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. 

On the NEST vs. NNEST issue

When this happened for the first time, I thought it was pretty insignificant. I pondered for a while and then let go of the thought immediately. When it happened for the second time, I realised it was worth a mention here on my blog.
Scene 1: 
I’m sitting in the classroom, cooperating with Margaret, a lady from the UK (a native speaker of English). We’re working on a task Daniele, the presenter of the workshop we are participating in, has just asked us to complete. We’re looking at a list of some vocabulary items when Margaret mentions that she’s really enjoying the day here at the conference. Later on I ask her about her background and she briefly explains that she used to be a primary teacher in the UK. Now she’s retired and she’s been travelling a bit around the world and she’s having a great time. She’s come to the Czech Republic to visit her son – a teacher trainer based in Brno. Suddenly, Daniele, whose name and surname definitely sound English to me, utters a Czech male name with such a perfect pronunciation that it occurs to me that her L1 might actually be Czech. I’ve noticed that it is particularly people’s names, as well as, say, names of Czech places that reveal your true identity when you pronounce them in front of a Czech audience. Anyway, I mention to Margaret in passing that Daniele is one of my favourite presenters and I wonder whether she’s a native speaker of English. Margaret stops to think for a second and then she says: “Well, I really don’t know but she sounds English to me”. And then she adds: “And Paula, the presenter I saw before, sounded English to me too.” I’m a bit surprised because I know Paula is Czech and although her English is flawless, it’s definitely her L2.
Scene 2: 
I’m sitting in the classroom listening to Nick, a very friendly-looking native speaker of English, who’s giving a presentation on a brand new, bottom-up, approach to teaching listening and reading. At some point he asks if there are any native speakers present in the classroom. I think he wants to explain how difficult it is for NSs, let alone NNSs, to understand spoken English and he wants somebody to confirm his assertion. One guy puts up his hand – it’s James. Nick nods and then he looks at David, a nice guy I saw presenting at conferences in the past too, and, a little puzzled, asks: “And you? You are a native speaker, too, aren’t you?” David shakes his head – he’s actually Dutch. “Really?? I thought you were a native speaker”, adds Nick a little doubtfully. His puzzlement doesn’t surprise me because I heard David speak on many occasions before and he sounded perfectly native-like. But I’m a NNEST, so you can trick me easily, you know. 
And that’s the point. Being a native speaker of Czech, I’m convinced that I can tell with an absolute certainty whether somebody’s Czech is their L1 or L2, and I was really surprised to see that native speakers of English can’t. This is truly intriguing. Although both Nick and Margaret came from totally different environments, they had something in common; Nick probably works with teachers all around the world, so he may have adjusted to all sorts of accents which he accepts as fully-fledged varieties of English. Margaret loves travelling, so like Nick, she may have stopped distinguishing between ‘real’ English and other Englishes long ago. 
So it made me wonder why there’s so much the fuss about NESTs and NNESTs because apparently, even NESTs can’t tell the difference between native and non-native Englishes. It really makes no difference what Daniele’s, Paula’s or David’s linguistic backgrounds are – one of their parents may be a native speaker after all, or they might have spent most of their lives in an English speaking country. Or maybe they managed to acquire English in such a way that nobody can say if it’s actually their L1 or L2. Thus it’s clear that it is the outcome, i.e. your linguistic ability (plus teaching qualifications) that makes you a good teacher, not your history, i.e. the place of your birth or the data recorded in your passport. 
Note: the storied above are real stories, both of which happened quite recently, and the names of the people mentioned are real too (even though I admit I might have played with the spelling a bit).