Today’s global marketplace allows us to communicate and conduct business throughout the world. Our daily lives are enriched with a multitude of cultures and accents. Daily communication provides ample opportunities to interact with individuals who speak “American English” as a second language.

The 2000 Census projects that by the year 2050, the percentage of Asian individuals in the United States will grow from the present 3 percent to 8 percent, the percentage of Hispanic individuals will grow from 13 percent to 24 percent and the percentage of African Americans will grow from 13 percent to 14 percent. This trend in diversity and multiculturalism will have a significant impact on communication.

Adequate mastery of American English will “level the playing field” for everyone. Many individuals who are proficient in English vocabulary and grammar are still plagued by the inability to be clearly understood. The problem is not a language barrier, but an accent barrier. An accent means that the individual is utilizing the rhythm and melodic patterns, the sound system, as well as the muscular tension of the tongue and lips of their native language. This leads to altered intonation (melody of speech), pronunciation difficulties, and the breakdown of communication between speaker and listener. Strong accents have the potential to compromise rapport between friends, professional colleagues, customers, and other interpersonal relationships. This can disrupt trust and credibility and impact loss of business and social networks.

Both American and foreign-born individuals must assess how they are communicating as they represent themselves and their businesses. Those who speak American English as a second language have an additional challenge in communication. Aside from the pronunciation difficulties that can interrupt clarity of speech, there are many rules that must be learned to help to decipher the idiosyncratic patterns of American English. Once these rules are understood, clear and effective communication is possible.

The Intonation Challenge

Speakers of English as a second language often retain the melody and stress pattern of their first language. Some people speak in a monotone (flat) voice while others speak extremely quickly with excessive and unnatural pitch changes. In American English, words are not said with equal stress; one syllable or part of the word requires emphasis. This can be accomplished by saying the stressed syllable with a higher pitch, a louder volume, and longer vowel.

Learning how to properly stress a syllable in a word or a word in a sentence can feel overwhelming to a non-native speaker. However, if one can learn the rules that guide American speech patterns, more effective, confident, and clear speech is possible. The following are some important pronunciation rules to help navigate the complexities of spoken American English. They can be systematically taught to improve a nonnative speaker’s clarity and effectiveness. Of course, with every rule, there will be exceptions.

Rule #1: Compound Nouns

Our language is filled with compound nouns. Think about how we have business meetings, coffee breaks, checkbooks, cell phones, take-out, and e-mails. The rule for pronouncing compound noun is to stress the first word of a compound noun with higher pitch, louder volume and a longer vowel.

Rule #2: Proper nouns

We frequently need to refer to individual’s names, job titles, addresses, locations, sporting events, mass media, and cultural events. For example, we may introduce ourselves as Hillary Clinton from Chappaqua, New York, have lunch at Tavern on the Green, see the Statue of Liberty, work on Park Avenue, have an appointment at St. Vincent’s Hospital, vacation at Fire Island, get stuck in the Midtown Tunnel, see the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and read The Wall Street Journal while waiting for the Long Island Railroad. The rule for pronouncing proper nouns is to stress the last word.

Rule #3: Acronyms and Initializations

In American English, we use a multitude of “abbreviations” or shortcuts for frequently used words. Each industry has an exhaustive list of its own. We may receive our MBA, CPA, Ph.D. or RN degree; invest in an IRA; buy stock in IBM or GM; watch HBO, ABC or ESPN; or discuss business matters with the CFO, CEO or VP. The rule for acronyms and initializations is to stress the last letter of the abbreviation or initialization.

Rule #4: Numbers

Stating numbers can be confusing, if we don’t abide by the correct stress pattern. When counting, stress the first syllable in “teen” numbers such as thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen. When counting, stress the first part of “ten” numbers such as thirty, forty. However, when discussing quantity, time, currency, and dates, stress the second part of the “teen” numbers, e.g., fourteen dollars vs. forty dollars. In this context, primary stress shifts to the noun.

If one adheres to this rule, an appointment at 8:50 or 8:15 won’t be misinterpreted and 30 mg won’t be confused with 13 mg. These errors can cost us time, money, in some situations, may lead to catastrophic consequences. The rule for numbers is to stress the appropriate syllable when counting and/or describing time, currency, dates, and measurements.

Rule #5: Heteronyms (multiple meaning words)

English is also filled with word pairs that are spelled the same way, but can be nouns, adjectives or verbs with different meanings and different stress patterns. For two-syllable words, stress the first syllable for nouns and the second syllable for verbs.

If one stresses the wrong syllable, it can be very confusing to the listener, e.g., Elliott projects that he will complete his projects by the due date. The rule for heteronyms is to stress the first syllable for nouns and adjectives and the second syllable for verbs in two-syllable multiple meaning words.

These preceding examples are just a few of the many rules that can enhance the nonnative speaker’s communication. In order to speak with clarity, effectiveness, credibility, and confidence, one must master the rules.

Author's Bio: 

Lynda Katz Wilner, of Successfully Speaking, and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker, of The Whittaker Group, are corporate communication trainers and speech-language pathologists specializing in business communication and accent modification. Their joint company, ESL RULES, LLC publishes training materials and conducts workshops for native and non-native English speakers. Contact them at LKWilner@successfully-speaking.com and wg@prospeech.com or at www.eslrules.com.