Stress out!

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English GrammarFind out how to get English language stress right and speak like a natural with Oliver Pritchard

Pronunciation is the cause of many communication problems. Although many teachers stick to grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation is probably the single most important element of spoken language. Many people think of pronunciation in terms of individual sounds, but there is much more to pronunciation. In this issue, we’re going to study stress – the weight that you give to a word or sound.

Because Spanish has less dramatic stress patterns than English, students in Colombia can sometimes sound bored or boring, because of flat, monotonous pronunciation. Also, students concentrate so much on remembering trivial grammar points that speaking becomes a task to be completed, rather than a useful tool to express themselves.

Using sentence stress correctly makes you sound much more natural when you speak, which is an important difference between a basic speaker and a good speaker. You probably express yourself with a lot of enthusiasm in Spanish, so why not do it in English too?

Word stress

First, we’ll look at stress in individual words. Remember that in Spanish, stress is almost always on the penultimate syllable, but in English we usually stress the first syllable. There are no tildes in English to tell you which sound to stress, so you need to check pronunciation. All good dictionaries will give you guides to pronunciation, often using a phonemic alphabet, for example, /`dIk∫(ә)n(ә)ri/.

English Grammar
Amplitude and stress: I TOLD you to go


English Grammar
Amplitude and stress: I told YOU to go.

If you are listening to the word for the first time, listen carefully to how it is said, and which part of the word is strongest. Some students like to underline the syllables that are stressed in each new word they learn.

The stressed syllable is always the loudest in a word, so you should practise saying it louder than the others. For example, country names provide good practice. JaPAN, CHI-na, Bra-ZIL, Co-LOM-bia, ENG-land etc.

Be aware there are some words that change their meaning depending on which syllable is stressed. This is usually true of nouns (stress on first syllable) and verbs (stress on second syllable). For example, PRE-sent is a noun (meaning either a gift or referring to the current time), while pre-SENT is a verb (to give, offer or show something). Other examples include RE-cord and re-CORD, EX-port and ex-PORT, PRO-test and pro-TEST. (See examples on right)

Pronunciation practice is easiest with a teacher, which is one of the reasons it’s worth paying for class time. However, it is possible to check stress by yourself. First, identify the syllables in a word: ex-am-ple. Now, try saying the word with the stress on different syllables. EX-am-ple; ex-AM-ple; ex-am-PLE. Which one sounds correct?

Note that some word families have moving stress – stress that changes depending on context. The classic example in most classes is photograph. PHO-to-graph starts with first-syllable stress, but pho-TO-graph-y or pho-TO-graph-er have second syllable stress. Other examples include nationalities, for example CHI-na, Chin-ESE; Ja-PAN, Ja-pan-ESE.

English GrammarSentence stress

English is stress-timed, so some words are much stronger than others. To find examples, try finding any English audio and turn the volume down. You should notice that words like ‘a’ and ‘the’ disappear, and only the most important words remain. This is because many words are simply not very important, and so we don’t say them very strongly.

More usefully, stress allows us to use the same words to express different ideas or functions. Consider this quote from popular 90s TV show Seinfeld: “Why would Jerry bring anything?”. The main characters discuss whether the stress was on Jerry “Why would Jerry bring anything?” or bring “Why would Jerry bring anything?”. When Jerry is stressed, this means we are talking about the person, and when the verb ‘bring’ is stressed, we are talking about his actions. It’s important in the story because it is not clear if Jerry is invited to a party. The first stress means he might not be, and the second stress shows that he is.

This is important for students to understand for pronunciation, but also for listening. Although the words are the same, there is a difference between, for example, I’m going to the party (the fact that I am going is important); I’m going to the party (this is what I am doing or a plan); I’m going to the party (I’m telling you where I’m going).

Words such as can/can’t are often stressed, as it is usually very important to know if something is possible or not. This is also true of other modal verbs such as must and have to. We often stress subjects to identify who is doing something and verbs to identify what is being done.

Contrastive stress

As we have seen above, stress allows us to change the function of a sentence. It also allows us to change other people’s suggestions, as we can highlight the differences between what we have said.

Do you want a cup of tea? No, I want a pot of tea.

Do you want a cup of tea? No, I want a cup of coffee.

We also often stress choices and contrasts to make them clearer and easier to understand. It allows us to show that the choice is the important thing, and allows us to clarify situations, for example, with a student asking to leave the classroom:

Do you want to go, or do you have to go?

We can also show that we understand someone’s point of view, and simply correct them, by using contrastive stress. It also allows us to give an alternative point of view, or to move a conversation on.

The Amazon is not big, it’s enormous!

I know you don’t like it, but I do.

Emphatic stress

It’s important to stress key words to express yourself. I hear so many students tell me things like, “Yes Profe, go to Cartagena, it is beautiful” as if they were reading a phone number. Words like beautiful give a strong description, so they should be pronounced strongly – “Cartagena is beautiful, teacher”. Think about when you speak in Spanish – how do you pronounce words like terrible?

I hope that you would say it with a lot of emphasis, so you should do the same in English, even if the phonemes are slightly different. This is also important with certain verbs, such as “he’s getting married” etc. This shows us that marriage is important in this context, and allows us to express ourselves better.

So there it is – stress is important, but don’t let yourself get too stressed about it! With practice, it will become more and more natural to stress both syllables and words correctly and you will become a much more expressive speaker. Good luck.

Stress-timed vs Syllable timed

In a stress-timed language like English or German, some syllables are longer, some are shorter. The stressed syllables occur at approximately regular intervals and the unstressed syllables are fitted in between the stresses. A stressed syllable gets much more time than an unstressed one, and unstressed syllables are reduced.
• ed-u-CA-tion
• PA-pa

In a syllable-timed language like Spanish or French, every syllable is the same length, gets more or less the same emphasis, and they follow regular intervals.
• ed-u-ca-ci-on
• pa-pa

By Oli Pritchard


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