When you learn a language as an adult, there’s one area where you will have more difficulties than a child.
This area is pronunciation.
In fact, most of the people I teach and coach are worried about their pronunciation and their accent. They’re worried that:
a) people won’t understand them
b) people will laugh or make jokes of their “foreign” accent.
Accent or Pronunciation?
First of all, lets just deal with the “accent” problem! Your accent – for any language – indicates where you come from. We all speak in an accent. I speak English with a southern English accent, Italian with an English accent, and French with a (bizarrely) Italian accent. Your accent can be stronger or weaker, but we all have one.
But pronunication is more about how easy it is for people to understand you. It’s important, because you need to be clear when you communicate. You want to avoid “friction” in conversations – socially or professionally. For this reason, it’s important to be as accurate as possible.
My Number 1 Tip For Great Pronunciation
Depending on what your native language is, some sounds are easier for you than others. But there’s one area of English pronunciation that applies to everyone – regardless of native language.
If you get this thing right, you’ll immediately sound more like a native speaker – and, native speakers will understand you better!
The number one thing for great pronunciation is getting the stress right.
So, what is stress?
When we speak English, we have a natural rhythm in our sentences. Some sounds are heavier and more important than others.
My name is Clare, and I’m an English teacher.
The heavier sounds are on the words name, Clare, Eng and teach, and we call these sounds “stressed” sounds. All the other words and syllables are unstressed. So “my”, “is”, “and”, “I’m”, “an”, “lish” and “er” are unstressed, and they fit between the stressed sounds.
my NAME is CLARE and I’m an ENGlish TEACHer
If you say this sentence aloud, you probably realise that you can only fit the small unstressed words in if you make them weak and quick. Often the vowel sound is a schwa or “uh” sound. For example: “and I’m an” (uhn I’m uhn). When you have this rhythm in English (where some words and sounds are heavier, and others are weaker in a sentence) it’s called sentence stress.
Because we can’t stress every single sound in a sentence, we generally stress only the information words. Information words are often nouns, adjectives and verbs, while we don’t usually stress grammar words like a, an, the, can, of, and so on. Most sentences you hear have this natural rhythm – some sounds are stressed, and others are unstressed.
But, we can change this natural rhythm to emphasise different words. When we do this, we change the meaning of the sentence. Here’s a quick example of how we do this.
I LOVE you (stressing “love” emphasises that I love you, not hate you). This is “normal” stress.
I love you (stressing “I” emphasises that maybe everyone else hates you, but I love you)
I love YOU (stressing “you” shows that it’s you I love – nobody else.)
But there’s a second thing that gives English its particular rhythm and which works with sentence stress. This is word stress.
In words with more than one syllable, one syllable is stressed, while the other syllables aren’t stressed. So, for example we say a FLOWer (not flowER), or teleVISion (not teLEvision or televisION). One other thing: while we can change the sentence stress, we can’t change the word stress. It’s always FLOWer, never flowER.
Word stress is really important in English pronunciation. If you get it wrong, native speakers might not understand you. So, how do you know which part of a word to stress?
A lot of it is familiarity. You hear a word, and you can hear which part is stressed. So you hear the word “teacher” again and again, and you know it’s TEACH-er, not teach-ER. So one of the best ways to learn word stress is to hear the word. For new words, you can check in a dictionary, and often you’ll see the apostrophe mark before the stressed syllable. (‘teach-er)
But there are also some word stress rules which can help. Here are a few for you.
1. Words ending -ee, -ese, -oon
We put the stress on the final yllable for words ending ee, ese, and oon.
For example, a-GREE, dis-a-GREE, Chi-NESE, Ja-pan-ESE, cart-OON, after-NOON.
2. Nouns and adjectives
We normally have the stress on the first syllable of nouns and adjectives
So EAS-y (not easY), CLEV-er, LOVE-ly, SOF-a.
We normally have the stress on the second or final syllable of verbs.
For example, be-LIEVE, re-MAIN, ad-MIRE.
4. Words ending in -tion, -sion, -ic
We have the stress on the penultimate (second to last) syllable of words ending tion, sion or ic.
For example, sen-SA-tion, i-ma-gi-NA-tion, in-for-MA-tion, te-le-VI-sion and dra-MA-tic.
So that’s it – how to sound more like a native English speaker by using correct sentence and word stress! The next time you speak English, concentrate on one of these aspects of stress – and let me know how you got on in the comments!