Stressing out about stress

I can’t remember how many times I’ve told my students that stress – the emphasis placed on the sound or syllable spoken most forcefully in a word or phrase – is a very important aspect of spoken English. I tell them that although this linguistic feature may seem trivial to native speakers of Czech, it can be a matter of communicative survival in English. The trouble is that Czech has a fixed stress, meaning that its position can be predicted by a simple rule, i.e. it almost always comes on the first syllable. It’s not a big issue if you place the stress elsewhere – you will likely be understood, provided you get other aspects of pronunciation right.

My students often struggle with sentence stress – the stress placed on words within sentences – and I wrote about ways of handling it here. They also find it difficult to deal with lexical stress – the stress placed on syllables within words. There are two notorious words I repeatedly correct – hotel and event. It doesn’t matter how many times I model the pronunciation; in most cases my students will get it wrong the next time again. There are obvious reasons for this: as already mentioned above, it’s natural for my students to speak stressing the first syllables in words. Moreover, despite the fact that in written Czech the word for hotel is identical to its English counterpart, we pronounce it slightly differently, i.e. we place the stress on the first syllable.

Now, my students are not the only ones who sometimes struggle with this aspect of spoken English. I remember at least two occasions when my message seemed totally unintelligible to my Australian friend, just because I placed the word stress incorrectly. For example, I remember that my friend looked really puzzled when I told him about the problem with mosquitoes. I pronounced it [ˈmɒskitəʊs] instead of [məˈskiːtəʊs]. I had to repeat the word several times and even describe the insect before my friend got the meaning. I was pretty frustrated because to my Czech ear, the difference is not so dramatic, and if I heard the word pronounced in different ways, I think I would always understand. By the way, this is one of the dangers of monolingual classes taught by a teacher speaking the same L1 – we understand one another and easily ignore things that seem unimportant to us. 

Another communication breakdown happened when I used the word teetotaller. I said [ˈtiːtəʊtlə] instead of [tiːˈtəʊtlə]. Neither repeating the word nor raising a glass of beer helped my friend to get the meaning. I had to spell the word (which got me into even more trouble, as you can imagine)! I know that this isn’t a very frequent word but this situation clearly demonstrates what an important role word stress can play.  

I’m really happy I experienced those two communicative failures since I can share these stories with my students; I can show them what pitfalls there are waiting outside the safe L2 classroom. 


Published by

Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

8 thoughts on “Stressing out about stress”

  1. Thanks for opening this important topic. It is really an important issue that we as teachers have to pay attention to. I remember one of my students was trying to say produce (noun), but because he placed the stress on the wrong syllable he was actually saying produce (verb)!. I noticed that my students struggle to distinguish these types of stress within nouns and verbs of the same spelling.


  2. Hi Hana,

    The challenges of getting 'hotel' right sound very familiar. This word is also stressed on the first syllable in standard Croatian, but not in the Zagreb dialect, where it is pronounced more or less exactly as it would be in English. Which is why it used to be particularly frustrating to hear students from Zagreb, or who had been living in the area for a long time, struggle with the stress in 'hotel'.
    Your mosquito story reminded me of something I've noticed – I've had people correct me a couple of times over the years, pointing out a pronunciation 'mistake'. I remember two occasions in particular. I said 'enclave' as /ˈäNGˌklāv/, and was promptly corrected by a British colleague – this was at a teacher training session – who insisted that the correct pronunciation was /ˈenˌklāv/. The second time I said /ˈpatrəˌnīz/ to an American friend, who countered that the correct way to say it was /ˈpātrəˌnīz/. Now, I knew I hadn’ t made up these pronunciations – I’d heard them somewhere, but as a NNEST you can’t very well retort, “Well, I’ve always said it that way and everyone I know says it that way too.” Or at least I couldn’t.
    My point – besides to reminisce – was to say that these two NESTs seemed very quick to correct what they thought was wrong pronunciation; they didn’t stop to consider that it may be non-standard or standard for a different variety of English. I’ve always thought that they wouldn’t have been so quick if they’d been talking to someone they thought was another NEST.
    Anyway, I’m not really sure I was going anywhere with this, except to suggest that maybe people are quick to react if someone pronounces a word differently than they do, which ties in with your earlier point about communication being impaired.


  3. Hi! Thanks for bringing this up, Hana. Yes, this can is a problem for many students. Yesterday I observed a lesson where the students kept pronouncing *suspect* (noun) as a verb, and the teacher didn't point to the error at all, probably because she didn't even notice it. I believe that these words either have to be drilled in class or Ss should be exposed to a lot of meaningful context. The first is sometimes necessary and more feasible, especially if the exposure is just three lessons a week.


  4. Hi, Vedrana. Thanks for mentioning the issue of explicit correction here. I should stress that my Australian friend wasn't rude at all; he simply didn't understand me, so it was perfectly all right to correct me (actually, it was clarification of meaning rather than correction). But I can imagine situations in which such explicit correction could be somewhat embarrassing, especially if you feel you are right. I remember I experienced something similar with the word *rapport*. A NEST repeated it after me in a different way, but I was sure my pron was correct too. Anyway, this is just a reminder that it's not very polite to react too quickly when correcting someone, and we teachers should be aware of this when dealing with our own students.


  5. Thanks again for the interesting post, Hana. I find the main problems with word stress tend to come when the learners speak in long turns, for example when giving presentations. I remember watching a whole presentation delivered by a learner on 'sisters' or so I thought. This didn't seem to make any sense to me and it was only later that I realised that the learner was talking about her 'ancestors'. Inappropriate sentence stress can also cause problems as learners might be perceived as being rude, e.g. compare 'Can I have my book back, please?” with the stress on 'book' with the stress on 'back'. The latter implies the speaker is pretty annoyed about not having his/her book and is going to emphasise this. I like to do awareness exercises to make this clear – to point out the importance of suprasegmental features in pronunciation as nobody wants to give the wrong impression. I always found Czech speakers easy to understand mind you although it took me a while to work out what a 'botel' was!


  6. Thanks for your interesting examples, Clare. Sentence stress related to politeness is another area of difficulty for Czech learners. As you know, we Czechs speak with a relatively flat intonation, which often sounds rude to speakers of other languages. Honestly, this is very difficult to change, probably because speaking with a totally different intonation sounds funny, it may even feel embarrassing for some learners, especially in an L2 class full of teenagers. The only solution is to go out and get exposed to all sorts of communicative breakdowns and failures outside the classroom – otherwise it’ll always be plain theory.


  7. Reading your post made me think about some times when I've messed up pronunciation in Korean and been misunderstood. I still make a lot of pronunciation mistakes, these days primarily with intonation. But before I understood how Koreans pronounce English words, I found it hard to communicate where I was going in a taxi, for instance, because I didn't know I had to add an extra syllable to a word that has consonant blends. I remember feeling frustrated that the driver couldn't “just figure it out” because to me it wasn't that big of a difference. Now I worry that I've lived here too long and fail to correct my students' pronunciation errors that might impede understanding with other English speakers simply because *I* understand them. Maybe they make mistakes that I don't even hear.
    Anyway, thanks for your post and for getting me thinking!


  8. Hi Anne,

    Thanks for your comment. I see what you mean. I think we can inadvertently get into a trap of complacency once we finally get used to something. I've just come back from a short visit to the Netherlands where people from different countries met up for a project. At times, I felt like at the Tower of Babel. There was so much code-switching going on all the time that I wasn’t able to remember who was from where 🙂 The only constant I could hold on to was English. But it was truly valuable experience; especially with regards to errors. I noticed that each nation has a set of specific errors which probably happen to the L1 interference. However, none of these errors were too serious to hinder mutual understanding. But yes, when you’ve been in contact with people who speak the same L1 for too long (the same happens to me over here), and once you understand them regardless of the errors they make, you can no longer tell if the errors would actually make communication with speakers of other languages impossible.


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