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Why teaching word stress in spoken English is important

By Brita Haycraft

09 October 2013 - 16:01

Brita Haycraft, who shared her 'tricks and techniques for better spoken English' at one of our seminars for teachers in the UK yesterday, tells us that one often overlooked, but very important element to being understood in English is stressing the right words in a sentence.

Why does it matter where we put stresses in a sentence?

Placido Domingo needs no subtitles when interviewed on the BBC, despite his Spanish vowels and 'estrong eSpanish accent'. It's because his sentence stresses are spot on.

But even advanced English language learners still often speak with equal stress on each word: 'I will meet you downstairs.' or 'You must telephone me.'. This confuses English listeners and can also sound a bit rude.

Sentence stress is common sense - so how do you teach it?

It would be so easy to put life into the students' sentences simply by reminding them to stress the logical words, as they practise speaking. But course books seem to ignore this speaking tool, which emphasises the most important words in each context – the very backbone of conversation. Even when you talk to yourself, you stress the words that matter.

If asked in class, however, students know at once which words are important in that context, because it's common sense. All they have to do is to stress them.

Practice is the key to learning sentence stress

Why is this easy-to-use normal sentence stress not part of spoken classroom practice? All students are able to stress perfectly, whatever their mother tongue. Ask a Japanese person if he comes from India and he’ll certainly stress ‘Japan’ clearly.

Write the time 9.30 and ask 'Does the train leave at a quarter past, or half past?' and your class will reply 'Half past', maybe stressing 'Half'. But asked again 'Is the train leaving at a quarter past?', they may stress the wrong word 'No, at half PAST.' So you go on asking 'A quarter past or half past?' until they answer with the appropriate stress. They enjoy this combined drilling which teaches the language item and nags them into saying it in context. Students could also underline the stresses in a dialogue given as homework.

An inappropriate stress confuses an English ear. Would we ever catch the right train if the station master announced the train times with random stress, e.g., 'The next TRAIN at PLATFORM two WILL arrive at a QUARTER past ten.'?

Why are sentence stresses harder to hear in English?

You can certainly hear sentence stress in spoken Germanic and Latin languages, but their unstressed a, o and u stay unchanged and are therefore easier to hear. English often reduces its unstressed a, o, u to the neutral /ə/ sound (as heard in, for example, 'future, method, pursue, ago, forget etc.), which means the meaning of the sentence depends very much on the stressed words.

Obviously, our stresses have to be in place for us to compress the unstressed words. And if we don’t compress unstressed structure words, we sound like robots and the precise meaning gets blurred, while we also sound too insistent.

In the instruction 'You must knock on the door.', would you prefer to hear a quick 'You m-s...' or a clear 'You must... knock on the door.'?

But foreign learners think it careless to say 'It’s ...', 'I’ve...', so they opt for 'It is...', 'I have...' to be polite. But this sounds too precise in normal English conversation. Mrs Thatcher tended to spell out each word, thereby sounding like a school-marm in parliament!

Even the Queen shortens unstressed verbs

English specialises in compressing unstressed auxiliary verbs. 'I would never have caught it.' becomes 'I’d never’ve caught it.'. Even unstressed 'going to' is often pronounced 'gonna' today, yet once  it was not allowed on the BBC. But in a late '80s recording of the Queen talking to President Reagan, she is heard to say 'gonna' without blinking. This once-despised 'Americanism' is now often heard on the BBC, even in serious programmes, if not on the news itself perhaps. Listen out for it during weather forecasts.

So, if our stressed words determine how we say the intervening unstressed structure words, why then do course books start with the single phonemes and go on to 'connected' speech? Sentence stress would be a far easier guide to speaking. What's more, all English dialects use it.

The sooner foreign students get into the habit of stressing the relevant words, the sooner they’ll be able to communicate with English speakers – which is, presumably, their ultimate wish.

Grammar and vocabulary learning won’t be delayed by reminders of which words to stress. They’ll thrive in each other’s company.

Brita Haycraft is founder of London language school International House and author of English Aloud 1 and 2 (Heinemann, 1994).

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