Why the Brits can’t Rap, Sentence Stress and how to Improve Listening and Pronunciation Skills through Music.

Every language has its own rhythm and music.

The English language is a stressed-timed language which means that the rhythm falls on individual, dominant syllables within a sentence and there is a reduction in many of the vowel sounds. Other languages that follow this pattern include German, Dutch and Russian. This compares with syllable-timed languages such as French or Italian where every syllable is given the equal amount of stress and vowels are not reduced.

We could demonstrate this by looking at the examples below where the beat falls on the (parts of the) words in bold below which carry the dominant stress on certain syllables. This would typify a standard English pronunciation;

I want to go to London to see the really beautiful museums.

If, on the other hand, an Italian were to pronounce the same sentence in English, it would sound something like this;

I want to  go   to   London   to   see   the  really   beautiful   museums. (every syllable is stressed).

Many learners of EAL (English as an Additional Language), think that the British ‘eat their words’ when they speak because they don’t appear to pronounce all of their syllables correctly. This also slightly depends on regional accents and is probably also a generational thing. My parents’ generation probably spoke with more Received Pronunciation, (standard BBC English), in which people tended to speak more clearly and in a ‘clipped’ way. If you’d like to know more about stress rules in English, take a look at the following link;

Nevertheless, it has been said that because of its specific ‘musicality’ and rhythm, the English language tends to lend itself well to rock and pop music. This would contrast with other languages such as French or Italian which may be better-suited to Rap. An article written in the New York Times on 20th October 2002 even went as far to say that the British weren’t able to Rap.

“British speech patterns don’t lend themselves to what is known as ‘flow’, the crucial blend of phrasing, swing and personality that is a rapper’s signature. Mr Mao rates French rappers as superior to those on the other side of the English Channel. There is a fluidity about the French language that makes it more compatible”.

The UK Grime and HipHop artists who emerged around 2010 might have something to say about that but it perhaps makes a valid point.

Learning a language through music is one of the best ways to learn about pronunciation as well as improving general listening skills. I often use different types of music in the classroom to help reinforce my students’ listening skills. One of my favourite websites which I often visit with my students is …..


The students can listen to a vast array of songs and for each song they can opt for ‘choice mode’ or ‘written mode’. They listen to each song and, depending on the student’s ability, can either select the correct multi-choice word they hear to insert into each space or simply write out each word as they hear it. It makes learning a more enjoyable experience especially when they get to sing it afterwards in the Karaoke version! Why not try out this song below from The Jungle Book called ‘The Bare necessities’ to get a good feel for English sentence stress;

On that point, I can certainly recommend that teachers think about using some of the following listening activities for improving their students’ all-round aural skills, pronunciation and general level of comprehension in order to help improve their students’ learning and confidence in the slightly murky world of English pronunciation – which is never easy for foreign learners to pick up.

Practice Activities  –

  1. Dictagloss.
  2. Speed dictation.
  3. Teaching weak forms, (the Schwa) – perhaps teach your students individual word stress, (ie. Content & Structure Words), before moving on to looking at Sentence Stress.
  4. Why not use a good pronunciation book such as the old chestnut, ‘Ship or Sheep’?

Production Activities  –

  1. Choral pronunciation drills of clauses or sentences including Chain Drills.
  2. Finger clicking or clapping of music, prose or poetry.
  3. Read out sentences with only stressed words.
  4. Jazz chants.

By practising these sorts of activities, learners should be able to develop their ‘musical ear’ towards the intricacies of English pronunciation which are not as straightforward as in some other languages. Hope you found this useful!


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