How do I hear whether a vowel is stressed or destressed in multi-syllable words?

Hi and welcome to this video lesson!

A major element in English fluency is the ability to hear, and use the English weak and strong forms in words of more than one syllable. 

In this video, I will train you to attune your ear to hear which syllables in longer words are said strongly – the stressed syllables-, and which are said weakly – the unstressed syllables. You will also get practise in how to pronounce de-stressed syllables and the schwa vowel.

Words with primary and secondary stress:

Of course, many longer words in English have more than one syllable that is stressed. Often one syllable carries the primary stress and one the secondary stress, but in this case, the syllable is still stressed. 

The vowel in the secondary stressed syllable is not said as long, as loud, or said with a slightly higher pitch like the vowel in the primary stress syllable.

For example, in the word ‘very’, the first syllable has the primary stress and the second syllable the ‘ry’ has the secondary or not as strong stress. It isn’t totally de-stressed though, because the ‘y’ is saying the vowel ‘ee’ and not the schwa or de-stressed vowel /ə/.

We’re going to concentrate on learning to pronounce syllables in words where you have to use the schwa vowel to speak with correct English stress.


Why is it important to learn to pronounce syllables in words for English pronunciation fluency?

  1. If you can’t hear if a syllable is stressed or de-stressed, then you can’t say it properly.  You end up miss -pronouncing long English words! This makes it difficult to understand.
  2. Stressing the right syllables in longer words in English makes your speech sound more fluent and flowing. It makes you sound more like a native English speaker.  This is an important element for listeners to understand your meaning clearly.

Having English pronunciation fluency means you are getting, and using, English rhythm and stress patterns properly when you speak.

Lots of people understand that certain syllables are stressed and others are not, in long English words. Often though, English students may have difficulty hearing which is the weak – de-stressed, and which the strong form – stressed syllable, when a native English speaker is speaking. 

If you can’t hear it, you can’t use it well in your own British English pronunciation.

If you come from a language background that doesn’t have words with unstressed syllables, then you may need to learn to actively de-stress vowels and say them as a schwa or / ə / vowel. 

This takes practise. You can practise saying the de-stressed syllable a few times for your mouth and jaw to get used to the rhythm.

You’ll know if the syllable is the strong form because you can hear the vowel said clearly such as o, i, a, ay, ow etc.

You can hear if the syllable is the de-stressed or weak form if the vowel isn’t clear. 

That is, the vowel has been replaced by a totally different vowel, the schwa vowel, the / ə /, and doesn’t sound as it is meant to. 

Whenever you hear the /ə/ schwa vowel replace the vowel in a syllable, you know you have found the de-stressed or weak form syllable.

How to know when a vowel is said as a schwa sound in a multi syllable word

In this training, we are learning about stressed and completely de-stressed syllables.

By the way, listen to the difference between the short ‘u’ sound and the schwa vowel.

short ‘u’

‘u’  /ə/

Sometimes the schwa may sound slightly shorter or longer depending on what sounds are around it, but it’s still an /ə/ sound.

Here are 2 syllable words of unequal rhythm or stress. One syllable is the strong form or stressed syllable, and one is the weak form or unstressed syllable.

Practise: Say each 2-syllable word twice, slowly at first. Practise listening for which syllable has the clear vowel, and which vowel has become an /ə/ schwa vowel.

Words to Practise with when Saying Multi-Syllabic Words with a British Accent

1. constant  /ˈkɒn.stənt/

You can hear the ‘o’ clearly so ‘con’ is the stressed syllable. The ‘a’ in ‘stant’ becomes a schwa vowel -st ənt- and so ‘stant’ is the de-stressed syllable. Don’t say con stant but con stənt. It’s like you squash the syllable up and make it shorter. 

So the rhythm is DA da not DA DA


2. around  /əˈraʊnd/ 

Keep training your ear and pick which syllable is stressed and which is not.

The ‘a’ in the first syllable is de-stressed and said as /ə/. The ‘ou’ in ‘round’ is said clearly and is stressed. We don’t say Around but əround.

The rhythm is da DA


3. contain  /kənˈteɪn/ 

The ‘o’ is the schwa and the weak form, so we say ‘kən’, not con, and the ‘ai’ is the strrong form ‘tain’.

The rhythm this time is da DA


4. open  /ˈəʊ.pən/

The ‘oe’ is said clearly ‘oe’. The ‘e’ (egg) is the de-stressed schwa vowel and said ‘pən’ not pen but pən.

The rhythm this time is  DA da


5. suggest  /səˈdʒest/

The ‘u’ is de-stressed ‘sə’.  Not sug, but ‘səg’. The ‘e’ (as in egg) is the stressed syllable ‘gest’.

So the rhythm is da DA


6. tumble  /ˈtʌm.bəl/

The ‘u’ in ‘tum’ is said clearly and so it’s the stressed syllable. The second syllable is unstressed. There is a schwa that is said very quickly between the b and l. ’bl’. It’s not booll, but’ bl’. 

So the rhythm is Dada


7. freedom  /ˈfriː.dəm/

The ‘ee’ in free is clear and is the stressed syllable. The O in ‘dəm’ becomes the schwa vowel and is the de-stressed syllable. Don’t say freedom but freedəm.

The rhythm is Dada


8. picture  /ˈpɪk.tʃər/

The first syllable ‘pic’ has the clear stressed vowel  ‘I ( ink). The second syllable ‘ture’ is de-stressed. Don’t say ‘cher’ but ‘chə’.

The rhythm is Dada


9. suppose  /səˈpəʊz/

The ‘u’ in ‘su’ becomes a schwa ‘sə’.   The ‘oe’ in ‘pose’ is the clear vowel and so is the stressed syllable.

The rhythm is daDA


If you are still having trouble, I suggest you practise with this training video a couple more times before going on to the next video on this topic. In part 2 we will be training using words of 3 or more syllables.

For more pronunciation tips on English speech fluency, check out this lesson on 4 tips to improve English speech fluency.

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