To stress, or not to stress?

I can’t tell you how many times I have asked someone “What’s currently your biggest challenge in English?”, only to hear the following answers:

·      "I cannot understand native English speakers when they talk"

·      “Native speakers talk too fast”

·      "I panic when I don't understand every word and then I get lost in the conversation"

·      "I speak, but people are always asking me to repeat myself"

·      “People have difficulty understanding me when I speak, so I lose my confidence and then I am scared to speak”


Actually, I think a significant part of all of these comments comes down to rhythm.

English is a very rhythmic language. The two components of the system which have the greatest influence on rhythm are:

1.      sentence stress,

2.      the various features of connected speech, (i.e. what happens to words when we join them in speech).


Let’s focus on sentence stress here as connected speech is an enormous topic on it’s own!

In any English sentence, some words will be stressed more than others, creating a rhythm when we speak. This rhythm actually helps to convey the real meaning of the idea.


For example,

I am meeting with the CEO next week.

Some words of this sentence will be stressed and some will be unstressed.

Most commonly, we would stress the words meeting and CEO.

I am meeting with the CEO next week.

This would be a statement of fact, no emotion attached.


But we could emphasize the word I and next week.

I am meeting with the CEO next week.

This would let the listener know, that this is something that we find scary. It is ME and it is NEXT WEEK!

Same sentence, but with a considerably different meaning.

The rhythm produced by combining stressed and unstressed syllables is a really important characteristic of spoken English and makes English a stress-timed language. Other examples of stress-timed languages include (not a complete list):

·      German

·      Russian

·      Arabic

·      Dutch

·      Persian

·      Thai

·      Swedish

·      Norwegian


If a language doesn’t stress words in the sentence to help convey meaning, it is called a syllable-timed language. In a syllable-timed language, each syllable takes roughly the same amount of time as the other. Some examples of stress-timed languages include (not a complete list):

·      Spanish

·      French

·      Turkish

·      Italian

·      Brazilian

·      Cantonese Chinese

·      Korean

·      Bahasa Malay


In a stress-time language, a learner who can maintain the rhythm of the language is more likely to sound both natural and fluent.

In stress-timed languages, there is a roughly equal amount of time between each stress in a sentence.

In syllable-timed languages, there is a roughly equal amount of time between each syllable in a sentence.

So why do I think that sentence stress affects people’s ability to achieve fluency so much? If you are speaking in English but using the wrong rhythm (stressing the wrong words or not stressing words at all), it will sound unnatural and will not help the listener to be able to distinguish the emphasis of your meaning. And if you are listening to a speaker of English and trying to hear every word individually, you will get lost and will miss out on the actual meaning that is being conveyed by the rhythm.

So, if stress-timing is so important, how do I learn it?

The rule of thumb is that we stress the content words including nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Negative words such as not or never will also get stressed because they affect the meaning of the sentence. Modals, too, can change the meaning of a sentence and so should be stressed in this case.

Short words such as articles, prepositions, and conjunctions don’t take stress. Pronouns don’t usually get stressed either because the context often makes it clear who we’re talking about. The Be verb and all auxiliary verbs also don’t get stressed as they don’t carry much meaning, only the main verb does.

See the diagram below for more information

Until now, I have completely ignored connected speech, which is actually not really the complete story. So let me briefly show how connected speech will also affect the rhythm of spoken English.

When we speak quickly, we speak in groups of words that mostly are continuous and may not have pauses in-between them. We connect our words – connected speech.

In order to maintain the rhythm and make the language sound natural, we will change the sounds of the words. The most common changes are:

•           Elision (losing sounds)

•           Linking (adding or joining sounds between words)

•           Assimilation (changing sounds)


Now I promise I will do an article (or more) soon about connected speech. But for now, be aware of the existence of it and start listening to how natural English is being spoken. I mean, really listening!

Can you hear the rhythm?

Does English sound more alive now?

Can you start to hear how to transition from an advanced speaker to a natural speaker?

Watch the video below for more information.

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How to Take Your English Communication Skills from Intermediate/Advanced to “Natural” and Really Get Noticed in the Workplace as a Mining and Minerals Industry Professional