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