Working on your pronunciation can come in many forms, but there are many benefits to developing your understanding of both word stress and sentence stress. When you can pronounce words correctly and convey your meaning accurately through sentence stress, this leads to an increase in your language skills, both in casual and more formal settings. Because these two aspects of pronunciation can change the meaning of a sentence, understanding how they work and practising using them can help you reduce the chance of misunderstandings. Learning about word stress and sentence stress in more detail can help you build up your confidence and your proficiency to say what you mean with conviction, positive that you will be understood.
Not only does it increase your chances of being understood, but it also allows you to be able to comprehend more when you are listening, which is a definite bonus. It is one thing being able to follow the story of a Netflix series, but how do you feel about listening to a podcast, or speaking on the phone? Without the visual clues it can be much more challenging to catch the true meaning of what is being said. But when you have the knowledge of sentence stress, you will be able to, more easily, discern what is really being said.
When you understand how sentence stress enhances your communication, you can engage better with whomever you are speaking, convey your message more clearly and build a deeper connection with people.
One final benefit that is worth mentioning is that, other than a possible variation in vowel sounds, different accents can be challenging to comprehend because the word stress or sentence stress vary too. Therefore, being aware of how word stress and sentence stress work can help you adapt more easily to different accents!
Overcoming the Challenges
At first it can be challenging to hear word stress and sentence stress in your second language, however, focussing on one aspect at a time is the most effective way to build up your skills. I would recommend starting with word stress. Look up new words in a reputable dictionary, Cambridge Online Dictionary or Word Reference are both reliable, and they both offer sound bites to listen to the words, so you can hear the pronunciation and focus on which syllable is stressed. Both of these sources also indicate the stressed syllable by using an accent mark: ˈ before the stressed syllable in the phonemic script.
When learning new words, look at words with similar stress patterns – our brains love patterns and will remember new words more easily if we have connected them with something we already know. Although one word family may differ in word stress in different forms, you can look for the patterns which fit like their function, the number of syllables they have or any specific suffixes they have.
With word stress, at first it can be challenging to hear which words might be stressed, but with some practice we start to notice the keywords. It could be a good idea to start with listening to some fast speakers – focus simply on which words you can understand. These are probably the keywords, the stressed words. Once you start noticing the stress, it will become easier to identify.
The next challenge is to understand the meaning behind the word stress. This can be quite subjective and may depend on the speaker and who they are speaking with. However, once you start to notice the stressed words, think about different possible reasons why the person might stress that particular word. Looking at the sentence below, what might change in the subtle meaning if we move the stress from one word to the next:
When the 'I' is stressed, this could imply that I am comparing myself to someone else, perhaps you, if you have told me you love cake for instance. Or I love chocolate, but my sister loves crisps.
If we stress the word 'love' this is emphasising the fact that we love chocolate, we do not simply like it.
Finally, stressing the word 'chocolate' is implying another comparison, perhaps with another sweet: I love chocolate, but not liquorice.
With practice and some persistence understanding the meaning behind the word stress becomes easier and less of a conscious effort.
Good use of word stress and sentence stress can both, help us be better understood, as well as helping us comprehend others more easily. It helps us to communicate at a deeper level, making our language more engaging, so we can connect with others, to create more meaningful relationships through English. Although this comprehension will take time to assimilate, it is more than worth the effort, to see your language skills develop. In today's world, where English is the global language, being able to use your language skills to your advantage, gives you an edge in whichever way you choose to use them.
On Tuesday 14th November 2023, Find Your Rhythm in English is starting, this is a 5-week programme, helping you to understand word stress and sentence stress in more detail. For more details and to sign up, go here: Find Your Rhythm in English | Excellence in English Education