This is a guest post by our friend, American English teacher, Kevin Conwell. Kevin is the creator FeelGoodEnglish and the Feel Good English Podcast at FeelGoodEnglish.com, where he helps people become confident English speakers.
This is Kevin, your English-teaching Ninja. I want to help you speak English more like a native speaker. Why? Well, first because I’m a nice guy, and secondly I really like to see people become confident in English.
Today, I am going to help you sound more like a native English speaker. I will also teach you how to enhance your ability to understand those difficult to follow fast speakers that you fear.
Basically this is the idea; if you make little adjustments in the way you listen to and speak English phrases, you will improve your pronunciation and comprehension quickly. Read more and I will show you how easy it is to do this.
You’re not from around here, are you?
First, let me ask you a question: How long does it take you to notice when someone speaking your native language is not a native speaker themselves? I imagine that it only takes a few sentences before you tilt your head, give them a curious look, and ask, “Where are you from?”, which basically means, “Hey, you do not sound right. You are not from this country, ay?”
Even when someone knows your language well, they still seem to add their own rhythm to it. The rise and fall of their voice comes at random times and this makes them sound, well, not native.
What I am talking about here is pronunciation. Many languages, such as Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, work off a system where every syllable receives the same “stress” or emphasis. These are syllabic languages. If you already speak one of those languages correctly, you can look at a word and know exactly how to say it because every letter and syllable has a strict rule to it. There are also accent marks to show you when you have to move or change the sounds within a word.
What about English? Where are the accent marks? And why can one word be said in three different ways? i.e., to, too, two. That’s crazy, right? Well, yes, it is crazy, but that is the way English is. It’s not a syllabic language; it is what is called a time-stressed language—one that only receives emphasis on specific syllables and words.
So, if you want to speak and understand English like a native speaker you have two options; The first is to build a time machine and send your ancestors to an English-speaking country where you will be reborn with English as your native language (if you know how time travel works. and you don’t mind starting your life over, you should look into this option).
The other option, which I know more about, is learning the correct “rhythm” of English. I am going to teach you how this rhythm works, thus helping you to sound smoother when you speak. You will also be able to understand the fastest native speakers you encounter.
English is Stress-Timed
When spoken, the English language is similar to music. Unlike many other languages, English does not give every syllable equal importance; it is a stress-timed language. A stress-timed language focuses on particular words in a sentence while moving or gliding over other words.
Stressing specific words brings a rhythm to English speech patterns. If you learn how to listen for this beat, and eventually implement it to your own speech, you will become a ninja at English pronunciation. Stressing helps people not only convey what they want to say better, but it also helps the listeners understand and predict the context, making conversation effortless.
So Kevin, What Do I Stress?
In English, we stress words that are called content words. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are considered content words. These words are the meat of a sentence; they bring meaning to what is being talked about. Here are some examples:
- Nouns: house, cat, people’s names
- Verbs: running, built
- Adjectives: beautiful, brilliant
- Adverbs: silently, obviously
Now the non-stressed words in English are called function words, like determiners, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns. Think of these as word connectors, the words that set up the content words. Here are some examples:
- Determiners: a, this, every
- Auxiliary verbs: do, has
- Prepositions: in, from, with
- Conjunctions: for, and, but
- Pronouns: I, you, he
Your first step is to start listening for the content words when listening to English speakers. Notice what words they speak clearly, take longer to say, and put more enunciation into. You MIGHT START to NOTICE how NATIVE SPEAKERS put a little EMPHASIS on CERTAIN WORDS; these are likely the content words you want to stress.
Also notice the words English speakers glide over or words that are “swallowed.” A clear example of this is how native speakers say the word can, which is extremely cut up and swallowed!
Still Not Getting It?
That is okay! Even as a native speaker, I admit English is tough. There are too many rules and too many exceptions to the rules. When English speaking children go to school, they suffer just as much with all the random rules and silent letters thrown at them.
If you have ever listened to an English-speaking child, you will notice they are still getting their word stressing right too. Children tend to stumble over words and stress inappropriate ones, making them sound unsure of themselves. They also seem to be always asking a question. In school, however, children normally are not taught stressing; they have to pick it up from their fluent-speaking adults.
For deeper understanding, we are now going to break down a sentence to make sure you understand the timed-stress principle.
Suzie Q is coming home tonight. We are going to cook a meal for her.
(Stressed Syllables in Red/ Unstressed in Black)
Listen at Full Speed: Listen
Listen at 85% Speed: Listen
Now, let us see stressing in action. Put emphasis and time on the large words and try to quickly say and connect the small words to the bigger words.
Suzie Q is coming home tonight. We are going to cook a meal for her.
Did you do it? Were you able to stress the words and sound like a native? If not, keep practicing! If so, keep practicing! Either way, keep practicing!
The first thing I want you to do is start paying attention to native speakers when you are watching TV, listening to podcasts, on YouTube, etc. You’ll start noticing that the stressed words are emphasized more than the others. This can help you follow the context of what is being said with less effort. Why is that? Because comprehension comes from focusing on the content words, not forcing your brain to process every little word and syllable.
That is why we stress in English; it makes it easier for our listeners to understand the point we are attempting to get across to them. Our brains are brilliant at making things easier for us. Rather than focusing on the unstressed words, which are only good for establishing a sentence’s context, we need to focus on the words that deliver content—the stressed words.
Now to summarize…
The What, Why, and How
What: Improve your pronunciation and comprehension of English by learning how to ONLY focus on the stressed words or the content words.
Why: Because you will speak more like a native and you will be able to understand native speakers with less effort and follow what those anxious and excited fast talkers have to say.
How: When listening to native English speakers, start training your ability to pick up on the emphasized words, disregarding the function words that are glided over and basically swallowed, making them difficult to hear. Also, train your mouth to follow the English rhythm by reading sentences out loud with the content words underlined.
Now, it is your turn to put this little handy trick into practice and see how quickly your pronunciation improves. English is an intuitive language, but with enough practice and exposure, you will be able to speak it not only properly, but also clearly and fluently.
Kevin is the creator FeelGoodEnglish and the Feel Good English Podcast at FeelGoodEnglish.com, where he helps people become confident English speakers. If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out Kevin’s site. We’ve also published the following RealLife English articles/videos.
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