To get a high score on the TOEFL or IELTS speaking section, a test taker doesn’t have to sound like a native speaker. That’s not what the examiners are looking for. They only want to test a candidate’s ability to speak clearly and coherently in an English-speaking environment. As such, it’s important that we stress particular syllables in words and highlight specific words in sentences to maintain clarity of speech.
Now, this can be challenging for non-native speakers of English because many languages sound each syllable at the same pace, while English highlights syllables and words. However, this skill can be learnt. Let’s start off with word stress. How do we correctly say these words—“purchase”, “calendar”, “seven” and “picture”? Remember, one syllable in each given word should be stressed and stress always falls on the vowel sound. Also, to stress or highlight a syllable or a word, make it louder and longer. Now, try saying the given words by emphasizing on the letter(s) in uppercase—“pUR-chase”, “cA-len-dar”, “sE-ven” and “pIc-ture”. In addition, here are some standard and easy rules for determining word stress.
- First, the stress for words with one syllable falls on the vowel itself. For instance, “mAn”, “sUn”, “skY”, “gO” and “sEE”.
- Second, most two-syllabled nouns and adjectives have their stress on the first syllable, such as “wAter”, “bIRthday”, “fAmous”, “tEAcher” and “sIster”.
- Third, the stress for most verbs with two syllables falls on the first syllable, as in “insERt”, “convERt”, “objEct”, “permIt” and “protEst”. Now, let’s try moving the stress of the given verbs to the first syllable and notice the change in pronunciation, clarity and meaning—“Insert”, “cOnvert”, “Object”, “pERmit” and “prOtest”.
- Fourth, most words ending in “-tion”, “-sion” and “-ic” have their stress on the syllable before the suffix as in the words “televIsion”, “expectAtion” and “telegrAphic” respectively.
Besides stressing syllables, highlighting words in sentences can also help you to sound more interesting and fluid. As such, your interviewer or examiner will find it easier to understand your answers when you emphasize important, content words in your sentences. Content words are verbs (say, see, think), nouns (mother, country, city), negative auxiliaries (doesn’t, isn’t, can’t) and adjectives (always, gracefully, slowly). Bear in mind that structure words such as, prepositions (in, on, at), articles (a, an, the), pronouns (she, it, he) and auxiliary verbs (be, do, can) are not stressed.
In conclusion, while stress may not be a feature in your language, it can be learnt through frequent practice. Good luck!