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-- Destiny Yarbro, College Student
I Can't Understand You! Stressing The Right Syllables
by Nathalie V. Fairbanks
I learned this technique from Vera F. Birkenbihl's book "Language Learning Made Easy" (only available in German so far). I've put it to good use, both for myself and my students, who consistently ended up speaking understandable German.
Before I let you in on how this works, remember this: if you start learning a language after your early teenage years, you will have an accent. Get over it! What's relevant is not whether or not you sound exactly like a native speaker, but whether people can easily understand what you're saying.
So here's what Ms. Birkenbihl tells us: It is more important to stress the correct syllable and to have a decent phrase melody than to perfectly pronounce each phoneme.
What does that mean?
A word is made up of different sounds. Some of them might be quite foreign to your tongue and palate and a challenge to imitate. Although it is important to approximate the sounds as best you can, it is even more important to keep the syllable stresses in the right places.
I recorded a little sample for you to get the idea - this is me, speaking with the heaviest German accent I can come up with.
Listen to this short excerpt of Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich":
Now here's the same tidbit, spoken with the best English accent I am currently capable of:
You will notice that the individual sounds ("th", "r", most of the vowels) are far from perfect in the second sample, and I certainly don't sound like a native speaker of English. However, you have a much easier time understanding me.
In the second sample, the correct syllables are stressed and the phrase melody is similar to that of a native English speaker. In sample 1, I just read the sentence as if it were German.
Get the rhythm!
Learning how to recognize which syllable is stressed is a crucial skill - and it's easy to learn:
1- Start with a few English words. Determine which syllable is stressed in each of the following multi-syllable words:
How do you know? The easiest way to find out is to either say the word out loud, or say it in your head and "hear" it internally. If you get stuck, check your dictionary or consult http://www.dictionary.com. The stressed syllable will be bolded in most dictionaries. You can also find the answers at the bottom of this article.
For fun, try to stress another syllable in each of the words above and see how it sounds - you sound almost like me in sample 1! Words get distorted and unrecognizable.
2- Now that you know how to identify the stressed syllables in English words, it will be easier to transfer that skill to the language you are learning.
What you need is a slow recording of whatever text you are currently studying, so that you can listen closely. Take a colored pen and mark the stressed syllable in each multi-syllable word - circle it, underline it, or find something that works for you.
Start by pronouncing each word slowly and overemphasize the stress on the syllable, e.g. Spanish:
- seguro: se-GUUU-ro
- ningún: nin-GUUN
For your brain to record and retain these stress patterns, any additional emphasis helps: clapping your hands, bobbing your head, or pounding on the table while saying the syllable in question will help you remember.
Once you start speeding up your pronunciation of these words, the emphasis will fade and it will just sound normal - but understandable!
I will admit that there are times where the subtleties of correct phoneme pronunciation will make all the difference. A good example of this is the following commercial (click on the link below to watch and laugh!):
(No, I am not endorsing Berlitz...)
Answers to the syllable exercise:
© 2007 Nathalie V. Fairbanks
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