Stress is in!

Stress is in! Tips to improve your communication skills

Dear Lemonade 25 Readers,

My name is Susan Sankin and I am a speech-language pathologist with more than 20 years of experience in foreign and regional accent reduction, voice improvement and public speaking skills. I have worked with Serena for 4 years now and recently we thought it would be interesting for her readers to understand what speech therapy and accent reduction really mean. This is the first post of a series aimed at teaching you the best tips to speak with clarity and precision, in public or private settings and whether you are a native or foreign English speaker.

Any accent reduction program is incomplete if you do not learn how to speak Standard American English with the appropriate stress.  The first stage of any good accent reduction program for non-native speakers is to learn the correct pronunciation for the consonants and vowels of English.  The second stage is to learn the appropriate stress for English, which unlike other languages relies on stress for meaning.

Stress refers to the emphasis placed on a word, syllable, or a phrase. Vocally, we indicate stress by making that syllable, word or phrase a bit louder and/or longer or by slightly increasing your pitch on that utterance. The stressed syllable of words is constant and does not change, however, the stressed words of a sentence are variable.  For example, the bold letters in the following word tell you which syllable to emphasize every time you say this word: frustrating.  It does not change.  However, in a sentence, you can change the stress depending on the message that you are trying to communicate.

In the sentence, “Bob bought a beautiful painting”, you can stress different words depending on what you are trying to communicate. If you say, Bob bought a beautiful painting, stressing the name Bob, then you know that it was Bob and not Tom or John or somebody else who bought the painting. However, if you stress the verb, bought, as follows,  Bob bought a beautiful painting, this implies that Bob bought the painting as opposed to receiving it as a gift or even painting it himself. If you stress the sentence as follows, Bob bought a beautiful painting, we know for sure that it was a painting and not a vase or another beautiful object that Bob bought. In many other languages, all words are stressed equally but in English we stress specific words to assist in getting the message across.  You may wonder, how do you know which words to stress?

For the most part, we try to emphasize content words not function words.  The content words are nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.  These are the most important words in the sentence as they convey information. The function words tend to be parts of speech such as articles, prepositions, and conjunctions.  These words are non-stressed words in a sentence.  They are transition words but do not carry the same information as the content words.  In addition to the difference between content and function words, there are other helpful rules for stress.

When you use a compound word, which is a word that consists of two or more elements that are independent words such as bathtub, the rule is to stress the first word.  Try practicing the following words, stressing the part of the word that is bold: birthday, cupcake, earthquake, weekend, toothbrush, and thunderstorm.  Now try to maintain the appropriate stress for the following sentence: We went away for the weekend because it was my birthday but unfortunately, I forgot my toothbrush!

In addition to consistent rules for stressing compound words, there are a group of words that are spelled the same, but when they are stressed appropriately, they convey different meaning.  These words, serve as both nouns and verbs, but it is   understood that when you emphasize the first syllable, the word is a noun and when you stress the second syllable, the word is a verb.  If you pronounce the word using the incorrect syllable stress, it interferes with meaning and it is confusing to your listener.  An example of this rule is as follows: His conduct was inappropriate.  He will conduct the meeting remotely via Skype.  Some other words that fall into the noun category are envelope, subject, suspect, contract, and insert.  The mates of these words that fall into the verb category are stressed as follows: envelope, subject, suspect, contract, and insert. In the following sentence, it would be very confusing if you did not stress the appropriate syllable: I suspect that the suspect will be arrested this afternoon.

The rules discussed here are not the only rules for stress.  There are many nuances of stress that non-native speakers learn, as they become more experienced speakers and understand the nuances of meaning in English. If you learn to use stress correctly, you will be more effective in communicating your ideas accurately and the flow of your speech will sound more typical of the patterns of a native speaker.

Remember, when it comes to speech, stress is in!