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English Word Stress - Does It Really Matter?

Aug 17, 2007
Yes and No.

Yes, if you are a non-native speaker speaking to a native English speaker (classified as English speakers from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and North America).

No, if you are a non-native English speaker speaking to another non-native speaker (classified as... everybody else).

Let me explain.

English language teaching theory has traditionally been based on native English forms, more specifically British and American English varieties. In today's international community however, where more than 1 billion non-native English speakers use English as a lingua franca, teaching theory is changing to focus on English as an International Language (EIL).

According to linguist Jennifer Jenkins' research on the English language, there are certain factors in English pronunciation that can influence the degree of intelligibility between a speaker and listener. Word stress is one of these factors if you are speaking with a native English speaker, but Jenkins has found that when two non-native speakers interact in EIL, word stress has little influence on intelligibility.

So why are native speakers so stressed about word stress?

Stress indicates identity

Anyone who has ever zapped between BBC and CNN has probably noticed the differences between standard British and standard American word stress. It has caused quite a CONtroversy (US), or should I say, "conTROVersy" (UK).

To a native English speaker, a certain word stress is considered appropriate or inappropriate depending on where the person is from. "Inappropriate" word stress can really rub listeners the wrong way because it deviates from their norm and indicates that the speaker is an "other" - an outsider. This can be quite FRUStrating (US)/frusTRATing (UK) for the non-native speaker who is just trying to get his point across.

After hours spent in a language LABoratory (US), or laBORatory (UK) if you prefer, non-native English speakers are still at a loss when it comes to speaking to native speakers internationally.

"So which variety is correct?" This is the most common question I am asked in my language courses. And I always have the same answer, "It depends who you ask!"

Stress indicates different meanings of identical words

In one case however, word stress can cause problems whether you are a native speaker or non-native speaker of English: words which are spelled the same, but have different meanings (and different word stress).

A pilot once told me a story about a member of his cabin crew informing him that they had an inVALid passenger on board. The pilot was a bit confused and wondered if the passenger didn't have a ticket or wasn't on the roster. He couldn't figure out what the problem was. Is wasn't until the flight attendant continued to explain that the passenger was in a wheel chair and had special needs that the pilot realized he meant to say INvalid!

This is a perfect example of how inaccurate word stress can cause problems. And in this case, both the pilot and the flight attendant were non-native English speakers.

Stress indicates parts of speech

Word stress can also differentiate a word's part of speech - more specifically whether the word is a noun or a verb. There are many examples of words which in their noun form take their stress on the first syllable, but in the verb form are stressed on the second syllable.

Say the following words out loud: PROgress - proGRESS, OBject - obJECT, REcord - reCORD.

We would never say, "She wants to REcord a REcord one day," but rather, "reCORD a REcord."

Unfortunately this isn't a blanket rule, and there are plenty of English words which sound the same both as verbs and as nouns: travel, picture, promise and visit are a few examples.

So what is the non-native English speaker to do? I always recommend sticking to the form you are most comfortable with. You might make an American VIP cringe when you call him a DIGnitary instead of a DIGniTARy, but he'll also cringe when you call French fries "chips" and cookies "biscuits!"

Communication is a two-way street with compromise and understanding at both ends. If you meet people who can't accept the way you speak, then they're probably not worth speaking with anyway!
About the Author
Heather Hansen, founder of Singapore-based Hansen Speech & Language Training, is an executive speech and language coach, writer and trainer. Become a star speaker! Visit her website www.hansenslt.com now for free information on how to speak clearly, correctly and confidently! Join her mailing list to receive your free special report, and as a special bonus you'll also receive her monthly newsletter, Speak like a Star!
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