Word stress and vowel change

Question Although I feel comfortable and confident in understanding the phonemic symbols, I sometimes have difficulty hearing the word stress.  I can hear if the stress is put on the wrong syllable but most of the time I remain ignorant of the subtle differences in vowel change  Do you have any tips for tackling word stress and vowel change?

Reply There are two distinct things going on here, Word stress and vowel change, and we need to be aware of both:

Stress placement

The first is the question of which syllable is being energised for stress, usually done by making the syllable longer (in duration), louder (greater lung pressure) or higher (in pitch). The other side of the same question is which syllable to de-energise for unstress, usually by making it shorter, quieter, lower.

Vowel change

The second is the likely change of vowel quality that goes with stress and unstress. It is not just a matter of more or less energy, the sounds usually change too. So the vowel in a stressed syllable is likely to have a fuller, clearer more obvious quality, while vowel/s in unstressed syllables are likely to have a reduced, less distinct quality, to the extent of frequently change the vowel itself. In such cases the end result for a monophthong vowel is typically the schwa sound / ǝ / or possibly /ɪ/ or /ʊ /. As for unstressed diphthongs,they may lose their clarity, become ‘greyer’ and less distinct, , and quite possibly become monophonthongs. losing their glide. If fully reduced they too could become / ǝ / or /ɪ/ or /ʊ /.  Word stress and vowel change go together.

A simple trick to find  “Which syllable am I stressing?”

Here is a simple trick that can help you to hear which syllable in a word you are stressing: Take a word of two syllables and say it aloud, putting the stress first on one syllable, and then on the other. But be sure to UNSTRESS THE OTHER SYLLABLE! This can be tricky to do at first, but when you get it you really see what is going on. Alternate between the two ways of stressing the word, saying it both ways. When you do this you can quickly tell which syllable you were stressing before. And as you do make sure that you unstress the other syllable/s.

And if thjs is a word you know or have heard before, you can probably also tell which is the correct stress, If not you can check with the dictionary. Listen to the different energy distributions of these two ways of saying the word, one right, and one wrong. Feel the differences in the muscles of your mouth, throat and lungs. You may be surprised by how different the two versions can sound.

The second thing to notice is how the vowel sounds change according to whether the syllable is stressed or unstressed.

Here is an example of word stress change and vowel change

Take the word packet and practice saying both of these ways until you can really hear the two points I’m making above, stress placement, and vowel change    1.    /‘p æ k ɪ t /      2. / p ǝ ‘k e t /

By doing this test you will know – in your muscles and in your ears – how very different the word sounds when said in these two different ways, and you also know what you have done to make that difference.

Use this excercise on word stress and vowel change with teachers and students

This is a great exercise for the teacher to do in order to check the wordstress, but it’s also a great activity for students at the point of learning new vocabulary. It enables them to learn from felt experience where the stress is and where it isn’t. They hear the difference and they know what they have done to make that difference, and they can answer the question Which syllable am I stressing? This enriches the act of learning by priming the physical memory, linking that to what the ear hears, and using both to enrich the memory hooks that form the basis for later recognition and retrieval.

Apply this to longer words connected speech

You can do the same for three syllable words, stressing each of the three syllables in turn, and of course unstressing the other two. You can also apply this exercise to pieces of connected speech, either to be sure about what you have heard, or to practise something you want to say.

Word stress and vowel change go together in English. We tend to focus on word stress rather then on unstress, yet unstress is often more difficult for learners of English. And the secret of unstress is vowel change and reduction.

Have fun applying the exercises above in your class, and in getting wordstress deliberately wrong – in order to get it really right!