For the American English accent, stress is a good thing. You simply have to know WHERE the stress falls, which is easier said than done. This applies to not only the word level, but also for phrases and sentences. Some stress patterns are rule-based, some context-based. Some of them we pick up by ear, but knowing where to stress is easier for some people than others.
For example, the word “innovative” doesn’t follow the usual
“-ative” stress rule, where we usually stress the syllable right before the -ative suffix. For example: suPERlative, inFORmative, deMONstrative.
But then there’s “INnovative”. This is one of those words in which foreign-born speakers almost always miss the stress. You can rationalize that it’s because the root “innovate” has stress on the first syllable, but “demonstrate” does as well. Chalk it up to just another exception!
The good news is that many words with suffixes do follow a set stress pattern with few or no exceptions. For example the Greek suffix “-ologist” belongs to a group where the stress is always on the 3rd syllable from the end, in this case on the letter O before the L: CardiOlogist. NeuROlogist. Learning words like this in groups is a great way to get a feel for their individual stress patterns.
Nouns also are somewhat regular; they often have the stress on the first syllable. Think of things in your kitchen: MICrowave. DISHwasher. TAble.
Usually, word-level stress is something most of us pick up by ear fairly easily. French and Hindi speakers have a lot more difficulty with this, but at AccentsOff we create customized lists of Survival Words for such clients, with words they use on a daily basis. Clients practice these words like mad, using an mp3 we create, until the stress is corrected and learned.
Another category of words is compound nouns. These are easy because the stress ALWAYS falls on the first part of the word. WHITEboard. BARtender. SOMEtimes.
Things get tricky with two-word phrases. Think of the words “white” and “house”. If you’re talking about the President, you would put the stress on the first word: WHITE House. “The President lives in the WHITE House”. If you’re talking about your grandmother, you would stress the noun: “My grandmother lives in the white HOUSE down the street.”
The best way to explain it is, if the two words form a single entity or concept, go for stressing the first word. For example, “FRENCH fries”. It might as well be one word! We don’t think of French fries as “fries that are French”.
If someone said to you, “I have a Russian teacher” would you know what subject that teacher was teaching your friend? It depends!
“I have a RUSSIAN teacher” => He is teaching you Russian, and he could be from anywhere.
“I have a Russian TEACHER” => He could be teaching you anything, and he’s Russian.
Fun stuff! But it gets ambiguous at times and can be very challenging. It’s not always crystal-clear which phrases are more in the adjective-noun category vs. the compound noun category. I have a Brazilian client whose American accent is so good that he works in the U.S. as an actor and voiceover artist, in English. But this stress business is the final frontier for him. He was at an audition and accidentally read the words “New Year’s Eve” with the stress on “New” instead of on “Eve”. The director, who didn’t know he was foreign-born, raised an eyebrow and gave him a funny look. Wait, why did you say New Year’s Eve that way?…
Sentence-level stress? To be continued…