Intonation and Stress in English Pronunciation

Speakers and learners of English are interested in improving their ACCENT. They quite properly give importance to their pronunciation. However, making the correct English sounds is only a part of a correct accent. A native accent also depends on proper links between parts of the expressions spoken, and also the proper intonation or stress on the parts of the words in the spoken utterance.

It is necessary to have the proper "music" or rhythm of the language that is spoken. You all know the following word game. What is a "zookee"? Ask this of a native born English speaker and they will not know what you mean. If you say, "It is used to open the gate to a place where animals are kept". He or she will know that you are saying "zoo key". You may have pronounced the sounds perfectly but your link between the two parts of the word caused your listener to not hear "zoo key".

The same thing happens with word stress. A native speaker of English knows whether you mean the place where the president of the United States lives, or a house that is painted white when you say "white house". Similarly when you say "dark room", you mean either a room with no lights on, or the place where a photographer develops film. It is the word stress (which has certain rules that you will learn in other articles) that makes the difference.

This article will present an example of and the reasons for the importance of proper word stress.

A. Read the following sentences aloud timing how long each one takes to read.
Then count the syllables in each sentence.

The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance.
(How long did it take to read? ______ seconds.) (How many syllables does it have? ________)

He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening.
(How long did it take to read? (______ seconds.) (How many syllables does it have? ________)
  • Notice that the first sentence actually takes about the same time to speak well!
  • Even though the second sentence is approximately 30% longer than the first, the sentences take the same time to speak. This is because there are 5 stressed words in each sentence.

B. Learn the following facts concerning pronunciation.
  • English is considered a stressed language while many other languages are considered syllabic.
  • In other languages, such as French or Italian, each syllable receives equal importance (there is stress, but each syllable has its own length).
  • English pronunciation focuses on specific stressed words while quickly gliding over the other, non-stressed, words.
  • Stressed words are considered content words: Nouns e.g. kitchen, Peter - (most) principle verbs e.g. visit, construct - Adjectives e.g. beautiful, interesting - Adverbs e.g. often, carefully
  • Non-stressed words are considered function words: Determiners e.g. the, a - Auxiliary verbs e.g. am, were - Prepositions e.g. before, of - Conjunctions e.g. but, and - Pronouns e.g. they, she

C. Practice and Keep it up

  • Write down a few sentences, or take a few example sentences from a book or exercise.
  • First underline the stressed words, then read aloud focusing on stressing the underlined words and gliding over the non-stressed words.
  • Be surprised at how quickly your pronunciation improves! By focusing on stressed words, non-stressed words and syllables take on their more muted nature.
  • When listening to native speakers, focus on how those speakers stress certain words and begin to copy this.
  • Now, do some listening comprehension or go speak to your native English speaking friends and listen to how they concentrate on the stressed words rather than giving importance to each syllableStressed words are the key to excellent pronunciation and understanding of English.

D. Tips:
  • Remember that non-stressed words and syllables are often "swallowed" in English.
  • Always focus on pronouncing stressed words well, non-stressed words can be glided over.
  • Don't focus on pronouncing each word. Focus on the stressed words in each sentence.
Author: Frank Gerace

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