In a talk about the future of Englishes, the linguist David Crystal mentions that (British) English traditionally has a stress-timed rhythm. In some (most?) countries where English is taught, teachers give drills to practise this type of rhythm. Other languages with stress timing include German, Russian and Dutch.

The other type of rhythm is syllable-timed rhythm. Languages with syllable timing include French, Spanish and Mandarin.

What are the drills that David Crystal like? How can a native speaker of a syllable-timed language learn to speak with a stress-timed rhythm? (For me, as a native speaker as Dutch who is also fluent in English and German, learning this is not issue, so I'm asking for the benefit of native speakers of languages with a syllable-timed rhythm.)

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    Songs come to mind, though as David Crystal mentions in the video you linked to, hip-hop, rap, (and perhaps other contemporary music styles) are syllable-timed.... As a native English speaker I remember exercises on stress (having to identify stressed and unstressed syllables, for example), so I presume that these also helped develop a sense of rhythm. Some exercises also had us listen to the teacher read sentences and we'd mark up a transcription with stress and intonation marks, like this. Dec 28, 2017 at 17:52
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    @A5C1D2H2I1M1N2O1R2T1 It's interesting to know that they teach that sort of thing even to native speakers of English. I can't remember any exercises on intonation that went beyond word stress, even at university.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 29, 2017 at 13:01
  • @A5C1D2H2I1M1N2O1R2T1 I added an answer just know; check if you recognise some of the exercises ;-)
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 11, 2018 at 18:46

1 Answer 1


The website "Teaching English" has a few articles about English intonation and rhythm (and proncunciation in general). Lynn Gallacher's article English sentence stress describes a few exercises:

  • Using limericks and other forms of poetry, since stress timing is very noticeable in this type of language. Students can even read their own limericks and read them out, trying to keep the rhythm.
  • Use a recording of a dialogue, e.g. from a course book: listen to it, then record yourself speaking the dialogue again and again until it sounds as close as possible to the recording.

Steve Darn's article Rhythm lists a number of teaching techniques but does not elaborate on them.

(Marta J. Sabbadini's article Intonation also contains a few suggestions, e.g. on how intonation is used in a dialogue to distinguish between "new" information and "shared knowledge".)

Sarah Tolle's blog post Feel the Rhythm of English and Improve Your Pronunciation! on the Fluent U blog explains what a stress-timed language is and describes three pronunciation exercises to improve your rhythm in English:

  • "Echo activity": first read a word with a stressed syllable (emphasizing the stressed syllable as much as posible), then read a short sentence that has a similar stress pattern.
  • "Movement activity": add a movement such as clapping your hands to emphasize the stressed parts in a sentence.
  • "Bouncing ball activity": use a bouncing ball to guide your stress-timing; you'll need to find a steady pattern, without speeding up or slowing down the dribbling.

Maria-Josep Solé Sabater's paper Stress and Rhythm in English contains a long discussion of stress and stress-timed rhythm, and present some material for practising English stress and rhythm, for example:

  1. Practising phrases that have the same stress pattern as single words (see the "echo activity" in Sarah Tolle's blog post).
  2. Finding phrases that have the same stress pattern the words listed in that section of the paper.
  3. Finding phrases or sentences with the same distribution of stresses as the list provided in the paper.
  4. Practising unstressing in function words.
  5. Practising isochronicity of English rhythm by snapping your fingers or tapping your foot at a regular rhythm while pronouncing sentences.


For more tips, see Claudia Pesce's article 7 Excellent Exercises to Improve ESL Intonation and Stress.

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