Stress & Unstress: The Music of English

Stress and unstress are extremely important in spoken English.  It’s like music.  In music, some notes are played LOUDLY, and some notes are quiet.  Some notes are held for a while, and some notes are played quickly.   Music would be very boring if everything were played exactly the same: same volume, same speed, no changes in pitch…and it’s the same with spoken English.  

When we speak English, we naturally highlight (stress) the words that provide the most important information. Less important words like “the”, and “to” get less attention (unstress).  In a sentence like “The dog ate the cat” you can hear in the recording how the stress varies across the sentence. There’s stress and unstress. 

Listen to the sentence “The dog ate the cat” spoken through a kazoo:


Some words are louder, longer, and the pitch rises.  Can you hear it?   

The words “dog” and “cat” and “ate” are stressed more in this sentence than “the”.  The final word in this sentence, “cat” gets the MOST stress, so we call it the focus word.   

This is an example of the music of English, and it doesn’t just make you sound more interesting when you speak (but it does!)–some linguists believe that this musical quality is the most important part of correct English pronunciation.  People understand your English better if you vary the stress. It helps listeners identify the important pieces of information.   Stressing words like “a”, “to”, “of”, and “the” only confuses your listener and makes you harder to understand. 

Which words are stressed most in the following sentence?  What’s the focus word?

“Bob is cleaning the house.”

Listen:  

 

Perception Training and You

I remember studying Armenian language. There were three sounds that initially sounded almost the same to me.  They were all something like /tz/ or /ts/  No English words begin with those sounds, so English speakers don’t recognize the difference.   In Armenian, however, those three little sounds make as much difference as the sounds /b/, /p/, and /k/ do in English.  Bit, pit, and kit are all different words in English, so it is important to get that first sound right.   Same thing in Armenian with those /ts/ /tz/ sounds–if you change the sound, you change the word.  The problem is, it’s hard to produce different sounds if you can’t even *hear* the difference between sounds!

When you were born, your brain could perceive (or hear) all the sounds of all human languages.  Very quickly, however, you learned to pay attention only to the sounds that people around you produced–the sounds that are important for the language(s) YOU heard.  If you only heard one language while you were a baby, then your brain is really good at hearing and distinguishing the sounds of that one language.  Unfortunately, this means that maybe it isn’t so good at hearing sounds from unfamiliar languages.  Luckily, and with practice, you can be trained to distinguish sounds from other languages.  This is called perception training.   

Research shows that perception training helps improve pronunciation in a foreign language.  In fact, you should first be sure you can hear the differences between sounds before you work on producing the sounds.

Here’s a good (and free!) online tool for doing perception training in English:  English Accent Coach.

www.englishaccentcoach.com

You can work on vowels or consonants using the activities on this website.  For consonants, you choose the sounds you want to work on.  For example, if you have a problem hearing the difference between /L/ and /R/ and /N/, with English Accent Coach, you set up a ‘game’, and choose those three sounds.  A voice produces one of the sounds, and you click on what you hear.  The ‘game’ tells you if you are correct or not.  I wish they actually said words, but they don’t.  They produce only the sound, but still, it looks like a good tool for perception practice.

Go check it out!

New Year’s Resolutions

For many of us, the start of a new year is an opportunity to begin to change something about ourselves.  Maybe we want to exercise more, get more sleep, or eat less sugar.  Maybe we *resolve* to learn a new language or improve our foreign language skills.  Whatever our resolution may be, January is a time for new beginnings and looking forward.

Is now the time to start improving your English pronunciation?  Have you been thinking about taking lessons?

If 2017 is the year that YOU resolve to improve some aspect of your spoken English, contact Accent Shine today!

Happy New Year!!

Change Is Not Easy

Change is hard.  I know this because, for me, the past couple of years have been all about change.

My husband and I watched our Denver neighborhood change a lot. We decided to move and find a neighborhood that felt more ‘right’.  So, in 2015, we spent months fixing up our house, doing things I didn’t know we COULD do–working long hours every day when we weren’t doing ‘regular’ work.  Then we sold our house, and we moved to a different house in a new neighborhood in a new city.  New neighbors, new grocery store, new post office, new mayor.  When you have not moved in nearly 20 years, it’s a lot of change.

Out with the old, in with the new. That’s what they say.  But it can be hard to let go of the familiar, even when you know you will be happier in the end.

When people come to me to work on their pronunciation, I always say that it isn’t going to be easy to change. I start by telling them something I heard in grad school. One of my instructors described pronunciation improvement this way. She said there are four phases that we all pass through:

Phase One:  We aren’t sure WHAT the problem is. We just know that people sometimes can’t understand things we say, or they think the way we speak sounds funny or strange. Most people who come to me are at this stage.  After the initial analysis and assessment, everyone receives a report from me describing the problem and moves immediately into Phase Two.

Phase Two:  At this stage, we understand the problem, but we aren’t sure what to do about it. Lessons can help people in Phase Two, because they show us what we must DO to change the way we speak.  When we know HOW to change the way we speak, we have entered Phase Three.

Phase Three:  In Phase Three, we know how to improve our speaking, but we only speak the *new* way when we are thinking about it.  We have to concentrate when we speak to make the changes.  If we stop thinking about it, we return to speaking the old way.  This is the very hard phase.  If you have been speaking English for a long time, it is annoying.  Even if you are very fluent, now you need to pay attention to HOW you are saying things that you have said a thousand times.  You need to correct yourself when you notice yourself speaking the old way.  It’s hard work.  How long people stay at this stage depends on many, many things, with the most important being motivation, energy, and time to practice.   But only with hard work, attention to detail, and lots of self-monitoring is it possible to move on to the final phase–Phase Four.

Phase Four:  In Phase Four, we don’t need to think anymore about how to say things the new way.  Now it’s natural.  We do it automatically. All the hard work has paid off. 

Bottom line, change is not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we want something bad enough, with hard work, we can make it happen.

Here’s a hint to help you get to Phase Four as quickly as possible:  LISTEN TO ENGLISH. Listen to music.  Listen to natural conversations. Watch TV and movies in English WITHOUT subtitles as much as possible.  Listen and pay attention to HOW people say things.  Reading is a great way to improve your vocabulary and writing, but if you want to improve your pronunciation, you must LISTEN and speak.   I cannot emphasize the LISTEN part enough.  People’s brains expect to hear a language spoken in a familiar way.  When words and sentences do not sound familiar, the listener can get confused or annoyed that they have to work so hard to understand.

 

How Important is Stress?

No. I’m not talking about the kind of stress that makes you feel nervous and makes you sweat and causes your heart to speed up. I’m talking about the stress that we place on syllables when we speak—the way we make some syllables louder and longer than other syllables.

How important is that kind of stress in English?  It’s so important that the meaning of “hot dog” changes depending on how you say it.   You don’t believe me?  What if I say, “Look! There’s a hot dog!”. What do I mean?  Well, it depends.  There are two possibilities—at least.

Maybe I see a dog inside a car with the windows closed during the summer.   In that case, I’m probably worried about the dog because I know that it is very hot inside the car.

But maybe I’m hungry.  Maybe I’m thinking about lunch, and suddenly, I see someone selling hot dogs from a cart on a city street.  Maybe I say to my friend, “Look! There’s a hot dog!” because I’ve decided that I really want to eat right now, and a hot dog sounds very delicious.

So, what’s the difference?  Stress.

Listen to the two sentences:

 1. Look!  There’s a hot dog!  (There’s a dog in a car.)

2. Look!  There’s a hot dog!  (I’m hungry and want to eat!)

In Sentence 1, the word ‘dog’ is stressed.  In Sentence 2, the word ‘hot’ is stressed.

In Sentence 1, the word ‘hot’ is an adjective describing the noun ‘dog’.  In such a phrase, the second word, the noun, is stressed more than the adjective.  In Sentence 2, the word ‘hot dog’ is a compound noun.  A compound noun is made of two separate words that have their own meanings (in this case, ‘hot’, and ‘dog’). When combined, the two words have a new and unique meaning.  The compound noun ‘hot dog’ describes a sausage that is usually served on a bun.  It is something that we eat.  In compound nouns, stress is generally placed on the first word of the compound.

Think about the difference between a green house and a greenhouse.  A green house is a house that is painted green.  ‘Green’ describes the noun ‘house’. But ‘greenhouse’ is a compound noun.  It is a unique *thing*.  A greenhouse is a building where plants are grown.  It is usually made of glass to let the light enter easily.

Listen to the difference between these two sentences:

  1. He’s building a green house.

2. He’s building a greenhouse.

Now you try.  Listen only after you have tried.  Then check your pronunciation.  Descriptive phrases are on the left, and compound nouns are on the right:

  1. It’s a big, black bird.                                                                    It’s a big blackbird.
  2. He lives in the white house.                                                      He lives in the White House.
  3. My rich aunt lives on a real estate.                                          My rich aunt sells real estate.

A blackbird is a specific type of bird.  The White House is where the President of the United States lives.  It is a very specific white house.  Real estate is the word we use to describe property (land or buildings) that people buy and sell.  In each of these examples, you hear that the descriptive phrase (where the adjective describes a noun) on the left is pronounced differently than the compound noun on the right.

These are good guidelines for pronunciation, and compound nouns follow this pattern a lot of the time.  It’s important to remember, however, that not every compound noun follows the pattern, so you must always listen for how a particular compound noun gets pronounced.  Can you think of compound nouns that don’t follow this pattern?

Everyone speaks with an accent

I’m from California, so I’m a native speaker of English.  However, I speak differently than other native English speakers.  People from New York or Massachusetts or Texas or the United Kingdom or Australia (and many other places) are all native speakers of English, but they sound very different from me (and from each other!).

I can hear an accent and know approximately where a person is from.  From the way a person speaks, I can guess that they are not from California but maybe came from New England instead.  I can also identify someone else with a different accent as a native speaker of German or Spanish or Japanese, because *everyone speaks with an accent*.

So, you might wonder, who should you sound like when you speak English?  YOU!  That’s who.  Be clear:  an accent is not a problem or something that needs to be fixed.   An accent is merely a reflection of where we come from and of the first language that we learned to speak.

There is not one ‘correct’ native accent for spoken English.  Not only is there no correct native accent in English, the research in second language acquisition tells us that it is rare for adult English learners (or learners of any foreign language) to speak without at least some foreign accent. Maybe you believe that your accent makes you hard to understand, and if you could eliminate it, then all of your communication problems would disappear.  This is likely not true.

It is true that a person is harder to understand when their vowel sounds are unclear, or if they produce the wrong consonant, but someone can speak English with NO foreign accent at all and STILL be very difficult to understand.  If a speaker stresses the wrong syllable of a word, for example, listeners may not understand what they are saying!

Take the word ‘dynamic’ for example.  This three-syllable word is pronounced with primary stress placed on the second syllable and with the vowel sound of the third syllable reduced.  It sounds like dieNAMuk /daɪˡmək/.  If someone incorrectly shifts the stress to the first syllable, the word is pronounced like DIEnuhmick /ˡdaɪnəmɪk/, and the listener hears what sounds like the word ‘dynamite’.  As a result, the listener may become confused.   Or scared. Why are you talking about dynamite?

Word stress and intonation are among the most important factors in speaking English intelligibly, and if people have trouble understanding you, don’t assume that your accent is the biggest problem.

Bottom line, we should all relax and accept that we will have at least some accent when we speak a foreign language.  Sure, there are exceptions–actors, for example, who spend hours a day for months working with coaches to learn to change their accents for roles in movies or TV shows.   But for most of us who aren’t actors or spies, that kind of investment in time and money isn’t worth it, and believing that you must eliminate your accent to speak correctly and clearly causes unnecessary stress.

A much more realistic goal is to speak English (or any foreign language) as naturally as we can so that others understand us comfortably and are not frustrated when they talk to us.  That’s it.  If others are comfortable talking to us, and we feel confident speaking, then we have arrived at our destination, even if people can still hear where we came from!

Is a native speaker always the best teacher?

Especially overseas, young English speakers are often hired to teach English solely because they are native speakers of the language. These individuals may have no other qualifications and may have no experience teaching, so I’m really not considering them in this discussion. I am comparing trained English teachers: native English speaking teachers versus non-native English speaking teachers.

It is a myth (a lie, even!) that a native English speaker is necessarily a better English teacher than a foreign speaker of English. In fact, a non-native teacher can be better than a native English speaker.  How can this be?  Well, most English speakers (even trained English teachers) without training in linguistics don’t realize that they are following a set of unconscious rules when they speak.  They acquired the ‘rules’ as babies and children, listening to adults speaking English, and they are not fully aware of their own language.

If you ask the typical English teacher how many vowels English has, you are very likely to hear the answer “five”–A, E, I, O, U.  A native English teacher trained in linguistics (or a teacher who is a non-native English speaker), however, will tell you that English has many more vowels than that!

English teachers who are non-native speakers have had to work hard to acquire their English. They have studied every aspect of the language. They hear and are aware of what native speakers are doing, even when the native speakers themselves don’t realize what they are doing.  They know the ‘rules’. So, a non-native English speaker can be a very good English teacher.

Bottom Line: You want a teacher who is extremely knowledgeable about English and its unconscious “rules”. The knowledgeable teacher might be a native English speaker with linguistics training, or it could be a foreign teacher, maybe even someone from your own country. Don’t rule out somebody as your teacher merely because they are not a native English speaker.