Improving English Pronunciation: Word Stress

Each language has its own pattern and rhythm in which you speak it. When individuals learn a new language, they commonly speak it using the stress pattern and rhythm of their first language. In English, some syllables within words are stressed while others are not. If the correct stress patterns are not used, a person’s English can sound unnatural and can be difficult to understand.

I remember a number of years ago, I had a friend whose second language was English. She was telling me about the “NO-TIS-BORED”, all with even stress. Initially I didn’t know what she was talking about, until I realised she meant the notice board (“NO-tes board”). Word stress patterns can change the entire meaning of a word. This is easily seen in the words “dessert” (de-SERT) and “desert” (DE-set).

In English, the majority of words with two or more syllables will have one part that is emphasised (i.e. stressed). The vowels in stressed syllables are said louder and longer than the vowels in unstressed syllables. Look at the word stress patterns in the following words (the stressed syllable is underlined):

  • before  (be-FORE)
  • water  (WA-ter)
  • computer  (com-PU-ter)
  • kitchen  (KI-tchen)

Unfortunately there are no fixed rules when learning word stress. It is helpful to learn the correct stress pattern when learning each word. If you are unsure about the pattern in a word, try saying it with different patterns and see which way sounds the most natural (e.g. “COM-pu-ter”, “com-pu-TER” or “com-PU-ter”?). Most dictionaries will let you know which syllable is stressed. The stressed syllable has a mark before it (e.g. ‘apple = “A-pple”). Alternatively, you can hear the correct pronunciation of a word by typing it into an online dictionary with audible pronunciation.

Becoming more aware of word stress will improve the clarity of your English pronunciation and make you a more confident speaker. To finish, have a go at saying your name. See if you can work out which syllable is stressed.

If you would like to work on your English pronunciation, we offer individualised Accent Reduction Training sessions. Contact Designed 2 Shine Speech Pathology for more information.

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