Stressing out about stress

I can’t remember how many times I’ve told my students that stress – the emphasis placed on the sound or syllable spoken most forcefully in a word or phrase – is a very important aspect of spoken English. I tell them that although this linguistic feature may seem trivial to native speakers of Czech, it can be a matter of communicative survival in English. The trouble is that Czech has a fixed stress, meaning that its position can be predicted by a simple rule, i.e. it almost always comes on the first syllable. It’s not a big issue if you place the stress elsewhere – you will likely be understood, provided you get other aspects of pronunciation right.

My students often struggle with sentence stress – the stress placed on words within sentences – and I wrote about ways of handling it here. They also find it difficult to deal with lexical stress – the stress placed on syllables within words. There are two notorious words I repeatedly correct – hotel and event. It doesn’t matter how many times I model the pronunciation; in most cases my students will get it wrong the next time again. There are obvious reasons for this: as already mentioned above, it’s natural for my students to speak stressing the first syllables in words. Moreover, despite the fact that in written Czech the word for hotel is identical to its English counterpart, we pronounce it slightly differently, i.e. we place the stress on the first syllable.

Now, my students are not the only ones who sometimes struggle with this aspect of spoken English. I remember at least two occasions when my message seemed totally unintelligible to my Australian friend, just because I placed the word stress incorrectly. For example, I remember that my friend looked really puzzled when I told him about the problem with mosquitoes. I pronounced it [ˈmɒskitəʊs] instead of [məˈskiːtəʊs]. I had to repeat the word several times and even describe the insect before my friend got the meaning. I was pretty frustrated because to my Czech ear, the difference is not so dramatic, and if I heard the word pronounced in different ways, I think I would always understand. By the way, this is one of the dangers of monolingual classes taught by a teacher speaking the same L1 – we understand one another and easily ignore things that seem unimportant to us. 

Another communication breakdown happened when I used the word teetotaller. I said [ˈtiːtəʊtlə] instead of [tiːˈtəʊtlə]. Neither repeating the word nor raising a glass of beer helped my friend to get the meaning. I had to spell the word (which got me into even more trouble, as you can imagine)! I know that this isn’t a very frequent word but this situation clearly demonstrates what an important role word stress can play.  

I’m really happy I experienced those two communicative failures since I can share these stories with my students; I can show them what pitfalls there are waiting outside the safe L2 classroom. 

Shadow-reading experiment

I’ve recently done some research into shadow-reading and at some point I promised myself that I’d soon experiment with it a bit in the classroom. I was curious to see what this technique, which I had never heard before, looked like in practice, and I wondered what benefits there were related to this method.

Let me briefly describe what we did in class earlier today:

1)  Ss listened to a short recording, following the transcript silently. This helped them understand the gist of the text as well as see how the text was chunked.
2) I played the recording again and asked Ss to read along with the speaker. However, they could only mouth the words silently.
3) I played the recording for the third time; this time Ss were asked to read along with the speaker, quietly.
4) Finally, Ss read the text along with the speaker at a normal volume, trying as much as possible to mimic their intonation, stress and pronunciation. I turned the volume of the recording up and down at this stage, and at some point I even switched the sound off completely.

As this was only a singular trial, I can’t draw any definite conclusions as to the benefits of this procedure. However, I noticed a few interesting things. Apart from the fact that all the students were fully engaged in the activity, there were some directly observable learning outcomes.

The enormous differences between English and Czech, especially those related to suprasegmantal features of pronunciation, make it very difficult for Czech learners to learn to speak this L2. First of all, we normally speak with a rather flat intonation, which may sound impolite, even rude, to other speakers of English. Worse still, what we say may easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted. In addition, Czech has fixed stress – the lexical stress almost always comes on the first syllable of a word. In English, unfortunately, the position of stress in a word is variable and thus less predictable; it must be memorised as part of the pronunciation of a particular lexical item. Then there is sentence stress, i.e. patterns that apply at a higher level than the individual word. Furthermore, whereas English is a stressed-timed language, Czech is a syllable-timed one. This means that, unlike in English, every syllable is perceived as taking up approximately the same amount of time. The situation is only complicated by the fact that in English, vowel reduction may occur when a vowel changes from a stressed to an unstressed position.

During shadow reading, all the above features of English pronunciation were practised. I should point out that regardless of age, Czech learners often find it slightly embarrassing to imitate English intonation, probably because it moves up and down in such a funny way. When shadow-reading, however, they seemed to feel more comfortable, perhaps due to the fact that they all spoke at once, so their imperfections and/or exaggerations were less audible. Nevertheless, I could hear each and every student quite clearly whenever I focused a bit. Also, they had to get the stress and rhythm right, including all the reduced syllables, if they wanted to keep up with the speaker. The fact that they could not stop whenever they made a mistake made their speech more rhythmical, as well as cohesive. The recording they heard in the background helped them stress the correct words and syllables, so it finally almost turned into a chant.

Based on my observations, apart from practising supersegmental features of English pronunciation, the students also learnt to pronounce a few separate, tricky words (refugees, heroine, to name some). In the follow-up lesson, I’d like to give them a test to see if they can read the text as fluently as they did last time (I’m going to concentrate on suprasegmental features again), plus I’d also like to get them to write the tricky words to see whether this technique has had some influence of their spelling skills. Finally (or alternatively), I’d like to give them a short vocabulary test to find out if having encountered certain lexical items in context multiple times has helped them remember them. In other words, I’d like to see whether the technique was beneficial for their L2 acquisition as opposed to conscious learning.

I had learnt that there is also a karaoke version of the shadow reading technique. So in today’s lesson, as a bonus activity, I chose a popular English song for children with a wordy lyric. We followed the same procedure described above, but this time with a fun tweak; in the end I asked the kids to take out their mobile phones and record their voices as they were singing. Normally, this would be a problem and nobody would agree to sing aloud in front of their peers, but as each and every student felt kind of camouflaged among the singing crowd, they didn’t find it embarrassing to perform publicly. Then I asked them to listen to their recordings and it was rewarding for me to see them burst into genuine laughter once they heard the outcomes.