Developing awareness of Stress and Unstress
The issue of Stress and Unstress is raised by teacher Siham Mayaba while studying for the Trinity College Diploma. Question: Hi Adrian: My first question is, I’m teaching a group of Arabic speaker learners and teaching word stress has been really challenging. Despite using recordings and drilling, my students don’t seem to get the difference between a stressed syllable and an unstressed one, between Stress and Unstress.
My question is simply: “how can a teacher facilitate understanding the idea of word stress to students who are not familiar with the idea in their mother tongue?” Do we simply say make the voice louder? make the vowels longer? say it with some stress?
And finally I wanna say. …Somehow sentence or utterance stress has been much easier to grasp because of the focus on the meaning but word stress is still challenging. Siham
Reply: Hello Siham. Thanks,for this question. The issue of Stress and Unstress is very important. Here some ideas that may help.
Stress and Unstress
There are three acoustic correlates of stress, volume, length, and pitch. So first off I get my students to play with each of these three variables independent of the other two. I use the mnemonic words louder, longer, higher. I get students to stress each word on the first (correct) syllable, using only the appropriate variable. So they make the stress on the word louder by making the first syllable LOUder. They make the stress on the word longer by making the stressed syllable looooonger. They make the stress on the word higher by making the first syllable HIGHer in pitch. This is a lot of fun, very illustrative, and not always entirely successful! But it makes the point.
Using the three acoustic correlates of stress
At first I use leeeeength as the main indicator of stress, because students seem able to control and manipulate length more readily. However, once they get the idea I may start to focus on VOLume, as that is generally the main indicator of stress in English. This is also referred to as pulmonary pressure because increasing volume requires momentary lung pressure to produce the extra push of air through the vocal cords.
Next I put some three syllable words on the board (ones that are already in circulation in the lesson). Taking each word in turn we agree where the stress is. Perhaps I will say each word three different ways, with the stress on each of the three syllables in turn. And I ask them to notice the difference in how it sounds, and to tell me which version they think sounds more English. Interestingly they are nearly always right about this.
Then I get them to do this themselves, to put the stress on each syllable in turn so they really have the physical sensation, through the muscles and breath, of intentionally energising different syllables in this way. They can feel it, hear it, sense it internally, and can even see it if they look in a mirror or look at their neighbour saying it. Of course, Stress and Unstress go together. Each needs to other to exist.
The physicality of Stress and Unstress
And they are surprised by the degree to which the acoustic quality of the word changes with each move of the stress from one syllable to the next. And by doing this they see how the wrong stress can easily make the word unrecognisable. But most important of all, they hear the difference and they find that they can produce that difference themselves, And they discover that this is a physical activity, not simply a mental idea. They also begin to see that both Stress and Unstress are important.
They learn that if they can get it wrong deliberately then they can get it right deliberately. It is not enough just to experience correct stress, they have to also experience incorrect stress to really see what’s going on.
Of course the key to all this, especially in English, is unstress. Unstress is the special way that English reduces the vowels in the syllables that are not stressed. This is typically done by frequent use of the reducing vowel /ǝ/ as well as using /ɪ/ and /ʊ/
Word stress is not a speaker choice, it is given by the language, and is part of the acoustic identity of the word. In fact it is so predictable that it is given in a dictionary along with spelling and pronunciation. It is part of the form of the word. It’s not an option. By contrast sentence stress IS a speaker choice. It is how speakers imposing their meaning on the utterance. Both word stress and sentence stress need the contrast between Stress and Unstress.
Stress and Unstress and Muscle memory
Teaching word stress gets the muscle memory active. There is evidence that one of the ways we remember and recall vocab is through the stress pattern. As I said, sentence stress is given by the speaker, in order to make the words carry their personal meaning, The physical mechanics are very similar, but the reason is quite different.
Hope this is useful Siham. And I hope all of you can have fun with this, because mastering the difference between English Stress and Unstress is a breakthrough point in speaking and listening for learners of English
I’m surprised at what you wrote because Arabic is considered by linguists to be a stress timed language. A Google search will lead you to articles. Native speakers are not usually aware of this as they are not in English either. Compared to English, there are no doubt differences between the two languages in the way stressed syllables are produced and what they signify. I studied a little Arabic a long time ago and I remember hearing and producing the correct stress was difficult for me. But the teacher didn’t make comparisons with English stress. At the time, I couldn’t hear and produce at will English stress either. I wonder if it would have helped me with Arabic to become more aware of English stress. If I had a group of Arabic speakers learning English I’d love to experiment with making them aware of Arabic stress before doing the exercises on English Adrian suggests. I couldn’t have written the article but I have used many of your exercises, Adrian, in class and confirm that they are both effective and fun.
(Note: I’ve put the address of my blog but it’s down at the moment. Not for long, I hope.)
Thanks Glenys, and great to hear from you on this rich and tricky topic! Approaching it from the perspective of an English speaker learning Arabic provides useful insights. So too does the idea of becoming aware – again – of stress variables in the L1. Yes, Arabic is usually considered to be stress timed, a quality which especially affects the rhythms and articulatory energy distributions across chunks of connected speech. And if Arabic speakers already have some kind of stress timing sensitivity, this may relate to Siham’s observation that “sentence or utterance stress has been much easier to grasp”.
This runs parallel to the problems at word level. Even if a learner’s L1 allows for stressed and unstressed word syllables, for speakers of most languages, including Arabic, learning English word stress is confusing and unpredictable. And for at least three reasons: 1) The location of the main stress in multi syllable words is unpredictable to language learners. Linguists find guideline ‘rules’ but these have limited use to the average learner. 2) The accompanying degree of unstress in the other syllables, including extreme reduction, use of schwa and contracted forms presents a real challenge to speaking, listening and sense making. When it comes to English, teachers and learners usually focus on the stress, but unstress is perhaps harder to tackle, yet vital. And 3) Wrong stress can make words incomprehensible or even change the meaning.
My take on this is that regardless of whether the learners L1 is stress or syllable timed, and whether their vocab items use stress/unstressed syllables, and so on, all children for proper developmental reasons have had to allow the muscle coordinations that make stress and unstress to become habituated, with the result that learners no longer ‘know’ what they are doing in their L1, and can thus no longer intervene in it. This is how I understand Siham’s question “how can a teacher facilitate understanding the idea of word stress to students who are not familiar with the idea in their mother tongue?” and likewise your statement Glenys “At the time, I couldn’t hear and produce at will English stress either”.
The habituation of L1 muscle coordinations clears space for new learning, but on the downside has to be intervened with to accommodate the new muscle coordinations of an L2.
So now the learner needs to reconnect with the muscles in order to get them to do things a bit differently. And doing this allows the ear to hear the differences, as mouth and ear are in a real sense two ends of the same neurological stick. This principle of course applies across sounds, stress and intonation. And I refer to it as the physicality of pronunciation.
Thanks for this Glenys. I have used what you said to help me think aloud, and try to add to the line of thought you started. And if the above sounds rather ‘certain’ it is not because I am!
Readers will be interested to look at Glenys’ site when it’s back up http://www.glenys-hanson.info/
Thank you Siham, Gleny and Adrian for this fascinating short discussion on one of the key knowledges and skills in mastering any language.
Stressed and unstressed sounds are part of the vowel systems in all languages. I am fortunate enough to be bilingual since childhood in three languages Tigrinya, Arabic and English. For a new learner in these three languages, English is the hardest to figure out what Adrian has coined as “the physicality of the English sounds”. Stressed and unstressed sounds are marked physically for new learners by various letters and symbols in Arabic and Tigrinya. Tigrinya is the strongest in that these systems are not omitted no matter what the proficiency level of the writer and his audiences are. In Arabic these symbols are omitted usually with native speakers and so new learners will need to read books with these symbols to figure out the stress system. In English the system is abstract and this is why Adrian pioneering system of the physicality of the sound is so vital in figuring out the entire phonetic system in English. A new video covering the issue of stress would be of great help for all.