Lingua East

People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Category: words

Use Language to Make a Difference

Around the United States and the world, there is discontent. This discontent is particularly strong in the immigrant community. It takes a lot to leave everything you know to move to a new country and culture. For that reason, I have an immense respect for immigrants. They are powerful people.

That discontent, when harnessed, has the power to significantly change the status quo for the better. Whether that be related to policy or cultural ideals doesn’t matter. What I’m talking about is the sheer power of that discontent. However, in order to make a change, some organization is needed.

No matter what you are doing, no matter the size of your organization, it is important to clearly define what you want. When you do this, other people can get behind the thing you’re pushing for, adding power and momentum to your cause. That is how to make a difference.

Define What You Want

There are two approaches to defining what you want. The first is specific. For example, “I want my tap water to be 99.99% free of heavy metals, inorganic compounds, and bacteria.” There is no question here about what you want.

The other approach to definitions uses language that is not so clear, language that is vague. The benefit of vague language is that it has the power to appeal to more people. Compare the specific example above to this: “Clean water.” This does not specify where the water comes from (maybe out of your tap, maybe not), nor does it make clear what “clean” actually means. However, while the people across town may or may not be okay with the water coming out of your tap containing a little bit of this or a trace of that, they are likely to agree across the board that “clean water” is a desirable goal.

Spread Your Message

Once you have defined what it is that you want, telling others about it can help you gain momentum, forward progress toward achieving your goal. Now there are more ways than ever to share your ideas with the world. Social media and messaging platforms, email campaigns, and the traditional low-tech communication mediums (i.e., printed flyers, articles and books, billboards and signs, and talking to people face-to-face) are all effective ways to spread your message.

Even if what you want is to achieve a personal goal, telling someone else about it can increase your accountability and improve your chances of achieving that goal.

Act

Even the most clearly-defined message does not make things happen. People have to hear the message and act on it. As much as I love language, I still agree with the old saying that actions speak louder than words. Once you have defined your message and gotten it out there, it’s up to you to do the things you need to do in order to create the positive change you have already envisioned.

The Good Kind of Stress (Pt. 1)

A big part of an accent is something called stress. Unlike the feeling that you get when you have too much on your plate, this stress is an important component of any spoken language. Stress is a part of prosody, which I like to define as the ups and downs of speech. When a word or speech sound is stressed, it is lengthened and emphasized, either with increased or decreased volume or pitch.

Lexical stress is the stress within a word. This kind of stress can change the meaning of the word, and sometimes it’s accompanied by a change in vowel sound. For example, when you stress the first syllable of the word record, you’re talking about an album or a history of something, and the vowel is a short e sound, like the one at the beginning of egg. If you stress the second syllable of record, you hear or and you’re talking about capturing something that you can play or read back later. Researchers have found that when the vowel sounds of words like record are changed, listeners tend to hear the unintended version of the word. In other words, if you mispronounce one of these words, it will be harder for your listener to understand what you’re saying.

There are a lot of words that change meaning when you change their lexical stress. Below is a list of some of those words. Can you come up with different definitions for each word?

conduct
protest
transport
recall
discharge
address
Contest
contract
permit
conflict

Lexical stress in other, more unique words follows specific rules. Saying the word with the stress on the wrong syllable may not change the meaning of the word, but to a native listener, it will sound funny. Imagine if someone pronounced your name with stress on the wrong syllable. That would sound pretty strange!

Numbers in the teens have stress on the first syllable, but when you get into the twenties, the stress shifts to the second syllable. Below, the stressed syllable is written in bold.

                                    Thirteen                   Twenty-one

                                    Fourteen                 Twenty-two

                                    Fifteen                      Twenty-three

                                    Sixteen                     Twenty-four

                                    Seventeen              Twenty-five

                                    Eighteen                  Twenty-six

                                    Nineteen                 Twenty-seven

                                    Twenty                     Twenty-eight

There is another class of words that experience stress shifts – and for some, vowel changes – when suffixes are changed. Can you pick out the vowel changes?

Celebrate / celebration
Music / musical / musicality
Emotion / emotional / emotionality
Environment / environmental / environmentalism

Can you think of more examples?

Lexical stress gives poetry its cadence. If you studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, then you know that they’re written in iambic pentameter, which features a pattern wherein syllables are: unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed,…

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have Astronomy,
(from Sonnet XIV)

And then there are the limericks of Edward Lear, which have another stress pattern. For example,

There was an Old Man with a beard
Who said, “It is just as I feared!-
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

Oden, The Wanderer (1886) by Georg von Rosen

When words have three or more syllables is when figuring out where the stress goes can get tricky. One way to practice is to try saying the word, and tap your hand on something (a table, your leg, your dog, etc.) one time as you say the word. You’re likely to tap on the stressed syllable. Another way to practice lexical stress is to use music. Although there are some cultural differences in picking out stress from music (another topic I can address if anyone is interested), you might be able to pick out the stressed syllable in your favorite music. Try it, and let me know how it goes.

There are so many components to speaking a second language well enough to be understood, it can be difficult to focus on everything when you’re trying to communicate what’s on your mind. However, a bit of practice can lead to improvement, and less confusion (or at least processing) on the end of your listener. After all, your listener should focus on your ideas, not your accent.

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