Learning English with marked stress position

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

One of the most difficult things about learning English is learning its orthography. It poses problems for native speakers who tend to misspell words all the time (as in “I was not aloud to go there”, instead of “allowed”), but it poses even greater problems to learners of English as a foreign language because they tend to learn new vocabulary mostly from written materials.

It is then not uncommon for non-native speakers to say that “they were attacked by a beer” (instead of a bear). Well, of course, being attacked by a bear is not a common conversational topic, so you may consider this example to be a hyperbowl. Erm, I mean hyperbole (pronounced /haɪˈpɜrbəli/). In fact, such mistakes are so common I’ve written an entire book about them.

But what about learning English purely using texts and still remembering the correct pronunciation? Is that possible without a lot of searching in dictionaries?

A situation similar to English happens in Russian. All vowels have up to three different possible pronunciations depending on their position in relation to the stressed syllable. However, once you know where to put the stress, you also know how to pronounce the word properly. For that reason, Russian textbooks commonly use additional acute accent above vowels to indicate stress position, such as большóй instead of just большой (which is the form that would be used everywhere else). So I was wonderingwouldn’t something similar be possible in English as well?

Use markers to distinguish different variants

It would certainly be possible to use some sort of marker to denote the stressed syllable. I would probably prefer to use a bold typeface combined with an underline for the primary stress and just a bold typeface for all secondary stress positions. For example, I would write:

The intellectual significance of this problem cannot be underestimated.

Monosyllabic words would not contain bold vowels unless they are stressed. This little change alone, which would not, in my opinion, interfere in any inappropriate way with reading, would be of immense help to all beginning learners of English, because once you know the stress position and the spelling, you can usually tell the correct pronunciation.

We can also distinguish many ambiguous situations using this technique, e.g. “ea” can be a letter group pronounced as // (as in “speak”), but it can also be “e-a” pronounced as // (as in “weary”). I would write them as “speak” and “weary”, respectively.

However, we can go even further. Letters in English are often silent, such as “b” and “e” in “subtle”. We could use another marker, such as a grey colour, to indicate silent letters. We could then write “subtle” instead of “subtle”. This would also help us distinguish another possible pronunciation of “ea”, namely “ea”, such as in “dreadful” /ˈdredfəl/ or “wear” /wer/.

Consider the following words that are often cited as an example of ambiguity of the letter group “ough”: though /ðəʊ/, through /θruː/, rough /rʌf/, cough /kɒf/, thought /θɔːt/, bough /baʊ/. Pretty natural, isn’t it? It is possible to distil the essence of pronunciation of almost all words in English just by marking the stress position and silent letters.

Of course, there’s a question of dialect, because different dialects of English often differ in stress placement in many words, but as long as the markers are used consistently and the dialect is mentioned, I do not think this should be a problem; on the contrary, reading a text multiple times with markers corresponding to different dialects could be a very enriching experience.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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