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!