Intonation and Stress

josneywat 6
Try this:

Say this sentence aloud and count how many seconds it takes:
"The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance."
Time required? Probably about 5 seconds.

Now, try speaking this one:
"He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening."
Time required? Probably about 5 seconds.

This simple exercise makes a very important point about how we speak and use English. Namely, English is considered a stressed language while many other languages are considered syllabic. In English, we give stress to certain words while other words are quickly spoken. In other languages, such as Portuguese, each syllable receives equal importance (there is stress, but each syllable has its own length).

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.

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 speaking skills?

Well, first of all, you need to understand which words are stressed and which ones are not. Basically, stress words are considered CONTENT WORDS such as Nouns: kitchen, Peter
(most) principle verbs: visit, construct
Adjectives: beautiful, interesting
Adverbs: often, carefully

Non-stressed words are considered FUNCTION WORDS such as
Determiners: the, a, some, a few
Auxiliary verbs: don't, am, can, were
Prepositions: before, next to, opposite
Conjunctions: but, while, as
Pronouns: they, she, us

The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance. (14 syllables)
He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening. (22 syllables)

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 stressed words in each sentence. From this example, you can see that you needn't worry about pronouncing every word clearly to be understood. You should however, concentrate on pronouncing the stressed words clearly.

Now, do some listening comprehension or speak to your native English speaking friends and listen to how they 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. Stressed words are the key to excellent pronunciation and understanding of English.

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