Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Shrinking and linking (shrinkin_n_linkin) - practical techniques for teaching stress and reduced speech

Jason R Levine
This was the title of a webinar presented by Jason R Levine (@FluencyMC) as part of the recent ELT Techniques MOOC on Listening and Pronunciation.  What follows is a summary of what Jason had to say.

English is a stress-timed language.  This isn't common - most languages are syllable-timed.  We want our students to feel the stress (rhythm) of the language, and can draw their attention to it by using a bold font to show stress, for example.  However,

There's a fine line between raising awareness of pronunciation issues and raising stress (the other meaning!).

We need to raise awareness sufficiently to motivate students and follow up with loads of practice.  We shouldn't fill their heads with loads of rules.  It's usually best to follow the three Rs:

The rhythm of English is best described as 3/4, as in a waltz:
This is the beat of the language.  For example:
Students feel stressed.   (4 syllables)
     S         V       O/C
     1         2         3
The students feel stressed.   (5 syllables)
Th' students feel stressed.
The students are feeling stressed.   (7 syllables)
Th' students_r feelin' stressed.
The students have been feeling stressed.   (8 syllables)
Th' students've bin feelin' stressed.

The word order of subject, verb, object is common in English.  There are times when the word order is different, but these are exceptions - questions, passive structures, for emphasis, negative adverbials, etc.  There is a connection between the almost fixed word order in English and the rhythm of the language.  Because English gravitates to this word order, the rhythm has become 1,2,3.  This doesn't mean that every sentence is 1, 2, 3, but it does mean that this rhythm is always there.  It's in the background.

In English, unlike most other languages, each word which has more than one syllable, has a syllable which is stressed.  It's important to get learners very familiar with where the stress is - from dictionary use, from listening, and from your instruction.  Don't worry about trying to teach the more complex issues of secondary and tertiary stress.  Once students know where the stress is, the other syllables automatically become unstressed - hence the schwa everywhere!  Syllables reduce to the /ǝ/ and /ı/ sounds all the time.  It's important not to panic students about how they're going to remember all this - just make them familiar with it so that they know what sounds right and what sounds wrong.

Going back to our 'students feel stressed' example, we add in syllables to every sentence and yet the rhythm stays the same.  Just like in music, speed doesn't affect the rhythm.  You can play/say something fast or slowly, but if the time signature is 3/4, then the rhythm stays the same.
In English, when the grammar structures get more complex, they're harder to hear because the grammatical words aren't stressed.  We need to give students much more practice at listening to these kinds of sentences.  We can slow them down, but we must make sure the rhythm is maintained.  To be a fluent listener, we often tell our students they don't need to understand every word - they should focus on the content (stressed) words because they carry the meaning.  This is true, but, in order to be able to speak and write well, they also need to know the grammar words.
When teaching pronunciation, we shouldn't really highlight the shrinking and linking.  We should concentrate on the stressed words and, with familiarity with the rhythm of English, the reduced forms automatically become reduced.
Some learners think that stress changes according to how formal a situation is.  This is not true!  Stress and intonation are not the same thing. 
How many people are there in your family?
How many people_r there_in yr family?
What are you going to do on Friday?
What're ya gonna do_on Friday?
In these sentences, the stress or rhythm is the same, but the intonation isn't.  Intonation in informal speech (with friends) is very flat and we speak with a lower tone.  In formal situations, we usually speak with a higher tone and more intonation.  The key determiner as to whether someone sounds formal or informal, rude or polite, is INTONATION.
Techniques to use in the classroom
1.  Highlight word and sentence stress.
2.  Have students mark the stress after a listening task.  They already know the vocabulary and have understood the text.  Then they can listen again and mark the stress.
3.  Have students mark the stress before a listening task.  They try to predict where it's going to be.  Then they listen to check.
4.  Focus on stress in dictations:
  • Dictate five sentences of authentic English - read them yourself or use a recording.
  • Repeat each sentence at least three times, giving students time to write.  Do not change the speed or stress patterns.
  • Ask students to write down the stressed words first.
  • Pair students to compare their work and reconstruct the sentences as best they can.
  • Elicit the sentences from the students or have them write them on the board.
  • Ask students to highlight the word or sentence stress.
  • As an extension activity, have students write responses and create dialogues or stories.
Sample dictation
  1. What's the weather supposed to be like today?
  2. Where do you feel like going for lunch?
  3. Tell her we'll meet her around two.
  4. Actually, I think I'll stay at home tonight and watch TV.
  5. Do you want to meet at the library tomorrow?
Number 3 is particularly difficult - the shrinking and linking is blatant!
5.  Use meaningful shadowing and repetition.  Try scenes from movies and TV shows, music videos, commercials, roleplays created by students, scenes from plays and musicals, famous speeches, karaoke, poetry, limericks, jokes, tongue twisters, songs, etc.  When teaching pronunciation, we need to use repetition more as actors would when learning their lines.  Practice makes perfect!!

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