The Problem with Stress

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Today we had the vocabulary word, “defect.”  This is a simple enough word, commonly used in both written and spoken English.  It means of course that is something is not quite right; an item is not quite perfect.  It is defective. 

However, that same word takes on a whole new meaning with a different pronunciation.  A simple change of stress from the first syllable to the second, and now we have “to defect,” i.e. to leave one’s country in order to live in a competitor country.

Word stress can completely change the meaning.  It is this simple misplacement of stress that can confuse many people, and it is also one of the many challenges that my English learners encounter in the classroom.  Typically nouns in English stress the first syllable and the same word as a verb will stress the second syllable, but of course there are always exceptions and variables that students work on learning. 

Here a list of some of the most common multi-syllabic homographs in English:

the desert vs to desert

a minute vs something minute

refuse vs to refuse

a project vs to project

an object vs to object

As an English speaker, I follow the stress-timed rhythm of English to clarify and understand what is being communicated.  I naturally open my mouth wider, speak longer and louder, clearer, and change my pitch to stress the correct syllable of each word. 

Unfortunately word stress cannot be learned overnight.  In the past seven months of teaching intermediate English speakers, my class has had a daily warm-up to recognize both the number of syllables and the stressed syllable in words.  This seemingly simple activity has been eagerly embraced and practiced by the students.  My students want to speak “good English” and to be understood by everyone, and being able to both recognize and produce words with correct stress is an important step towards their goal.

Written by Heather Glidewell | LSS Center for New Americans | Adult ESL Instructor

300 East 6th Street, Suite 100 | Sioux Falls, SD 57103

1-866-242-2447 toll free | 605-731-2059 fax

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