Mind the Stress in the Classroom

by Brita Haycraft

The text below is taken from a blog by Brita Haycraft that was based on her one-hour talk ‘Trick and Techniques for Better Spoken English’  given at the British Council in London on 8th October 2013.

Brita said that “They are among various exercises I give to groups of 16-18 students of different levels and nationalities who turn up at my monthly  one-hour free Pronunciation Workshops at IH London.    If you try them out in your classes, I’d love to have your feedback, wherever you are.”

“Placido Domingo needs no subtitles when interviewed on the BBC, despite his Spanish vowels and ‘estrong eSpanish accent’. It’s because his sentence stresses are spot on.

Advanced English language learners still often speak with equal stress on each word: ‘I will meet you downstairs.’ or ‘You must telephone me.’. This confuses English listeners and can also sound a bit rude.

It would be so easy to put life into the students’ sentences simply by reminding them to stress the logical words, as they practise speaking. But course books seem to ignore this speaking tool which points to the important words in the context – the very backbone of conversation. Even when you talk to yourself, you stress the words that matter.

If asked in class, however, students know at once which words are important in that context, because it’s common sense. All they have to do is to stress them.

Write the time 9.30 and ask ‘Does the train leave at a quarter past, or half past?’ and your class will reply ‘Half past’, maybe stressing ‘Half’. But asked again ‘Is the train leaving at a quarter past?’,  they may stress the wrong word ‘No, at half PAST.’ So you go on asking ‘A quarter past or half past?’ until they answer with the appropriate stress. They enjoy this combined drilling which teaches the language item and nags them into saying it in context.

An inappropriate stress confuses an English ear. Would we ever catch the right train if the station master announced the train times with random stress, e.g., ‘The next TRAIN at PLATFORM two WILL arrive at a QUARTER past ten.’?

Why is this easy-to-use normal sentence stress not part of spoken classroom practice? All students are able to stress perfectly, whatever their mother tongue. Ask a Japanese if he comes from India and he’ll certainly stress ‘Japan’ clearly. Students could underline the stresses in a dialogue given as homework.

You can certainly hear sentence stress in spoken Germanic and Latin languages, but their unstressed a, o and u stay unchanged and are therefore easier to hear. English often reduces its unstressed a, o, u to the neutral /ə/ sound (as heard in, for example, ‘future, method, pursue etc.), which means the meaning of the sentence depends very much on the stressed words.

The good thing with sentence stress is that all Englishes use it and people with all sorts of regional varieties still understand each other.

Obviously, our stresses have to be in place for us to compress the unstressed words. And if we don’t compress unstressed structure words, we sound like robots and the precise meaning gets blurred, while we also sound too insistent.

In the instruction ‘You must knock on the door.’, would you prefer to hear a quick ‘You m-s…’ or a clear ‘You must… knock on the door.’?

But foreign learners think it careless to say ‘It’s …’, ‘I’ve…’, so they opt for ‘It is…’, ‘I have…’ to be polite. But this sounds too precise in normal English conversation. Mrs Thatcher tended to spell out each word, thereby sounding like a school-marm in parliament!

English specialises in compressing unstressed auxiliary verbs. ‘I would never have caught it.’ becomes ‘I’d never’ve caught it.’. Even unstressed ‘going to’ is often pronounced ‘gonna’ today, yet once not allowed on the BBC. But in a late 80s, recording of the Queen talking to President Reagan, she is heard to say ‘gonna’ without blinking. This despised ‘Americanism’ is now often heard on the BBC, even in serious programmes, if not on the news itself perhaps. Listen out during weather forecasts.

So, if our stressed words determine how we say the intervening unstressed structure words, why then do course books start with the single phonemes and go on to ‘connected’ speech? Sentence stress would be a far easier guide to speaking.

The sooner foreign students get into the habit of stressing the relevant words, the sooner they’ll be able to communicate with English speakers – which is, presumably, their ultimate wish.

Grammar and vocab learning won’t be delayed by the stress reminders. They’ll thrive in each other’s company ”.

Author’s Bio: Brita Haycraft’s great interest is languages, and she is at home in several Germanic and Romance languages and makes sure they don’t rust on her. At IH London she gives monthly one-hour pronunciation workshops to some dozen or more students. Whatever their nationality or level of English, they all treat English pronunciation with the same guardedness. To make them bolder, she is currently experimenting with a Spoken English Test.

John and Brita Haycraft founded International House and Brita was head of speech training at IH London for many years.