Is Stress Stressing You Out?


My non-native English speaking clients are sometimes surprised to discover what is making them difficult to understand. It often has as much to do or more with stress factors than it does the sounds they are using.

Every language has a unique "music." Think of overhearing a group of people standing at a distance. Even if you cannot make out the particular words, you pick up on the overall song of the language, and may recognize them as French, Italian, or Indian...

The musical aspect of language may be even more deeply ingrained than the speech sounds we use. Babies hear and imitate the "tunes" they are exposed to well before they are able to imitate speech sounds.

So it is not surprising that both non-natives and natives are often unaware of the unique stress patterns and unconscious "rules" they are applying as they speak.

Non-native speakers often need to be taught the musical aspects of a new language--the stress and intonation patterns that carry meaning. Lack of an awareness for these patterns can lead to delayed comprehension of spoken messages and a decreased ability to capture the nuanced messages involved in communication. Likewise, they may be misunderstood or misinterpreted, based on the inflection they are using in their speaking patterns.

The basic elements of stress and intonation are pitch, loudness, and duration. Rate may also be a component. When a syllable is stressed, one or all three of these features is exaggerated. Think of the sentence "I told you to close the window." By stressing a different word in that sentence, the meaning shifts substantially. If you are unaccustomed to the inflection patterns of English, the meaning may not be so immediately obvious. In many languages, it would be necessary to use different words or a different word order to express different intentions.

The typical song of a statement in English has a downward intonation; the pitch goes down at the end. "I went to the store." If it's a wh- question, it's also typically downward: "Why is she going?" Whereas a yes/no question typically goes up at the end: "Is he going to the party?"

Within words themselves, different stress patterns affect meaning and word form depending on which syllable you stress. A few examples include: digest, convert, perfect, present, insert. Note the pattern-- when the stress is on the first syllable, the word is a noun (or adjective); when it is on the second, it becomes a verb. A word embedded in a sentence is usually shorter in duration than when said in isolation or at the end: The cab is waiting./ I'm waiting for a ca ab(downward intonation). "Cab" may sound like "cap" without the glided inflection.

There are also rules for compound vs. verbal phrases, like White House/white house, word suffixes like -ity, -tion, -ic, etc. (the penultimate syllable being stressed), names: George Washington, series of numbers: 212 555- 8365. Think of the importance of stress when it comes to numbers-- was the doctor's order forty milligrams or fourteen? Will it cost fifteen thousand or fifty thousand?

There are plenty of other "rules" for intonation that native speakers use unconsciously, which are often taken for granted when considering non-native English speakers.

On a related note, it was found that native English speakers who use greater variation of pitch and loudness levels (but not sing-songy) are easier to listen to, and more apt to be labeled "dynamic" or "authoritative." So, awareness and effective use of the music of your language is important to native speakers, as well.


Download a free pdf and audio for "How To Become A More Dynamic Speaker."