You need to find your flow
If you don’t know me yet, I’m Accent Coach Bianca. Accent coaching is a fascinating off-shoot of ESL teaching and it lets me get into the nooks and crannies of my students’ English. Bonus — I get to meet and speak with some incredible coaches on my podcast, please like Daniel Alfaro, an English Language teacher from Mexico.
Daniel sat and spoke with me back in June and we had an incredible time swapping stories and techniques specific to rhythm, a part of English that tons of teachers never get to discuss with their students despite its value.
First, let me clarify:
What is rhythm?
In language, rhythm is the up and down of your tone. If this was a song, it would be the melody. Without rhythm, your conversation takes on a flat, monotone quality that listeners find unpleasant. However, once you find your rhythm, your speech gets a colorful, engaging quality, even if English isn’t your first language.
Daniel had to learn English as a student, and he noticed the importance of rhythm whenever he tried to share an experience with someone else. Something always got in the way.
“When I wanted to talk about something that happened to me when I was on vacation, I was not able to express it in the same manner, (as Spanish),” he said. “Even though you know a lot of grammar, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to have a lot of fluency, or that you are going to sound like you want to sound.”
Yet so many teachers focus on grammar over rhythm. After all, grammar is easy to measure and test. You either know it or you don’t. Rhythm is trickier and much harder to put into metrics.
What happens when you have bad rhythm
First, you can lose the emotion you want to show.
“Today, I am able to demonstrate when I am angry and when I am happy,” Daniel told me. “I can go to the States and I can complain about something and be clear, right? But this is something that before having this formation, I didn’t know how to do because I was like, if I was angry, I sounded the same then when I was happy. Because my intonation was super monotone, super flat.”
If English is anything, it’s emotional. Sure, you can say, “I feel angry,” but if your intonation and rhythm don’t reflect that emotion, listeners are unlikely to take your feelings seriously.
Second, it can get in the way of communication.
“I was in Cancun last month,” Daniel told me, “and I was there on vacation with a friend from Morocco. We went on a day trip and we were on a boat and then one, one of the guides gave instructions to her in English. I was able to understand because his first language was Spanish, but my friend, I mean, she speaks Arabic and she was like, what?
And then this guy repeated the same thing. Again, she didn’t understand and I remember that this guy got angry and he was like, ‘Don’t you speak English?’
“And I was like, ‘Yes, she speaks English!’ I was like, thinking as a teacher, and wanted to say, hey, if you only stressed things correctly, your message would be clear. Because even I found it difficult to understand him.”
Finally, bad rhythm can wear people out.
Daniel got into the importance of the pause. If you don’t have a good sense of when to pause and when to keep powering through, you can get what I call the machine-gun effect. And no one wants to be mowed down by a hail of high-speed conversation.
How to work on your rhythm
Daniel had some great ideas for improving rhythm based on his experiences and his work with students. Here’s how to get your rhythm in shape.
- Video yourself reading a piece of text out loud. If you can, play it back to a native speaker and get feedback. You automatically adjust your speech once you know how you sound.
- Listen to a song and read the lyrics as you listen. This helps show you how singers do reductions, or how they shorten words in the song. Reductions are key to a great rhythm.
- Sing! One of the best ways to practice rhythm is to do it through the magic of song. If you aren’t comfortable singing in class, do it on your own. Find a singer you like and try to imitate them and how their words flow.
How teachers can help
Fluency practice in class ups each student’s English by a mile. Here are some quick fluency exercises to help your learners take a step away from grammar and towards rhythm:
- Talk for one minute — Have your students generate a list of random topics, then draw from a pile to give one student one topic. Set a timer and explain that the student has to keep talking about that subject until one minute is up. They can make up facts, start singing, anything as long as they don’t go quiet.
- Put students in pairs and have them do a mini-podcast. Ask them to record it on their phones and then swap it with other classmates. Discuss what parts are difficult to understand and talk about how each student can improve his or her rhythm.
- Sing! Sing as a class and drill down into the flow of each song and how the rhythm affects the emotion of the words. Be sure to display the lyrics or give students a way to read them as they listen.
Want to know more?
Listen to the full episode with Daniel to hear all about his experience with learning and teaching rhythm.
I have a ton of other episodes you can check out, all for free.