Common English Word Stress Rules to Help Reduce Your Accent

Stress is extremely important in English. Stressing the wrong syllable or pronouncing all syllables with equal stress are a common problem for non-native speakers. So how can I tell which syllable to stress?

Although the rules for stress are very complicated and have many exceptions, there are a few common patterns that are easy to remember.

Every word has one stressed syllable which is pronounced louder, longer and higher.

Stress on 1st syllable:
Two-syllable nouns label, format, table, coffee, breakfast
Two-syllable adjectives lucky, grateful, handsome, boring, silly
Two-syllable adverbs often, sometimes, mostly, rarely, never
Compound nouns toothpaste, bookshelf, sunshine, headset
Stress on 2nd syllable:
Two-syllable verbs invent, reply, decide, persuade, divide
Phrasal verbs pass out, give up, turn off, give in

Sometimes, the same word can be either a noun or a verb. In general, nouns stress the first syllable, verbs, the second.

Nouns Verbs Nouns Verbs
CONvict conVICT REcall reCALL
CONduct conDUCT CHECKout check OUT
INsult inSULT PROduce proDUCE
RUNdown run DOWN SUSpect susPECT
MAKE up Make UP BREAK up Break UP

Notice the stress in the following noun/verb pairs.

  1. When someone insults me, I don’t take the insult very well.
  2. Someone should conduct an investigation into his conduct.
  3. I suspect the suspect will want to call a lawyer.
  4. I don’t recall the beef recall of the 1990’s.
  5. The final project will help us project a better image.
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5 Technical Presentation Tips for Non-native Speakers

A large percentage of STEM graduates in the US are foreign-born, and non-native speakers of English. When they enter the US workforce, they face communication obstacles that native speakers will not. Most STEM employees are often required to make presentations, whether to their team, at conferences, to customers, or to marketing departments. And although most companies offer presentation skills training workshops for their employees, almost none address the unique set of challenges non-native speakers may have.

If you are non-native speaker in the STEM fields, think about these as you plan your next presentation:

1. Phrasing

Phrasing is the way speakers break up their sentences into understandable chunks. Incorrect phrasing can make the speaker very difficult to understand. Phrasing is extremely important in technical presentations, because the information presented is so dense. Many non-native speakers don’t think about phrasing in their presentations, and very often end up sounding choppy. Which phrasing is more understandable?

  • The optical /module/ reaches input /and output rates /of 160 gigabits/per second/ between/ two processors /with 32 /integrated waveguides./
  • The optical module/ reaches input and output rates /of 160 gigabits per second/ between two processors /with 32 integrated waveguides/.

2. Syllabication

Unlike in conversational English, many words in the STEM fields are very long and can have 5 or more syllables. It is important to pronounce every syllable. Dropping syllables is a common problem for non-native speakers. Additionally, speakers from languages that don’t have consonant cluster (such as Japanese) may add an extra vowel syllable to break up a group of consonants. Don’t drop or add syllables!

3. Clear articulation of consonants and vowels

In English, the tongue, lips and jaw are much more active with a wider range of motion than in many other languages. Most non-native speakers need to retrain muscle memory to create clear and understandable sounds. Additionally, many English sounds require a vibration in the vocal chords. For example non-native speakers will mispronounce “lens”  with final s, because many languages don’t have final z.  The audience not only has to think about content, but deciphering mispronunciations as well. Technical presentations have very few speech reductions, and so most words must be clearly enunciated.

4.  Proper stress

Changes in word form create changes in word stress. Non-native speakers need to master the common patterns and rules for English stress. For example, the stress will always be on the syllable before these suffixes: -tical, -tic, -logy. So while we say pharmacy,  the stress changes in biopharmaceutical, pharmacokinetic, and pharmacology.

5. Plan ahead

Make a list of problematic and key words ahead of time and practice practice practice. You can ask a native speaker for the correct pronunciation. If you know you are saying problematic words and key phrases correctly, you will be more relaxed and confident in your presentation.

Bring CAL Learning’s Technical Presentation Skills for Non-native Speakers workshop onsite to your company.
Contact us and schedule before September 24, 2014 and get 15% off!

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10 ways to communicate better with LEP patients

Almost all healthcare facilities in the US serve some patients with limited English proficiency (LEP).  How you approach communication– how you speak and how you listen, has an enormous impact on the success or failure of the communication. Here are 10 things you can do to  improve communication with LEP patients.

Listen Better

  1. Listen with patience. It takes time to communicate with LEP patients. Be quiet and allow pauses. Don’t interrupt, speak over, or finish their sentences. Listen to learn, not refute.
  2. Listen for key words, main ideas. Summarize or repeat this info back to the patient to confirm or clarify.
  3. Listen to body language. A blank stare or tense body may mean be a sign that they don’t understand. Body language is not the same across cultures. Asian patients may smile when they do not understand or when they feel uncomfortable.
  4. Listen for language level and then adjust your speaking (speed, vocabulary, grammar, etc)  accordingly. To assess language level, start with simple, yes/no questions and build in complexity using open ended questions that require explanation.
  5. Listen without prejudice. Do not equate an accent, poor grammar, or lack of fluency with lack of intelligence. Beware of the impact of culture. LEP clients may say they understand when they don’t, to save face.

Speak Better

  1. Speak Simply. Use short sentences with simple grammar and vocabulary. Avoid technical language, jargon, and idioms.
  2. Speak with structure. Use signposts (first, second, after that, etc) to lead the listener through a process.
  3. Speak in small doses. Don’t give too much information at one time. Be concise. Don’t digress. Check comprehension with each new piece of information.
  4. Speak slower with greater enunciation. Emphasize stress and intonation  to help the listener identify important or key information.
  5. Speak with your body. Use facial and hand gestures to emphasize and clarify. Demonstrate.


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Healthcare Messaging Across Cultures

All healthcare organizations seek to educate their patients and increase healthcare literacy. Pamphlets and brochures can provide the correct information, but to be effective, they must be interesting and memorable to the reader. These preferences vary by culture.

What cultures are represented in your service community? Does your written messaging address their concerns?

Pamphlets, Brochures, and Booklets with Impact

Patients from high and low context cultures differ in what they want in written messages. When writing for high context cultures, create a relationship with the reader. Include stories, quotes, and pictures of people. A human connection makes abstract ideas concrete. Case studies and personal testimonials are more memorable than facts and diagrams alone.

What is the best way for the message to be memorable and effective?

Low Context Cultures
(English-speaking, Northern Europe)

High Context Cultures
(Asian, African, Hispanic, most of the world)

- language used to transmit information

- language used to create social experience

- direct

- indirect

- singular experience

- group experience

- quantifiable, factual accuracy stressed

- imagery stressed

- logic & coherence

- emotional resonance

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Cultural Competency for Healthcare Providers now online

Improve the cultural competency of your staff to best serve patients from different cultures.

Cultural Competency for Healthcare Providers

This course is designed to develop the cultural competency of both clinical and non-clinical staff, in order to improve healthcare communication, delivery, and outcomes with patients from different cultures.

for a fraction of the cost of instructor-led training

contact us to learn more or for a course outline.

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Using the explanatory model to understand your patient’s culture

The Explanatory Model in healthcare is used as a way to understand how patients view their conditions and their expectations surrounding a cure. In the Explanatory Model, providers uses open questions to uncover the patient’s experience, ascribed meaning and behavior regarding an illness episode.

This model can provide insight into cultural, social, psychological and environmental factors affecting the patient. It can help the provider predict how receptive a patient will be to health information, diagnosis and treatment.

This model can help providers:

  • uncover cultural differences that may cause problems for clinical management
  • identify what sort of patient education is needed and most appropriate
  • clarify potential patient/provider conflicts related to different values and beliefs

When interviewing a patient, providers must hold a genuine attitude of interest in the patient’s point of view. The purpose is to gather information. The provider should be non-judgmental and not contradict the patient, which may lead the patient to shut down and stop speaking. Patients who feel ridiculed about their beliefs may withhold  information or not return for follow-up care.

The provider can use the information gained with this model to negotiate with the patient a treatment plan that is mutually satisfactory and most likely to be followed.

Sample questions include:

  1. How would you describe the problem?
  2. What do you think is causing your problem?
  3. Why do you think it started when it did?
  4. How does your sickness affect to you?
  5. What are the chief problems your sickness has caused for you?
  6. How severe is your sickness? Will it have a long or short course?
  7. What do you fear most about your sickness?
  8. How are you treating your sickness now?
  9. What type of treatment do you think you should receive?
  10. What are the most important results you hope to get from treatment?

(adapted from Klienman 1980)

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Pronunciation Errors for Chinese Speakers

When speaking in a second language, people will use the structures and style of their native language.  This is called first language transfer, or L1 transfer.  L1 transfer can affect one’s pronunciation, grammar, spelling, word choice, and communication style.

To reduce your accent, become aware of how your L1 transfer negatively impacts your English pronunciation.

Chinese Speakers

When speaking English, the biggest areas of difficulty for Chinese speakers are stress, intonation and linking. They are not used in Chinese, but are essential in English.

Below are a few common L1 transfer problems for Chinese speakers.

In Chinese, changes in tone are used to distinguish words, whereas in English, intonation affects the meaning of the whole sentence. Chinese speakers may have difficulty hearing and applying English intonation patterns.

Stress: The rhythm of English is created through a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, Chinese does not have many reduced syllables. Therefore, Chinese speakers tend to stress all syllables equally and clearly when speaking English, and find stress patterns difficult to hear and adopt.

Linking: Unlike English, Chinese is basically a monosyllabic language, in which words predominantly consist of a single syllable.  Because of this, they may separate English words into syllables, rather than smoothly connecting them. This absence of linking makes speech sound choppy.

Vowels: Chinese has fewer vowel sounds than English, and so distinguishing the slight differences in sounds (eat, it) and the position of articulation (where your tongue, lips and jaw are) may be difficult.

Consonants: Final consonants, and final consonant clusters, common in English, do not exist in Chinese. They can be very difficult to pronounce correctly. Some consonants are harder to pronounce at the end of a word than at the beginning. For example the /l/ in the following words: like; people.

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Speak Clearly with Correct Stress

Stress is extremely important in English. Stressing the wrong syllable or pronouncing all syllables with equal stress are a common problem for non-native speakers, and can be very confusing for the listener.

A native speaker may not understand a word that has the wrong stress.
BA-NA-NA (all syllables with equal stress) and ba-na-NA (wrong syllable stressed) will not easily be understood by someone expecting to hear ba-NA-na.  Learning stress patterns takes time and effort, but using correct stress will significantly improve your clarity and fluency.

In English, the sentence rhythm comes from stressing important words, called content words, and reducing unimportant ones, called function words. Only 1 syllable in each word is stressed.

carry meaning and are stressed.
They are:

  • Noun
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Negatives

don’t carry much meaning and are reduced. They are:

  • Articles
  • modals
  • Prepositions
  • Pronouns
  • The verb “to be”

In the sentence: This is a faster system with a higher capacity, and it has the same footprint as prior models.

If we hear only the content words we can still get the general meaning
-  faster system higher capacity same footprint prior models.

If we hear only the function words, we have no idea of the meaning.
-  This is a with a and it has the as

It is the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables that creates the rhythm of English.

The correct stress for this sentence is:

This is a FASter SYStem with a HIGHer caPAcity, and it has the SAME FOOTprint as PRIor MOdels.

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The 3 components of cross-cultural healthcare communication

The interdependence of competency levels in each area defines the quality of the communication.

Cross-cultural communication in healthcare has 3 vital components: language fluency, culture, and health literacy. The culturally competent provider can assess a patient’s level in each of the 3 areas and adjust communication accordingly, to increase the chance of successful healthcare delivery and outcomes.

1. Health Literacy

Health literacy is how well one understands basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.  Examples include:

  • reading and filling out forms
  • understanding and following prescriptions and instruction
  • understanding tests and results
  • reading and understanding health brochures
  • navigating health care and insurance systems
  • ability to critically analyze health care options based on knowledge gathered

Providers can help develop patients’ health literacy by communicating in plain, simple English, avoiding technical language and jargon, and checking comprehension.

2. Culture

Both the patient and provider bring cultural filters to the healthcare setting.  The filter includes beliefs, norms, and practices surrounding wellness, illness and healthcare delivery. When possible, providers and organizations should work with and incorporate patients’ customs and beliefs to increase the likelihood of successful outcomes.

3. Language Fluency

How well does the patient speak English? LEP (limited English proficiency) patients may not fully understand information and instructions, and may lack the skills to ask for clarification. They also face the additional challenge of health-specific vocabulary and terminology, some of which may not exist in their native language. The culturally competent provider is able to quickly assess the language fluency level of LEP patients and apply communication strategies that ensure patient understanding.

Health care agencies and providers must actively work to enhance the patient and provider’s knowledge and abilities in these 3 areas in order to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes.

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Giving Performance Feedback Across Cultures

Task-oriented cultures and relationship-oriented cultures give and receive feedback differently. A culturally competent manager is aware of these differences and can adjust communication accordingly. When giving performance feedback across cultures, always keep in mind, “What type of feedback will this person be most receptive to hearing? What is the most effective way to get my message across?”

LAY IT ON THE LINE: Feedback for task-oriented cultures
Low context cultures, such as American, are task-oriented. The person and the task are viewed separately. The task, process, and result are critiqued, not you. Feedback is direct, specific, and quantifiable. It is expected that the person receiving the feedback will engage in discussion, rather than sit quietly. American managers giving feedback across cultures may need to encourage participation, questions, and discussion on the part of the recipient.

READ BETWEEN THE LINES: Feedback for relationship-oriented cultures
High context cultures, such as Asian and Hispanic, are relationship-oriented. The person is not seen as separate from the task. Feedback on work is taken personally, and saving face becomes important. Direct negative feedback leads to a loss of face, and therefore performance feedback is often indirect. In relationship-oriented cultures, my mistake is a loss of face, and my success belong to the team. Calling attention to individual contributions may be viewed negatively.

In relationship-oriented cultures, the recipient does not typically participate in or discuss the feedback, but only listens. Managers provide face-saving feedback by looking at options, alternate scenarios or “what ifs”, rather than discussing the employee directly.

Giving feedback to non-native speakers of English
If you are giving feedback to someone who is not fluent in English, adjust your feedback accordingly. Speak in shorter sentences. Check regularly for comprehension by asking questions, avoid idioms or jargon, and provide both spoken and written feedback. Sending a follow up email summarizing your feedback gives the person a chance to clarify any misunderstanding.

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