Thursday, February 25, 2010

Intonation and Stress - Key to Understanding and Being Understood

Intonation and Stress - Key to Understanding and Being Understood

Let's look at a simple example: the modal verb "can". When we use the positive form of "can" we quickly glide over the can and it is hardly pronounced. They can come on Friday . (stressed words underlined) On the other hand, when we use the negative form "can't" we tend to stress the fact that it is the negative form by also stressing "can't". They can't come on Friday . As you can see from the above example the sentence, "They can't come on Friday" is longer than "They can come on Friday" because both the modal "can't" and the verb "come" are stressed.

So, what does this mean for my speaking skills?

Well, first of all, you need to understand which words we generally stress and which we do not stress. Basically, stress words are considered CONTENT WORDSsuch as

  • Nouns e.g. kitchen, Peter

  • (most) principal verbs e.g. visit, construct

  • Adjectives e.g. beautiful, interesting

Non-stressed words are considered FUNCTION WORDS such as

  • Determiners e.g. the, a, some, a few

  • Auxiliary verbs e.g. don't, am, can, were

  • Prepositions e.g. before, next to, opposite

  • Conjunctions e.g. but, while, as

  • Pronouns e.g. they, she, us

  • Adverbs e.g. often, carefully

Let's return to the beginning example to demonstrate how this affects speech.

The beautifu l Mountain appeared transfixe d in the distance .

He can come on Sunday s as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening .

Even though the second sentence is approximately 30% longer than the first, the sentences take the same time to speak. This is because there are 5 stressedwords in each sentence. From this example, you can see that you needn't worry about pronouncing every word clearly to be understood (we native speakers certainly don't). You should however, concentrate on pronouncing the stressed words clearly.

Now, do some listening comprehension or go speak to your native English speaking friends and listen to how we concentrate on the stressed words rather than giving importance to each syllable. You will soon find that you can understand and communicate more because you begin to listen for (and use in speaking) stressed words. All those words that you thought you didn't understand are really not crucial for understanding the sense or making yourself understood. Stressed words are the key to excellent pronunciation and understanding of English.

I hope this short introduction to the importance of stress in English will help you to improve your understanding and speaking skills.

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