1. Syllable Stress in Words – Emphasis
All languages have particular stress patterns – parts of words that are emphasized or stressed. In some languages, the emphasized part is always the last or second last syllable.
In English, there are some rules for which syllable to stress. However, they are not always consistent and may not apply to words with many syllables.
Using the correct emphasis or syllable stress is vital in all languages so that you are understood easily. Listeners quickly become confused if the correct stress patterns are not used. Be sure to notice how those around you say certain words, as this is one of the best ways to learn which parts of words are stressed.
A vital tip to work out which is the main stressed syllable in a word in English:
Listen and notice in which part of the word the speaker’s pitch goes UP slightly – that is the stressed syllable. When the pitch goes DOWN, it is for the non-stressed syllable. The vowel in the stressed or emphasized syllable will be said slightly louder and slightly longer as well. However, the main giveaway is the pitch going up slightly and then coming down.
For example, in the word ‘coming’, both vowels are said clearly, but the emphasis or stress is on the ‘com’ part. /’kʌm ɪŋ/
Another example is the word contact. In the ‘con’ syllable, the ‘o’ vowel is said with a rising pitch, and the pitch goes down for the ‘a’ in ‘tact.’ /ˈkɒn tækt/
You may have noticed the apostrophe ‘ before the ‘com’ and ‘con’ in the phonetic way of writing the words. In phonetic spelling, the apostrophe tells you which syllable is emphasized in a word. A stressed syllable has an apostrophe before it.
To double-check which syllable is stressed in a word:
Say the word emphasizing each syllable in turn and listen for which sounds correct. For this exercise, you may have to overdo the emphasis to help you figure it out. When you do this, you can tell if the word sounds ‘right’ in English based on which syllable you have stressed.
Of course, we have hundreds of words and sentences in our course for you to practice your syllable stress. Notice and mimic which parts of words the trainers stress, and practice this, so listeners understand you the first time you say a word.
Word Stress in Sentences & Emphasis
In addition to stressing the correct syllable in a word, you need to stress the right words in a sentence. When the words in sentences are correctly stressed, it is easier to understand what is being said.
The stressed words in sentences convey the main meaning the speaker wants to convey. These are usually nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The main content words.
In the sentence, ‘They talked for a bit and went to the station to go home.’ The following words would be stressed: they, talked, bit, went, station, go, home.
Remember, with stressed words, the pitch goes up slightly on the main stressed vowel and then down. Also, the words are said a little louder and with more energy.
- Take any sentence in our accent training course
- Listen to the trainer saying the sentence.
- Write down the words you hear the trainer stress.
- Mimic the trainer and practice stressing the main words in the sentence.
- Repeat with another sentence.
- After a while, notice that you can ‘hear’ which words to stress more easily, and begin to do this automatically in your speech.
2. Weak or De-stressed Vowel
In English, each multisyllabic word has stressed syllables and unstressed syllables. Often, but not every time, the unstressed syllable can have a weak or completely de-stressed vowel. This vowel is called the schwa vowel and is said as a very short ‘u’ vowel. Sometimes it’s written as an ‘uh’. Phonetically it’s written /ə /.
Understanding the difference between stressed and weak vowels is essential to master the rhythm of English.
Often, other languages don’t have this weak vowel, and instead, every vowel is said clearly.
For clearer English pronunciation, you need to learn how to say and use the schwa vowel. We have specific training in our courses on how to say it, use it, and, importantly, be able to ‘hear’ it in words.
For example- in the word ‘around’ – the ‘a’ is said as a schwa sound- a short, quick ‘u’ sound. So can be written; ‘uh-round’ /əˈraʊnd /.
3. English Vowels
English has more vowels than many other languages, which means you will learn some new vowels. Grasping this is essential, as vowels are necessary to speak clearly, and be understood. The Speak More Clearly courses have detailed training and practice on how to move your mouth to help you master the pronunciation of new vowels.
When speaking in British and Australian accents, the R is not usually pronounced in the vowels that have an R in them, such as ar (park), or (storm), er (bird, her, turn), air (stare, pair), eer (beer, near), ire (fire, choir)
The American R sound is said in the ‘R vowels’ in an American accent.
Vowels in the Australian accent are generally said slightly longer than for the standard American or British accents
Diphthongs are words with two vowel combinations where both of the vowels are pronounced in English.
For example – oe (phone), ie (mine, pie), ai (rain, day) etc. A common English pronunciation error students make, is just saying the first part of the vowel and leaving out the second part in a diphthong. They may say ‘fon’ for ‘phone'(said: ‘foeoon’) /foʊn / – there’s a short ‘oo’ after the ‘o’, and before the ‘n’.
Try these word pairs to help you say the diphthongs correctly. The second word will have the diphthong.
The below word pairs contain words with the vowel: ‘e’ (bed) and the vowel ‘ai’ (rain). ‘ai’ is made from ‘e’ and ‘i’ said together – you have to make the ‘e’ mouth movement and then the ‘i’ mouth movement before you say the consonant after the ‘ai’.
het – hate; bet – bait; let – late; met – mate; men – main; get – gate, pen – pain; wet – wait; plen (not a real word) – plain;
4. Spelling and Pronunciation Traps
As many English students have noticed, several English words look different to how you would expect to say them. We see this because the English language has many more sounds than letters. Further complicating the matter, many letters in words are silent. This is a challenge for those learning the language, no matter what accent.
We find that using an online tool such as the Cambridge Online Dictionary can be extremely helpful. The dictionary has the words written out as they are spelled and has the words phonetically written. The use of phonetics is helpful so you can see how the word should sound. You can also take advantage of the audio option, which allows you to hear the words pronounced correctly.
To help you with some common words that have silent letters, have a look at our training videos: Tricky Words with Silent Letters here, Words with a Silent ‘w’ here, and Words with a Silent ‘p’ here.