching networks on the internet, and
their size is closely related to the needs of our human processor, the
There are various
options for arranging the sounds in tone groups. We usually recognize
these choices as rhythm, intonation and stress; (actually intonation
contains a large number of more detailed features). Stress is
essentially anything which marks one bit of sound out from the surrounding
speech stream. It is typically made up from a subtle combination of
duration, speed, pitch and loudness.
The feature of sound
duration is often called 'timing'. The timing method of sound
chunks varies is in a continuum amongst languages. At one extreme of
this continuum are so-called stress-timed languages, and the
at the other extreme are so-called syllable-timed languages.
In practice, no language is entirely syllable-timed or entirely stress-timed.
each syllable has the same time duration. This means that
tone groups vary in duration, depending upon the number of syllables
they contain. Because a tone group is said in a single breath, in practice
this variation in tone group length is limited. Thus in a tone group
with more syllables than usual, all the syllables might be said
more quickly to 'fit within a single breath'.
each tone group has more or less the same time-duration,
(a single breath) regardless of the number of syllables it contains.
This means that some syllables will be spoken very quickly, while the
stressed syllable or syllables will often have a much longer time duration.
If the tone group has an unusual number of syllables, everything might
be speeded up, but stressed syllables will usually take relatively longer
to say than unstressed syllables. In English, tone groups average about
five syllables (though it is possible to have a tone group of only one
Usually (but not
always) the stressed syllable in a stress-timed language is the one
containing new information. By changing the time taken to say any
particular syllable in a stress-timed language, the meaning of
that tone group can be changed. This is a very tricky game indeed !
Native speakers do it automatically, but the speaker of a syllable-timed
language who tries to learn a stress-timed language will probably have
great trouble mastering the new arrangement (and meanings) of sound
very strongly a stress-timed language. Chinese is reputably strongly syllable-timed (but see this demonstration of Chinese prosody).
Korean is more or less syllable-timed. Japanese is timed
by 'mora'. (A mora can be C+V (consonant + vowel), V, C+/y/+V,
the sound /n/, or a special voiceless pause between certain consonants.
Each mora has the same duration).
Supra-segmental phonology in English
The teaching of
supra-segmental phonology is done very, very badly worldwide, even
by native speakers. The sad truth is that very few teachers know how
to handle it, even if they are aware of the problem.
The first rule
for teaching this stuff is that you can't really do it analytically.
It is just too complex. Rhythm, intonation, and stress-timing are
best learned by imitation done frequently for a short time
(every day !) . The teaching style should be brisk, humorous
and ready to adapt instantly to handle individual difficulties.
One tool for learning
rhythm, intonation and stress-timing is shadow talking. This
is a big topic to explore in itself, but basically involves intense
concentration, and an attempt to talk at exactly the same time, and
to the same speech template, as a model speaker. Shadow talking is
mimicking raised to an art form. Tape record two or three minutes
of the speech of a speaker you admire. Figure out the meaning first,
so you don't have to worry about that while you are practising intonation.
Finally, shadow talk the speaker again and again and again, every
day for a few minutes. Forget your own personality. BECOME the other
speaker, like an actor. Don't be discouraged ! Most people give up
quickly. If you persist, you can become very skilled at shadow talking.
It is one of the few known ways to master native speaker intonation.
Here is a useful
link to the Ministry
of Education in New Zealand, where suprasegmental phonology, as
well as other language matters, is discussed.
A technical note on Syllable Timing Vs Stress Timing: Some recent research has challenged the long-held theory that the world's languages are spread along a simple scale from syllable timing to stress timing. It seems that at each extreme people can clearly distinguish a difference in rythmic patterns - for example, English as "stress timed" and Chinese as "syllable timed" (though even with that, see what happens in real Chinese speech )- but that a large number of the world's languages cannot be judged so simply. Some of these researchers believe that actual timing might not be the important difference. For example, it might be that some languages like English simply allow fast speech to crush syllables together (e.g. what do you => /wodaya/ => /woja/ ) whereas this might be less accepted in some other languages. More investigation is needed on this subject. In the meantime, at least the old explanation alerts teachers and students to compare the rhythmic patterns of their speech to native speakers. If you would like to study this further, here is a technical reference:
Arvaniti, Amalia (2009) Rhythm, Timing and The Timing of Rhythm. Phonetica. 2009 April; 66(1-2): 46–63. Online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790788/
Not many useful
teaching books have been published for the teaching of rhythm, intonation
and stress-timing. One of my favourite books for this purpose is W.
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech (published by Longman,
1954). It has been out of print for many years. Whenever I use this
book, students ask me for photocopies of the material ! Since it is
unobtainable elsewhere, I have scanned a few pages of exercises below.
(Apologies to any copyright owners. If it comes back into publication
I'll happily direct inquirers to the commercial product). Note that
the print image is old, so the scans are of poor quality. Enlarge
them to full size.
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, page 5
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 6-7
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 8-9
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 10-11
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 12-13
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 14-15
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 16-17
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 18-19
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 20-21
Stannard-Allen, Living English Speech, pages 22-23