“ Don’t mess with ‘STRESS If you don’t want any ‘ STRESS, I …’ STRESS!”

By: GeneTK

Stress—we all know it well, whether it’s creeping up on us at work, haunting us at home, or shadowing us through our school days. When stress barges in, seeking refuge in music or taking a leisurely stroll outside can do wonders. Today, let’s pivot our focus from the tangible strains to a subtler domain: the stress found within English pronunciation and great methods ESL instructors can use in their quest to  help their learners deal with stress in  pronunciation. I’m sure you are all wondering what  Mkazo  means. ‘Mkazo’ is a beautiful yet simple  Swahili word from Kenya which means emphasis, force , or  exertion.

Mastering stress in pronunciation is like unlocking the secret code to English speech. It’s the backbone, shaping the rhythm and essence of spoken words, leading to clearer communication and sharper listening skills. Think of it like music—there are two main players: word stress and sentence stress. Word stress is like adding a spotlight to a syllable, lifting its pitch and refining its vowel sound, sometimes even altering a word’s entire meaning. Sentence stress, on the other hand, is like spotlighting crucial words within a sentence, giving them their moment to shine.

Let’s dive deeper. Every word is made up of one or more syllables, the building blocks of pronunciation. Word stress is about cranking up the volume on specific syllables, giving them the VIP treatment. Some words are simple, just one syllable, like “eat,” while others are more complex, stretching out to two, three, four, or even more. And let’s not forget the showstopper: “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” a 45-letter titan with a whopping 19 syllables. Quite the tongue-twister, wouldn’t you say?

Now, onto the nitty-gritty. Stress symbols like /ˈ/ and /ˌ/ mark the primary and secondary stresses in words. Usually, a word flaunts one primary stress, often landing on one of its syllables, with secondary stresses sprinkled in. Our spotlight today? Primary stress. In English, the stressed bunch includes content words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs), WH-question words (who, when, what, why, which, whom, where), and yes/no.

Words are categorized by the number of syllables they boast: monosyllabic for those with one (think “cat” or “eat”), disyllabic for two (like “teacher”), and polysyllabic for three or more (think “intelligent,” “internet,” “measurement”).

One syllable words have primary stress only (pet, wet, me, why  etc. )  In two-syllable words, one syllable is the star (think ‘Tea|cher). There’s an array of stress patterns in two syllable words. For example :

  • iambic words  where the first syllable is unstressed and second stressed in words such as im’plore , up’root ,ex’plain etc.).
  • trochee ( where the first syllable is stressed and second syllable  unstressed in words such as ‘forest, ‘garden, ‘ascot etc.),  
  • spondee ( where the  syllables  are stressed equally in words like Childhood, headache, heyday etc.).

Strong syllables are the divas, boasting long vowels ( keep/ki:p/), diphthongs ( like/ laik/), or ending with a consonant( battle/baetl/ while weak ones are more low-key, sporting short vowels and keeping things unstressed kin/kIn/

Now, let’s talk transformation. Stress patterns can switch things up, changing the part of speech of a word. Check it out:

  • Noun to Verb:

Object: As a noun, the stress is on the first syllable and as a verb , the stress falls on the final syllable.

Noun: “She put the ‘OB-ject on the table.”

Verb: “She will ob-‘JECT  to the proposal.”

  • Adjective to Verb

Perfect:  the stress is on the first syllable as an adjective and on the second as a verb

Adjective: “She has a ‘PER-fect score.”

Verb: “He per-‘FECTS his writing at work.

English has many borrowed or loan words from other languages, sometimes keeping their original stress patterns, while others adapt to English rules over time. Take Café (from French), Piano (from Italian), or Tsunami (from Japanese) as examples which have kept their original stress.  However, hors d’oeuvres  a borrowed word from French has been altered a bit  to make it easier to pronounce in English.

 We can’t forget the dialects! American and British English have their own quirks. Just look at how they stress words like  Controversy( Americans  say (‘CON’troversy), whereas  con’TRO’versy in British English ) and Advertisement(British English  ad-‘VER-tise-ment/  American English,  ‘AD-ver-tise-ment.)

Another interesting thing to note is African English. In African English, accents and stress patterns vary widely due to the continent’s linguistic tapestry, influenced by first languages and regional education systems. Take for example , Ghanaian and Kenyan English pronunciations.

“Breakfast”: In Ghanaian English, emphasis could be on the first syllable (BREAK-fast), whereas in Kenyan English, it might be on the second (break-FAST).

“Economy”: Ghanaian English might stress the second syllable (e-CON-o-my), while Kenyan English might stress the first (E-con-o-my).

Interesting  wouldn’t you  agree?

Well, the big question now is how can ESL teachers help learners master these stress patterns? A few great ideas include  arming them with phonetic symbols, providing diverse listening practice, and jazzing up lessons with fun word stress games. Encouraging learners to dive into dictionaries for stress patterns alongside word meanings can also work wonders. It doesn’t end just in the classroom, learners must also do their part by simply watching movies  or speaking with native English speakers either online through social networking platforms or face to face in order to keep up with the various stress patterns in English.

I hope you have  all learned something interesting today . Well, amidst life’s myriad of  stress,  let’s remember to savor the adventure of learning English, and as  we honor Black History Month, let’s reflect on  Michelle Obama’s sage words: “History has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.”

Mrs. Eugenia Abankwah Tackie, a distinguished bilingual English and Education Consultant with nearly 15 years of commitment to teaching, is fueled by a genuine passion. Specializing in English grammar, pronunciation, and standardized test preparation, she excels in TOEFL, TOEIC, and IELTS. Eugenia’s dedication to empowering students with language skills is evident in her extensive background in French and Linguistics. Beyond the classroom, she finds joy in family, culinary pursuits, and music, reflecting a harmonious blend of professional excellence and personal fulfillment.

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