Accent Reduction For Professionals (2015)

Chapter 2: Can you Hear That? Placing Stress on the Proper Syllables



It seems like such a subtle aspect – the syllables that Americans stress when speaking. Who would believe that this small point can distinguish a native speaker from one who isn’t?


The fact is when you already have to learn the meanings of the words swirling around you and sentence structure and the crazy and not extremely constant rules of English grammar, you’re already feeling overwhelmed. Worrying about which syllables to stress when speaking out loud is probably the last thing you’re concerned about.


Now, though, you’re a more advanced English speaker, so advanced that you’re using the English language in many different settings. One of these setting is in your workplace. You now can take a breather because you’re fluent in the language.


Your focus is on advancing in your career but, you realize that the biggest roadblock you’re encountering is your “foreign accent.” It’s time to start learning what you can do to reduce that accent.


Your first step is to listen to native speakers with an ear toward which syllable is stressed when words contain more than one syllable. Though I’m a native speaker of English, I noticed the differences in this area when I talked with foreign students who learned British English overseas.  I’ll never forget the first word I heard from an instructor with an accent. The word was “distribute.” As a native speaker I’ve naturally stressed the second syllable. This instructor though stressed the last syllable. This one subtle difference spoke volumes to me.


For some people reducing their accent this could easily mean just changing the syllable stressing of many of the words you’re using. If you could do this – and only this -- you may be taking a large stride toward eliminating your accent.


It’s not Always the First


Probably the biggest mistake those who learn English as a second language make is assuming that Americans naturally – and always – place the spoken emphasis of a two-syllable word on the first syllable. That just isn’t so.


Granted, the stressed first syllable occurs quite a bit in the English language, but it just doesn’t show up in every single word.


Speak the following list of words out loud. Listen to yourself closely as you say them.


  • Window
  • Target
  • Baby
  • Auto


If you’ve said them as most Americans do, then the first syllable is emphasized. Take just a moment now and say them again, this time ensuring you’re placing the stress on the first syllable of each word.


If you have a really good ear, you’ll also hear that when you stress the first syllable the pitch of your voice lowers even while you’re still speaking it. If you’re near a friend you feel comfortable with right now, ask him or her to say these words while you listen attentively. You may even ask him to listen to you while you say these words. Get his feedback.


If you’re having a difficult time conquering this, don’t worry. In nearly every other language in the world, the stressed syllable is normally pronounced with a rise in pitch. With enough attention to detail and enough practice, you’ll soon be able to do this.


Words with Three or more Syllables


The other mistaken assumption many non-native English speakers make is assuming that all words are spoken emphasizing the first syllable. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Speak these words while emphasizing the underlined syllable

In tro duce

Dis ap point

En ter tain


I wish I can provide you with a quick and easy rule of thumb that makes it easy to recognize which multi-syllabic words are pronounced with a distinct stress pattern. Unfortunately, there are no rules. So it’s a matter of listening, learning and repeating. Here again, the more you listen and repeat the words, the easier and more natural you’ll become when speaking.


Noun versus Verb: Oh, the Stress!


That’s all well and good you say. You can concentrate on that. But you also need to know that the syllable being emphasized depends, believe it or not, whether the word is being used as a noun or a verb within the sentence. In essence, how you pronounce the word is dependent on the context in which it’s being used. Emphasizing the wrong syllable here also reveals your accent.


You’ve probably encountered more than your fair share of words that are used as both nouns and verbs. These words are spelled the same, but when used as a noun the stress falls on one syllable. When used as a verb, a different syllable should be stressed. This is more than just a lesson in semantics. Placing the emphasis on the wrong syllable depending on its use actually gives the word an entirely different meaning.


As a rule of thumb, when the first syllable is emphasized you can be fairly confident the word is being used as a noun. If you detect the second syllable is emphasized then you can be relatively sure the word is being used as a verb. If you place the emphasis on the “wrong” syllable, then you may very well be changing the entire meaning of the word without knowing it. Listen to yourself closely as you say the following two sentences out loud. Better yet, if you have a native-English speaking friend recite these out loud. Listen to see if you can tell on which syllable the emphasis is placed.


Your conduct was outrageous.

Rick and Jane will conduct the meeting.


In the first sentence, the initial syllable of the word conduct is emphasized. In the second example the second syllable is stressed. Is there really a difference in meaning between the two pronunciations?


Indeed, there is. The noun means how a person acts. The verb means to take charge of or to direct a group of individuals. If you emphasize the wrong syllable of the word when you use it in a sentence, you may not only confuse yourself, but others as well. The following words are those that also fall into this category – two different ways of pronouncing the same word which gives that word two separate meanings.


  • Contract
  • Suspect
  • Insert
  • Subject
  • Insert


Looking Within: the Sentence that is!


There’s yet another way to reduce your accent and sound more like a native speaker. That’s by knowing which words to stress within the sentence itself. Again, this is not just some silly rule, even though you may think so. The words you choose to emphasis in a sentence has the potential to change the meaning of the sentence.


When spoken, the English language indicates stress by pronouncing a word or a phrase either slightly louder or longer (or sometimes both). You may also be able to indicate emphasis within a sentence by changing your pitch of certain words.


You need to realize, though, that we aren’t talking about altering the stress of the syllables of the words. This requires simply changing the stress of the words in the sentence.


The following is a single sentence to give you an example of how changing the emphasis of one of the words in the sentence can give it a different connotation. Let’s use the following sentence as an example.


Rose bought a gorgeous outfit.


When you say this sentence with the word Rose emphasized, Rose bought a gorgeous outfit, you’re defining who did the buying. It was Rose, not Mary or Jan.


Rose bought a gorgeous outfit.


When you place the emphasis on the word bought, you’re making sure your listeners know that Rose purchased the dress, it was not given to her (or she stole it!).


If you’ve really never thought of this before, you may be a bit puzzled now. While there are many rules in the English language and many exceptions as well, there is one dealing with the emphasis of words within sentences that you can usually follow with confidence.


For the most part, native speakers tend to emphasize content words, not the function words. Content words are readily recognizable: nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. On the other hand, function words are those that are consider parts of speech articles, prepositions and conjunctions. The second category of words isn’t usually emphasized since they’re considered transition words.


As transition words, they don’t carry the vital information the content words do.


Another way of emphasizing your speech which will help reduce your accent is studying the category of words known as compound words. This is a word created by placing two words with separate meanings together to form one word with a more specific meaning. Think of the word “bathtub.”


In English the word bath is a noun with a meaning of its own and the word “tub” has a meaning and can be used in many situations. When you place these two words together, you get a specific meaning.


So which word do you stress within that compound word? Again, for the most part the first word of that compound word is emphasized. Below are just several compound words in which the first word is stressed. Read the list below out loud. Be sure to emphasize the first word when you read these:


  • Thunderstorm
  • Birthday
  • Cupcake
  • Toothbrush
  • Earthquake


The sooner you start putting these rules on emphasis and stress into action, the sooner you’ll be on the road to reducing that accent.


Do you know what that means? The sooner you’re on the road to opening new and exciting doors in your career. Knowing which syllables to emphasis when speaking is only part of the knowledge needed (and to be implemented). There are still a few hints that can carry you even farther in your quest to reduce your accent. The next section introduces you to these.


Syllables: Still More Secrets to Reveal


Shh! There are still two more secrets native English speakers know that you may not be aware of regarding proper emphasis on words. If you’re not aware of these “secrets” you may find you’ll never be spot on when it comes to sounding like a native.

Don’t get upset. These native speakers aren’t deliberating keeping these secrets from you. The truth is that they probably don’t even know they exist. I venture to go one step further and claim they probably don’t even know what they’re doing. They couldn’t reveal these secrets even if they wanted to.

We’ll talk first about the “ing” sound you see at the end of many English words. When a word ends with a combination of these letters, it’s safe to say the emphasis is not on the last syllable. For example, say the word “trying.” You’ll notice that only the first syllable is stressed. If you can’t hear it when you speak it, ask someone else to say this word out loud and listen to it carefully.


Here’s a word with even more syllable that follow this rule: demonstrating. Native English speakers only stress the first syllable. You’ll find a similar pattern in the word negotiating. Only in this word, you’ll stress the second syllable, the “go” sound.


This is a rule you can take to the bank. The only exception, of course, (Let’s face it, this is English. You’d be disappointed if there weren’t any exceptions.) refers to single-syllable words ending in the “ing” sound, like “sing,” “fling,” or “sting.”


When Words End in “ion”


Here’s another fairly solid rule of pronunciation. It’s based in the “ion” that you’ve no doubt have come across. You can be sure that the stressed syllable isn’t the “ion” ending, rather it’s on the syllable directly before it. Even in pronouncing seemingly smaller words the rule still holds up. It works for the word, union, for example as well as the two-syllable word million.


Let’s look at the word negotiation. Even though the “ion” sound is pronounced differently (like “shun”), you’re still not emphasizing the “ion” sound. You are, however, stressing two other syllables in negotiation.


The next step in your accent reduction program is to learning how native speakers use the vowel sounds: a, e, i, o, and u. Follow me to the next chapter to discover how.