Vol 2 Ed 15 » Cultura » Prosody 101: How to Improve Your Accent

Prosody 101: How to Improve Your Accent

Anastasia Boldireff

Every language has a natural rhythm; this rhythm is what linguists call prosody.  Prosody is one of the three components that make up accent, in the sense of how you sound to others in a particular language.  Prosody or the understanding of prosody is different in literature and linguistics.  My research looks to merge these understandings.  In literature, prosody is the rhythmic analysis of any given language which measures the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in a given sentence, line, or verse.  In linguistics, to take from Rebekah George Benjamin and Paula J. Schwanenflugel (2010) who cite Couper-Kuhlen, prosody is, “the variations of loudness, duration, pitch and pausing found in speech”.  To simplify this, either way, whether spoken or written, prosody measures the rhythm in any given language. 


As an adjunct professor at Rosario University and a researcher out of Los Andes University, I have dedicated the last nine months to studying prosody and accent.  Every language has its own natural rhythm, as aforementioned, but I am proposing two things in my research; the first, that English and Spanish’s rhythms are opposites; the second, that studying/teaching poetry will directly improve a person’s accent – in the way they sound.      
If we look at an English or Spanish word, such as “construction” and “construcción” you will notice that in both languages, this word has three syllables, but the ‘stress’ or ‘acento’ is fundamentally different in the way you pronounce these words.  For instance:

x     /      x                                                      /        x     /
construction                                                  construcción

The ‘x’ marks the unstressed syllable, and the ‘/’ marks the stress.  If you try to say these words, you will notice this immediately.  This is also applicable in words such as ‘television’, ‘direction’, etc.  Let’s take another example:

x     /  x  /   x                                                  /    x  /  x   / 
co|lon|i|za|tion                                               co|lo|ni|za|ción

When applied to bigger sentences this pattern seems to remain true.  We will compare the following examples: ‘What are you doing?’ vs ‘¿Qué estás haciendo?’; ‘Do you want to go with me?’ vs. ‘¿Quieres ir conmigo?’ and, ‘He is with me.’ vs. ‘Él está conmigo’. 

(x     /)   (x    /)  (x)
What are you doing?
(/      x)  (/   x) (/    x)

¿Qué estás haciendo?

This theory holds true with the first example.  Let’s look at a few more:

x     /      x     /    x    /       x
Do you want to go with me?
/      x     /    x   /   x    /  

¿Quieres ir conmigo?

In the second example, in English, the ‘you’ and ‘with’ are the main stresses in the sentence.  The same Spanish sentence however highlights the act of going ‘ir’, and not ‘with’.    
However, my study does not look to just analyze words or sentences individually: my goal is to better understand the way people sound in English – or prosodic accentuation.  (A sister study in the future will look to analyze how foreigners sound in Spanish, but for now, it is dedicated to improving accents in English.)  Simultaneously, for now, my goal is to prove that English and Spanish’s rhythms (prosody) are opposites. 

Poetry is already present in the ESL classroom and is generally taken for granted.  For instance, tongue twisters originate from poems, and these are generally a part of ESL pronunciation exercises.  For example, “Peter Piper picks a peck of pickled peppers,” or “She sells seashells by the seashore.”  These two examples follow English’s natural rhythm and are also exemplary of phonetic sounds in English – another feature of ‘accent’ – how you sound in a given language.
Fixed form poetry incorporates the study of prosody (rhythm) and meter (how you measure rhythm).  Prosody is the rhythm, in a linguistic context, of a language; in a literary context, prosody is the rhythm of a given line in poetry.  In poetry we say that there are different types of meters – ways of measuring prosody.  Poets have discovered that there are six ways of measuring a sentence, or line.  Table 1. Shows the six different types of meter with the stress represented as a ‘/’ and the ‘unstressed’ as an ‘x’.    

Table 1. Meter
Iamb (Iambic) ( x / )
Trochee (Trochaic) ( / x )
Spondee (Spondaic) ( / / )
Anapest (Anapestic) (x x / )
Dactyl (Dactylic) ( / x x )

So, you might be thinking – yes, I understand – but what does poetry have to do with prosody?  In teaching poetry, especially older fixed form poetry, students will be able to appropriately pick up the rhythm in English.   I have tested this theory in my classrooms in the last nine months and have noticed immediate improvement.  Fixed form poetry and its metrical assignments (the measurement of syllables in a given line) if applied to the transcription or analysis of students’ accent in English – is a great exercise to improve their accents in English.  Let’s takes a popular Shakespearean example, i.e. Sonnet 130:

x    /      x      /      x   /    x     /     x    /
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
x   /    x   /     x      /        x     /     x      /
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
x   /       x     /         x       /     x         /        x    /
if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
x   /        x    /          x       /        x        /    x     /
if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

If we compare Shakespeare’s iambic rhythm to a famous Spanish poem “Nocturno” by Julio Cortázar we will immediately notice how it is dominated by the opposite rhythm:

(/    x ) (/ x) (/  x )( /   x ) ( /  x ) ( /     x ) ( / x)( /   x) (/  x)
Tengo esta noche las manos negras, el corazón sudado

(/  x    x) ( /   x) (/  x)  (/   x)  (/  x)(/ x)  (/    x     x) (/     x)   (x  /)
como después de luchar hasta el olvido con los ciempiés del humo.

(/  x)  (/    x) (/ x  x) (/    x)  (/ x ) (/   x) (/    x)
Todo ha quedado allá, las botellas, el barco,

(/   x)(/   x    x)  (/x) (/  x) (/ x)(/  x)  (/   x)
nosi me quean, y si esperaban verme.

My theory looks to prove that English has an iambic (x /) rhythm and that Spanish, alternatively, has a trochaic (/ x) rhythm.  Thus far I have proven that English does have an iambic rhythm.  Further scholarship needs to be conducted to fully prove that Spanish is truly trochaic. 


If you read carefully, you’ll note that this is not true in my provided example 100% of the time.  There are exceptions, for instance, ‘humo’ at the end of the second line, and what poets call a ‘dactyl’ at the beginning of the second line as well.  My theory isn’t looking to prove that Spanish is 100% trochaic nor that English is 100% iambic.  It is looking to see that if this theory holds true the majority of the time.  Also, if applied in language classes if there is a relationship between studying poetry and improving one’s accent. 

So – you might ask, I am a student and how do I improve my accent?  English is biologically iambic.  And studying prosody and poetry will assist learners how to adopt an appropriate and accurate rhythm in English – through studying poetry, through listening to poetry, and through writing poetry.  English writers wrote consistently in ‘iambic pentameter’ for hundreds of years.  Shakespeare was one of them.  Iambic pentameter is an iambic meter that has 10 syllables and 5 stresses (penta = five). 

Studying, listening to, and writing in iambic meters will improve your accent in English.  At this point, you will either be saying: “I don’t believe you” or “how do I start”?  For the latter group, you start by reading poetry aloud and listening to it.  For example, there are many famous poems in English of varying difficulties that will help you pick up English.  The catch is that you have to understand prosody: which is why this should be a skill taught in the ESL classroom.  For example, take the famous poem “Green Eggs and Ham”:

x   /    x    /       x         /        x     /
“I do not like green eggs and ham
x   /  x    /       x      /      x    /
I do not like them Sam I am.”

This is from a famous Dr. Seuss poem that is quintessentially American and reflective of English culture.  This is for children in primary school and I believe a method used to have them remember the poem through its rhythm.  You will notice that these two lines are iambic. 
A more advanced poem, and equally well known, is “The Night Before Christmas”.  This poem follows an anapestic rhythm (x x /) which is also a part of what I’d like to call the ‘iambic family’ (x /) because it has the stress that follows two unstressed syllables. 

      x     x     /       x   x    /          x        x     /       x          x    /
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
  x  x     /    x     x    /        x     x     /   x   x    /
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”    

This poem also follows English’s natural rhythm.  My research is still being conducted, but in the interim I encourage teachers to look into the scholarship on why poetry is important in the ESL classroom.  And, I also encourage students or people who want to improve their accent in English to start reading and listening to poetry.  In English, we have an expression that makes fun of native speakers who mispronounce certain words: we say, “emphasis on the wrong syllable.”  And it’s for this reason that I strongly encourage students to study poetry so that they may improve their accents in English. 


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