October 21, 2013 4 Comments
Here is an English-language sentence, in the context of a dialogue, consisting of just five words, and having least five distinct meanings. The word that is italicized and in bold is the one to stress in each variant of the sentence.
- You said that to her? (I could imagine almost anybody else saying that to her, but certainly not you. I am stunned.)
- You said that to her? (You actually had the nerve to say that to her face, rather than writing to her or letting her know by some indirect means? That must have taken some nerve!)
- You said that to her? (Of all the things you could have said to her, you chose that one? Those specific words? Are you crazy or something?)
- You said that to her? (Am I understanding this correctly? You didn’t say that about her, to someone else, but actually to her? Why would you do a thing like that?
- You said that to her? (Of all the people you could have said that to, you said it to her? Don’t you realize how serious the repercussions will be?)
Mapped out as per above, there seems nothing unusual about these nuances to a native English speaker. But how often do we cover such ground – formally called prosody: the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech – with learners of English? Despite evolution in pedagogical approaches, we never quite get away from lexis and grammar as the building blocks of meaning. To the extent that it is treated, even the dark horse third element, pronunciation, is very much about how individual words are spoken. Yet in everyday English usage, the choice of which word within a sentence should be emphasized – and recognizing the different meanings those different types of in-sentence emphasis can have – can be just as important as vocabulary and sentence structure. “Negotiating meaning” has become a popular catchphrase in EFL pedagogical discussion, but how often do we include this type of “negotiation training” in our lessons?
In a learner’s L1, recognizing the importance of emphasis within a phrase or sentence is a natural part of learning a language, because we learn the significance of these variances through their association with the situation being discussed; with the tone of voice being employed, by the facial expressions that accompany it, and other contextual clues. That recognition achieved, we then learn to reproduce this modulation of emphasis to add impact and precision to our own utterances.
Yet in EFL/ESL, this important aspect of language learning tends to be pretty much ignored, despite an even greater need to add to the learner’s comprehension arsenal by alerting him or her to these nuances. This can be more of an issue than it might seem at first glance. Shyness or lack of self-confidence – or sometimes simply a learner’s natural L1 vocal range which can be narrower than that normally found among native English speakers – can result in a monotone when the learner attempts to express himself or herself in English. This then can combine with improperly pronounced single words, or erroneous sentence construction, to , thus constitute a “comprehensibility handicap” for the learner which may end up creating a vicious circle that reinforces they shyness of self-confidence issues mentioned.
Teaching EFL/ESL learners to recognize and reproduce correct English language prosody also points to the importance of incorporating more audiovisual resources into language teaching, as clues to emphasis and stressed words within sentences are typically absent in written communication, especially stripped-down written formats like e-mail, text and instant messenger where we cannot use bold or italics to represent which parts of a sentence should be stressed to achieve specific meanings.
So how can we best teach this often-neglected aspect of communicating in English?
First of all, as teachers we can conduct exercises such as the one at the top of this blog post to sensitize learners as to the way prosody can affect meaning in English. Often there will be similar parallels to their own L1, and realizing that they not be getting their full meaning across when producing speech in a monotone may motivate them to add a little color to their speaking. Without going into detailed analysis of whether your learners have an L1 that, like English, is stress-timed (Dutch being one example), syllable-timed (like Spanish and Italian) or mora-timed, such as Japanese, it is useful to get learners to accept the idea that emphasis has to be slightly exaggerated in the framework of communicating orally in English in order to be more comprehensible, as well as sounding more normal, to a native English speaker. This is especially important in phone conversations, where the learner cannot read or employ facial expressions to help clarify meaning.
Secondly, showing examples – especially via authentic language video clips – can further reinforce the notion that communication is not limited to words, nor to the way the words are assembled, but also is a product of the swells and ripples within a sentence. Using entertainment examples (such as clips from films, television series, or music videos) is recommended, because actors and singers give slight but nevertheless realistic or “natural” added emphasis and stress where it can convey meaning. Even the apparent absence of such highs and lows in a sentence can be shown to have meaning, for example in sarcasm – increasingly present in both British and American comedy output – which is characterized by a “flatter” delivery than that used for other purposes, such as imparting information or expressing emotion. Made-for-teaching, “graded” audiovisual material, on the other hand, often features prosody that is far too exaggerated and thus comes off as artificial – even condescending – to the learner.
To conclude: incorporate building sensitivity to prosody in the English language– and how to use it – into your lessons as a different way to build towards the objective of accuracy. It is one aspect of language production that need not be in open conflict with fluency, but rather is a vital component of negotiating and producing better meaning. And – last but not least – it’s a fun way to bring out and show off the Shakespearean actor that lies within every good teacher of English!