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Feature 042913 Baker

Monday, April 29, 2013

Overcoming the Mexican Accent in English - Syllables and Stress

By George Baker

Ordinarily, our practice at is to offer a summary in only one page. In the present case, however, we needed more space than one page to convince the skeptical second‐language speaker of English that there is material to be learned about English that he or she had never previously considered. Further, to convince him that the effort to absorb this material will pay good dividends in the future.

For everyone employed in the oil, power or chemical industries (among many others, medicine and science, for instance), career advancement will depend, in some measure, on one's proficiency in written and spoken English. In recent memory, high positions in the Mexican government have been held by persons who spoke English with the proficiency of a native speaker: Jorge Castañeda, the first foreign minister of President Vicente Fox, and Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States during the administration of Felipe Calderón. In the energy sector, Francisco Salazar, president of the CRE, is the most accomplished public speaker in English. In Pemex, Alfredo Guzmán, Esteban Levín and Víctor Ochoa spoke English with near‐native fluency.

So there is -- or should be -- every reason in Mexico for an individual, institutional and political commitment to greater English proficiency. We sense such a commitment only faintly. In the presidential elections of 2000, the PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida, promised computers for schools and universal English education. He lost.

Today, Mexico scores last in educational achievement among OECD countries. Perhaps there would have been a different outcome had the PRI candidate won and had his vision been implemented.

At the individual level, the complacency associated with the achievement of a certain level of proficiency in a second language dampens the desire for improvement. Out of a misguided wish not to offend, native speakers stop trying to help language‐learners in matters of pronunciation and diction.

Our policy is the opposite: we want to offend as many second‐language speakers of English as we can, as evidenced by the series of reports that we have prepared. These reports are intended to motivate individuals and organizations to be "more ambitious," as former Pemex DG Raúl Muñoz once told an audience at the Baker Institute in Houston in relation to Pemex itself.

Our plan is to motivate the second‐language student of English by introducing concepts from linguistics that can reveal the structure and patterns of his own native language in a new light; and, in this way, let him see, hear and speak English with greater proficiency and confidence.

The proposal to learn "concepts from linguistics" is only an intermediate step toward language proficiency, not as an end in itself. In relation to their acceptance by scholars and scientists, these concepts are nothing like the periodic table of elements in chemistry; on the contrary, they continue to be debated by scholars in the fields of philology, phonetics and phonology. As technology advances, more subtle measurements of speech become possible; evidence of advances in the scientific understanding of speech is found in the speech recognition software available on cellphones.

Over the past two centuries, there have been many competing theories about the origin of language in humans; in equal measure, there have been competing theories about the classification and description of the world's languages, those spoken today as well as those that are extinct. English is no exception: just as spoken English changes over time, the technical understanding of English by linguists is itself in motion.

Language may be thought of as patterned breathing.[1]  There is no debate about the fact of breathing, and there is no debate that in all languages there are markers in any given speech act (or utterance) where a sound, syllable or phrase is prominent relative to other syllables and words. Such prominence is called stress.

By default, the discussion among linguists and language instructors of all varieties is about patterns. We may take as an example of a debated pattern the classification of the world's 6,000 languages into two groups: those whose pattern of speech‐breathing is based on syllables (Spanish is among these), and those whose pattern is based on stressed syllables (English is among these). Thus, there are "syllable-timed languages" and "stress‐timed languages."[2]

Common to both classifications is the notion of the syllable. What is a syllable? A basic understanding is that a syllable is a vowel that may, or may not, be preceded or followed by a consonant. Good (so far). But what, exactly, is a vowel (we are speaking of sounds, not letters), and what is a consonant? Answers to such questions differ, and the technical vocabulary gets technical fast.[3]

We can see already something new, even without answering such questions. What's new is the glimpsed understanding that the challenge for a native speaker of Spanish in learning English is not only a matter of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation; it is also a matter of breaking free of the structure of a syllable‐timed language, the rules and limitations of which he has no conscious knowledge.

The new question is this: How do I learn to speak fluently in a stress‐timed language, when, for my entire life, I have spoken a syllable‐timed language? The first step toward an answer to this astonishing, unexpected question is to learn something about linguistic stress, both in Spanish as well as in English.

Hence, the present report.

The defining difference between Spanish and English is that in Spanish all the vowels have equal weight in the pronunciation of any word whatsoever. In English, in contrast, some vowels are longer than others, and some, it would seem, are better than others.

Consider two words that mean about the same: acerca and about. The vowel [a] in acerca is the same at the beginning of the word as at the end; but in about, the initial vowel is reduced to a schwa, the name that linguists have given to the vowel sound found in unstressed English syllables. This sound is the most common in English, and may be represented in English by any one of the five vowel letters -- a most disorienting feature for the second language student of English.

Let's take another example: católico and Catholic. The accent mark tells us where the stress falls in the Spanish word, but what about its English counterparty? In English, the suffix /‐ic/ will pull the accent of a word to the right where there is an available syllable, as in / vs. / With "Catholic," however, the /o/ is mysteriously unstressed; in speech it becomes a schwa, and is omitted in everyday speech: /cath.lic/. You can say /cath.ә.ic/ or /cath'lic/ (but not ca.thol.ic).

So here we have a very big difference between Spanish and English -- the big phonetic enchilada. In English, unstressed syllables may be dropped in casual speech, as in cam'ra (camera) and choc'late (chocolate); whereas the vowels in these words (which are spelled the same in both languages) in Spanish must be given their full value. If in your entire life you have never intentionally dropped an unstressed syllable, you will find it difficult to do so now. The argument could be made that the single most important skill to acquire in English is the recognition of unstressed syllables in two‐ and three-syllable words.

Here's how it works:

In a two‐syllable word the default stress is placed on the penultimate syllable; but to verify this probable situation, you look to see if there is a reduced vowel in one of the syllables. If a reduced vowel is in the first syllable (as we saw in "about") then the stress is on the second.

There are two exceptions here (and English is the Land of Exceptions):

1) If a two‐syllable word is used in conjunction with a second word to form a single noun phrase, then the stress (or, in Spanish, "accent") falls on the first syllable of the first word: Consider greenhouse gas (stress in bold).

2) If the word is of the kind that it can either be a noun or a verb, then, if the meaning to be conveyed is that of the noun, then the accent falls on the first syllable; but if the word is understood as a verb, the accent may be either on the first or the second.

In a three‐syllable word, you scan the word from right to left, mentally dropping the last syllable. Then, examine the vowel of the next syllable (in what was the penultimate position):

1) If the vowel is a diphthong, or if the vowel is short, but with a final consonant, then that syllable will take the stress of the word; but

2) If the vowel is reduced, it means that it cannot "accept" the stress of the word, and the stress must move one place to the left.

Let's consider an example of each case:

Short vowel with a final consonant: In the bulletin of the First Unitarian Church of Houston, there is the following statement, said in unison at the end of a religious service: We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth.

Which is the stressed syllable in "extinguish"? Dropping the final syllable, we have /ex.tin/ The ‘i' is short, but there is a coda (final consonant), making it a syllable that takes the accent: extinguish.[4]

Vowel of unknown properties. Consider the family name Kavanagh (more commonly spelled as Cavanaugh). A memorable violin piece was recently performed at the church by Janet Kavanagh. Which is the accented (or stressed) syllable in her surname?

Follow the rules. Dropping the last syllable, we are left with / The question before us is about the pronunciation of the second ‘a'. Is it a schwa or not? That is, is it a reduced vowel or not? For a nonnative speaker of English, it's hard, perhaps impossible, to guess with certainty. There is a test, however, which is this: Can you drop the second ‘a' without risk of being misunderstood?

Consider: And the special music will be performed by Janet Kav'nagh.[5]

The answer is yes. So, by this test, the stress is on the first syllable: Kavanagh.[6]

The concepts mentioned in this section will be developed further in the discussion that follows. Hopefully, the second‐language speaker of English will accept the stress (in the psychological sense) of having something new to learn to advance his proficiency as a speaker and listener of English.

What we can say by way of a testimonial from the English‐speaking side of the street is that approaching Spanish with the conceptual tools of elementary linguistics unmistakably improves the ability, first, to hear Spanish, as it is actually spoken (a big step). Second, as listening improves, so also does pronunciation begin to lose its gringo accent. We believe that the same approach to English will yield similar benefits.

By way of example, it was a revelation to learn that by the phono-tactical rules of Spanish a syllable cannot be formed by an /s/ followed by a consonant; whereas in English no such rule exists, and English syllables with sc‐, sch‐,‐sh‐, sl‐, sm‐, sn‐, sp‐, sq‐, st‐, sw‐ and sz‐ (among others) are everywhere. Looking back, the existence of such a rule should have been obvious: Why does Spanish put /e/ in front of /‐spaña/? Why not just Spaña and Spañol? Such questions cannot be answered outside of a linguistic framework.

Warning: The mental knowledge that a syllable in Spanish cannot be formed by /s/ followed by a consonant does not in the least make the English tongue want to change the rules it has been following for a lifetime. At first, the tongue flatly refuses to cooperate. But -- like anything else -- with practice, which includes a lot of mistakes, saying /ñol/ becomes manageable. And the former pronunciation, /es.span.nyol/, begins to sound ugly.

Similarly, for the native Spanish speaker, the knowledge that in English syllables are routinely formed with /s/ followed by a consonant will be of little comfort or help, and for months it will be all but impossible not to say /sis.ter/. But the point is that the native Spanish speaker now has a clear metric, a clear goal, of what must be attained to reach the next level of English literacy.



[1] This characterization of language may not apply to some African languages in which semantic information is communicated by clicking. A click would not count as a syllable as Western linguists definite it.


[2] It may be supposed that there is much greater variation among languages that would be suggested by this binary classification.


[3] Linguists also require an exacting notational system


[4] We are talking about stress, not pronunciation. One of the phonemes in English not found in Spanish is the terminal /ng/ as in singing. This sound is also heard where ‘n’ precedes a ‘g’, as in the present case. So, although the stress syllable seems to end with an /n/, it really ends in an /ng/. See IPA spelling (above).


[5] In English, the socalled intervocalic consonant (VCV) is treated differently than it is in Spanish: where, in Spanish, there is a strict requirement that the consonant go only forward, to the second vowel; in English, the consonant may be borrowed by the first vowel. In this example, the unstressed ‘a’ in the second syllable allows the ‘v’ to be annexed by the first ‘a’, giving [Kav]. The failure to understand and apply this difference is responsible for the chief characteristic of the accent in Spanish of native English speakers.


[6] Exercise for second language speakers of English: Employing the concepts and methods indicated in this summary, explain why the pronunciation of “syllable” is [], not [].


This is an excerpt from a longer Mexico Energy Intelligence piece, "Overcoming the Mexican Accent in English" (part III), MEI Market Note No. 163, Apr. 15, 2013,  George Baker is the director of, a publishing and consulting firm based in Houston, Texas.  He can be reached via e-mail at  Reprinted with permission.

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