A Stress-Timed Language
English and French are obviously two very different languages. Indeed, while French is what we call a syllable-timed language, English is a stress-timed language. This means that, in French, people speak with a very even rhythm, giving an equal amount of stress to practically every syllable and word. So, we can imagine a French sentence looking something like this :
On the flip side, in English, we only emphasize certain words in a sentence and skip through others rather quickly. This is precisely why non-native speakers often feel that English people speak quickly and don’t always pronounce everything properly. A typical English sentence might look something like this (we would hardly hear the words “I” and “my”) :
Naturally, native French speakers tend to adopt a pattern similar to their own language when they speak English. As a result, they pronounce every word separately and evenly, making their speech sound very broken—almost robotic. Learning how to stress certain words in English can make a tremendous difference in sounding natural and being easily understood by others.
How Exactly Do You Stress Certain Words?
Words (and syllables) that are stressed are pronounced clearly, louder and longer. The most important thing is to create a contrast with the words that are not stressed.
Which Particular Words Should You Stress?
In English, the words we stress are called CONTENT WORDS. These are the words that communicate the main idea of a sentence. Imagine a scenario in which a two-year-old says “WANT MILK.” Do you understand what he wants even though it is not a complete sentence? Of course, because he is using content words!
The other words we add to form a complete sentence are called FUNCTION WORDS—mostly because they provide the main structure and function of a sentence. So, in our example, a complete sentence might be “I want some milk”—in this case, the words “I” and “some” are considered function words. Although they don’t communicate the main idea, they are there to hold the sentence together.
Content words are those in the following categories :
- VERBS : Dance, sing, teach, learn, drive, talk, eat
- NOUNS : Cup, computer, book, car, tree, chair, store
- ADJECTIVES : Nice, smart, easy, good, delicious, big, round
- ADVERBS : Slowly, poorly, always, never, sometimes
- NEGATIVE AUXILIARIES : Can’t, don’t, won’t, no, not
- NUMBERS : One, two, three, four
- DEMONSTRATIVE PRONOUNS : This, that, these, those
- QUESTION WORDS : Who, what, where, when, why, how
Function words are those in the following categories :
- PRONOUNS : I, you, he, she, it, we, they
- PREPOSITIONS : In, at, on, to, of, for, with, of
- ARTICLES : A, an, the
- CONJUNCTIONS : And, but, or, because
- AUXILIARIES : Do, be, have, has, will, can, must
- VERB “TO BE” : Am, are, is, was, were, be
Let’s look at a few examples of sentence stress :
Quick Tips for Integrating Sentence Stress
The easiest way to start improving without overthinking everything is to try and give the verbs in your sentences more emphasis. (Ideally, you would be doing this with all content words, but verbs are some of the most important words and a good place to start). So, in the example below, you can try pronouncing the sentence by focusing only on giving the word “WANT” more focus and energy than every other word.
Useful Web Sites
Learn More About PronunciationOf course, sentence stress and intonation is just the beginning. If you are eager to discover more about the secrets to improving your English pronunciation, we invite you to register for the "Essentials of English Pronunciation (CM120)" course given at Technologia.
As Assistant Training Advisor, Annie Booth heads the English for Francophones portion of the program. Annie has trained over 2 300 students at Technologia since 2004. Using a comparative linguistics approach, Annie aims to help French speakers understand how to avoid and correct their most common grammar and structure mistakes and fine-tune their business writing in order to have a competitive edge in the corporate world.