3 What is rhythm?
In order to give a very simple definition, we can say that rhythm in music is the arrangement of sounds as they move through time. It is no different in speech. By rhythm, we refer to the patterns of sounds and the auditory impressions these patterns produce. English and Spanish clearly differ in rhythm. It is generally claimed that Spanish is a syllable-timed language, while English is a stress-timed language. This means that in Spanish, the duration of syllables, independent of stress, is more or less constant, whereas in English the duration of intervals between stressed syllables, independent of the number of unstressed syllables in between, is more or less constant. This is also reflected in the poetic traditions of the two languages. Although there is phonetic truth in this classification, it´s more of an auditory impression that the two languages produce, since the duration of a syllable also depends on the number of segments it is composed of and their intrinsic duration. Undoubtedly, Spanish has a strong tendency towards open syllables (syllables that finish in a vowel) and a less complex syllable structure than English. The lack of vowel reduction in Spanish also contributes to this perceived difference.
Why do Spaniards speak so fast?
Rhythm and tempo are not exactly the same thing. The rate of speech, or tempo, varies greatly depending on the context. In an informal register, we generally speak faster than in a formal one. If we are enthusiastic, we tend to speak faster than when we are sad. These extralinguistic factors influencing speech rate are present in all languages, for all speakers. If a student is slow and disfluent, native speakers might interpret this to mean she is sad or uninterested. It also seems that tempo is the main feature that determines fluency in a foreign language.
Why do most foreigners still think that Spaniards speak extremely fast? It seems to be the case that Spanish speakers pronounce more syllables per minute than English speakers. However, it also seems to be true that they don’t really convey more information. Think of the English word strengthens, it is just two syllables: streng.thens, whereas its Spanish equivalent consists of four: for.ta.le.ce.
Other factors that contribute to the perception of accelerated speech rate are the so-called connected speech phenomena like resyllabification and syllable contraction (discussed in Week 4 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ) that are characteristic features of Spanish.
Ideas for exercises
Shadow reading is a very efficient way to practice prosodic features in Spanish (and any other foreign language).