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American Rhythm: Reese Witherspoon speech analysis

In this lesson you’re going to learn:

1. What is the secret of American rhythm and intonation?
2. What are the things in American English that non-native speakers sometimes perceive as ‘fake’ and ‘over-the-top’, and how can we change this misperception?
3. What makes a speech in English powerful and effective?

Scroll down to download the script with my intonation & rhythm notes for effective practice!


Hey guys, it’s Hadar and this is the Accent’s Way. And today we’re going to talk about American rhythm.

We already said that American rhythm is derived from the content which means words that are stressed are usually longer and higher in pitch.

For example, content words like verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. In comparison to words that are less stressed, that are shorter and lower in pitch and softer. And these are function words like: on, in, at, could, would, should, am, as, are, for, of, this, a.

Now, if in your language you have a specific stress pattern, meaning maybe you stress every other word or maybe you only stress things at the beginning and drop at the end.

This is a challenge for you and this is why you need to change your mindset and start recognizing the words that you want to stress, and these are the words that you want to go for.

And by ‘go for’ I mean prolong the main vowel in them and

raise the pitch for them. And to demonstrate this idea of American intonation and rhythm even further I chose to analyze with you this wonderful speech by Reese Witherspoon. Let’s take a look.

“What we do now? Seriously, I’m not kidding. Go back and watch any movie and you will see this…”

‘What do we do now?’. Here she’s talking about the fact that almost in every movie there is a point where the woman turns to the man, asking, “What do we do now?”

Okay, so let’s analyze this question for a sec.

“What do we do now”. The two words that stick out the most are ‘what’ and ‘now’. And then we also have ‘do’.

‘What do we do now?’ ‘What do we do now?’. So we have ‘what’ that is really high in pitch. Notice that she’s not pushing her voice to say the ‘what’ and the ‘now’, she just goes high in pitch.  “What do we do now”? Right.

Now, of course she’s exaggerating and I’m not expecting it to go this high in pitch, ‘What do we do now”. But just try to get the essence of the way she stresses things.

“What do we do now?” So, ‘wuh duh we do, duh we, duh we’. It’s not ‘what do we’. The ‘we’ is not reduced but she’s saying it really-really quickly.

“What do we do…”. Right. She’s not going higher in pitch but it’s longer: TA-da-da-da TA, TA-da-da-da TA.

It’s not “What do we do now”, ta-ta-ta-ta. “What do we do NOW?” “What do we do NOW?”.

So, if you don’t want exaggerate it so much you can just ask: “What do we do now?” “What do we do NOW?”, ta-da-da-da TA.

‘What do we do NOW?”, right. ‘Now’ is really long, ’what’ is kind of long, ‘do’ is right there in the middle: TA-da-da-da-TA. But the ‘do we’ is short and somewhat reduced. ‘Wuh duh we do now’.

Let’s look at the next sentence. “What do we do now? Seriously, I’m not kidding. Go back and watch any movie and you will see”.

‘Seriously, I’m not kidding. Go back and watch any movie’. ‘Seriously’. ‘Not kidding’. ‘Any movie’. These are the stressed words: seriously, not kidding, any movie.

‘Seriously, I’m not kidding. Go back and watch any movie’. So she really slows down hitting those stressed words. This is not to speechy. That’s how people actually speak. Right. It’s a common that she’s adding. It’s not planned, I think. Right.

‘Seriously, I’m not kidding’. ‘Seriously’ – that’s higher in pitch. The SE- which is the primary stress is longer than the rest of the syllables: TA-da-da-da.

And ‘I’m not kidding’, both the ‘not’ and the ‘kidding’ are stressed. ‘Kidding’ is a little more stress than ‘not’. So it’s going to be a little higher in pitch.

‘Seriously, I’m not kidding’. ‘Go back and watch’, ‘go back and watch’, ‘go back and watch’. ‘Go back’. ‘Watch’. These are three content words, but they’re not as stressed, they’re not reduced.

So we don’t reduce the vowel there to a shwa, but they’re said quickly and softly, and with very little effort.

‘Go back and watch any movie’. Right. Slow-slow. “Go back and watch any movie.” I’m not pushing it, i’m not stressing it. I’m not necessarily saying it a lot louder, it’s just slower.

“Go back and watch any movie.” And it’s the distinction between the fast past and the slow part that makes it different, that helps it stick out.

So it’s not just about saying it slowly or strongly or higher in pitch, it’s also about what I did just before, which is I kinda like reduced it, or she did.

“…and watch any movie and you will see this line over and over again. You’re going to see it now”.

‘And you will see THIS LINE over and over again’. ‘And you will see THIS LINE over and over again’. ‘And you will see this line’. So first of all, listen to the melody.

Every syllable has a different note. “And you will see this line”, “and you will”. She didn’t reduce it to y’ll. “And you will see this line”. But it’s said quickly and effortlessly.

“And you will see this line”. ‘Line’ is longer. “Over and over again”. Right? “Again” is reduced. “Over and over again” because it’s not about the repetition, it’s about how it happens every single time.

This is why she chooses to stress “over and over”, “over and over again”. ‘And you will see this line over and over again’.

“You’re going to see it now”.

‘You’re going to see it now’ ‘You’re going to see it now’. Now she’s not saying “you’re going to see it now”. ‘You’re gonna’, ‘you’re gonna’.  She’s not just reducing it – she’s going higher in pitch, but in this case that doesn’t mean that it’s stressed. This is a common pattern where a sentence starts with higher notes.

“You’re gonna see it now”, but “see” is the word that sticks out, that is longer. TA-ta-ra-ta, TA-ta-ta-ta-ta. ‘You’re going to see it now’ ‘You’re going to see it now’.

See it, it, it, it’s reduced, right. It’s not ‘see it’ – ‘see y’t.  ‘You’re going to see it now’ ‘you’re gonna see it now’.

I’m always playing with my head voice and my chest voice. I’m going up. I’m not pushing my voice – ‘you’re gonna see it now”, right? I’m not using more energy to stress. I’m just raising my pitch slightly.

And if you’re not comfortable with going really high in pitch because you get really high pitch when you really wanna stress something you know a little lower in pitch.

Or you can just prolong the word. ‘You’re going to see it now’. ‘You’re going to see it now’, and that’s also OK. But it is different than “You are going to see it now.” “You are going to see it now” or “you’re going to see it now”. Right?

‘You’re going to see it now’. That’s the rhythm. That’s the melody. And that’s the feel of American English.

Let’s skip to the end of the speech.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we are in a cultural crisis”. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I think we are in a cultural crisis’. Now again, look at this constant distinction between the fast and the slow, the reduced and the stressed.

‘Ladies and gentlemen’, right. That’s not that important. Obviously, she’s talking to the ladies and the gentleman in the audience.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I think we are’. “I think we are”. “Think” is stressed, it’s a little longer. “I” is a bit more reduced. “I think we are in a cultural crisis”. Right.

So, she slows down on the two words “cultural crisis”. ‘I think we are in a cultural crisis’, right.

When you really want to stress your point, slow down towards the end of the point, and then prolong the words that you are stressing.

“I think we are”, “Think” is also stressed. Ta-Ta-ra-TA. Ta-TA-ra-Ta-ta-ra-ta-ta. So, the words are prolonged, but also the pace slows down towards the end. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I think we are in a cultural crisis’.

“In every field, in every industry”.  ‘In every field, in every industry’. Now notice the word “in” turns into a shwa, she is reducing it. ‘uhn’ ‘uhn’, ‘uhn every field’.

So “in” is reduced, “every” is a little longer, and “field” that’s a stressed word, this word is higher in pitch and longer. ‘In every field, in every industry’.

‘In every field’. She places it here. ‘In every industry’. So “industry” is a little higher in pitch, it’s a little longer because she’s starting to build up her argument. ‘In every field, in every industry’.

And again, she slows down to get her point across to indicate that it’s an important part. Like I just did now. ‘It’s an important part’ – you slow down when you reach the important part.

“Women are underrepresented and underpaid in leadership positions”.  ‘Women are underrepresented and underpaid in leadership positions’.

So, a lot of words are stressed here: women, underrepresented, underpaid, leadership positions. Right. This is an important sentence, so more words are naturally going to be stressed.

But, here I really want you to see how they come across in comparison to the function words that barely get noticed. ‘Women are underrepresented’. ‘Ah. Ah. Ah.’. ‘Women are, women are’.

It’s not ‘women are under represented’ [without reductions].  ‘Women are underrepresented’. ‘Underrepresented’. And even in the word “underrepresented”, there is a distinction between the more important and the less important.

“Under” is less important. ‘Underrepresented’. And then the “Z” is the primary stress so it’s going to be higher in pitch and longer than the rest. ‘Women are underrepresented and underpaid’, and then “in leadership positions”.

So “in” is really really short and reduced. It feels like it’s part of the word “leadership”. Leadership. ‘In-leadership’, ‘in-leadership’.

So you go from the N to the L, you connect them – ‘in-leadership positions’. Notice there is no “o” in the word positions. ‘In leadership positions’.

“And the reason we’re all talking about it tonight”. ‘And the reason we’re all talking about it tonight’. Ta-ta-Ta-ra-ta-Ta-ta, right. ‘And the reason’, “reason” is higher in pitch and longer.

‘And the reason w-r-all’, ‘w-r-all’. It’s not “we are all’. “We are” turns into “w-r”, and it’s low in pitch and soft and quick. ‘W’r-all’ and then we connect it to “all”.

So eventually what you get is “w’r-all”, w’r-all, w’r-all. It’s not even “we”. It’s like ‘w-r’all”, right. ‘Whoa-raul’.

‘And the reason we’re all talking about it tonight’. ‘Talking about it tonight’. The “talking” is important, so that’s gonna be the peak in terms of the pitch.

‘Talking about it tonight’ – ta-ra-ta-TA. So “talking” and “tonight” are important, “about it” is less important. So it’s gonna be fast and short and kind of reduced.

‘Talking about it tonight’, ‘talking about it’. ‘it’-‘it’. It’s not “talking about it”. ‘Talking about it tonight’.

“Under five percent of CEOs of Fortune five hundred companies are women”. ‘Under five percent of CEOs of Fortune hundred companies are women’. So, there are the stressed words, there are the reduced words.

Third, the stressed words and among them there are words that are more stressed and less stressed. So let’s look into it.

“Under five percent”, that’s stressed because it’s slower and higher in pitch. ‘Under five percent of CEOs’, that’s also stressed but “of” is reduced. ‘Under’, that’s also reduced.

‘Under five percent of CEOs’. Ta-TA Ta -ta- ta- ta-ra TA. Notice that in the word ‘CEO’ the stress falls on the last letter – ‘ceO’, ‘ceO’.

‘Under five percent of CEOs of Fortune hundred companies’, right. These are all content words but they’re less important, right. So here there are no reductions but you need to practice saying it quickly.

‘Fortune hundred companies’, and again, connected speech is important because it feels like it’s one big word. ‘Fortune-five-hundred-companies’, ‘fortune-five-hundred-companies’.

The secret to getting it right is to really soften your consonants. Say your consonants really softly, don’t push every consonant. “Fortune five hundred”. No. Say these consonants softly.

Don’t push your voice and say it softly. ‘Fortune five hundred companies’. ‘Fortune five hundred companies’. And if it’s difficult, say it 50 times in a row. ‘Fortune five hundred companies’.

And it doesn’t matter that you need to be saying this phrase properly or not. When you practice something that is challenging and you manage to master it, you improve a little more. You are able to do other things that are also challenging. Okay.

So even if you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t need this speech.” “I don’t need this phrase.” “This is not a good practice.”, then forget about these bad voices in your head.

Just practice it because every time you practice something and improve in it, you’re improving English as well. So.

“Fortune five hundred companies are women.”  ‘Under 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune five hundred companies are women’. So it’s not “are women”, it’s not super stressed. Okay. That’s how she manages to get to her point nicely. ‘r-women’. ‘r-women’.

“Only nineteen percent of Congress is women”. ‘Only nineteen percent of Congress is women’. Ta-ra-ta-ra-ta-ta-TA-ta-ta. Right. Short-long, short-long.

‘Only nineteen percent’, so this is stressed, it’s longer, deliberately longer, ‘of Congress’, ‘of Congress’, ta-TA-DA. Right. It’s not “of Congress”.

The CON is the primary stress it’s one syllable. It doesn’t have the same length as “of”. There is also one syllable cause “of” is reduced, and it’s not important. So it’s pronounced quickly.

‘ev-CON-gress’, ‘is-women’, ‘is-women’. Right. And again, notice what she does. It’s not “of Congress as women”. Not everything is connected, it is phrased. There is a mini break: “of Congress” … “is women”, right. Like a mini-clap right there in the middle.

‘Only nineteen percent [clap] of Congress [clap] is women. These are the phrases it’s like a mental break that you’re taking, allowing you to speed up in the next phrase. ‘Only nineteen percent of Congress is women’.

“No wonder we don’t have the health care we deserve.”  ‘No wonder we don’t have’. That’s like a common intonation pattern of this particular phrase.

‘No wonder you’re tired – you haven’t been getting enough sleep’. ‘No wonder she’s acting out – she’s been eating candies all afternoon’.

‘No wonder we don’t have’. “Wonder” is the stressed word, “we don’t have”, “we don’t have” is reduced.

“The health care we deserve.” ‘The health care we deserve’. ‘The health care we deserve’. ‘The HEALTH care we deserve’. Right.

So “health care” is important and “we deserve” is a little less. Although it’s important. So “we deserve” is pronounced fully, it is not reduced but it’s lower in pitch. Ta-TA-ra-ta-TA. ‘The HEALTHcare we deserve’.

Notice how people speak around you. This is a very common speech pattern. ‘No wonder we don’t have the health care we deserve’.

“Or paid family leave or public access to early childhood education.” ‘Or paid family leave or public access to early childhood education’.

So, she’s listing things and every time she lists something else it is going to be higher in pitch. ‘No wonder we don’t have the health care we deserve or paid family leave or public access to early childhood education’.

‘Or public ACCESS’, right. So again, she’s building it up: ‘health care we deserve’, ‘paid family leave’, ‘public access to early childhood education’. And then she keeps going down in her low tone, in her lower range, right, in her chest voice. ‘Or paid access’, right.

So this perception of women only talking up here is not right. They go to their head voice and men as well, by the way, it’s not just women. They go to head voice when they stress words in parts of the sentence. And then parts of the sentence are also really really low in pitch.

And we need to balance between the highs and the low, the head voice and the chest voice, the long and the short, the fast and the slow.

“And that really worries me.” ‘And that really worries me’. ‘And that, and that and that’. “That” is reduced and “that” is short.

“And that” [going down] REALLY [stressed, the word really is usually stressed] “Really worries me”. But whatever comes after is usually more stressed. ‘And that really worries me’.

And, pronunciation aside, that really worries me too.

Okay, this was an example of how you can take a speech, and interview, a TED talk that you like, and analyze it according to the things we learned.

I hope that this video helped you notice these things a little more. Things that your brain usually filters out. Things like rhythm, pitch difference, voice difference, length and pace.

So, a good way to practice is to take a text, underline the stressed words, cross out the reduced words, and try to imitate what you’re hearing, knowing what words you’re going for.

And by “going for” I mean going higher in pitch, prolonging them, and reducing, softening, and going lower in pitch for everything else that is not stressed.

Okay. That’s it. Thank you so much for watching. Now, let me know in the comments below what is the most important thing that you’ve learned about American intonation or rhythm in this video.

And also tell me what you think about the content of the speech that we analyzed.

Have a wonderful week, full of music and melody and rhythm. And I will see you next week in the next video. Bye.

The InFluency Podcast
The InFluency Podcast
47. American Rhythm: Learn How To Be A Better Speaker With Reese Witherspoon

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8 Responses

  1. Hi Hadar thank you so much for this lesion, such as always your teaching are very help fully for all us that be trying to improve our English… thank you for do it

  2. Thank you so much for this. We are in Ireland and I am using this to help my profoundly deaf daughter speak more naturally. She is so excited and looks forward to our sessions every night

  3. I just want to express my gratitude for actually teaching people that studing english and learning how to speak english are a different ballpark,

  4. Hey there! I cannot get the script. The link I got it does notr work.
    please give me the right one. Regards

  5. Dear Hadar,

    Thank you for breaking down the speech and explaining how and where to focus on listening to and mimic each section. I desperately needed to see and hear a lesson about “Rhythm and Intonation” in this way. You are seriously a gifted teacher!

    Many thanks?

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