Archive for Tag: accents

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Ryhthm of English Grammar

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Does this exchange sound familiar to you?

   Student: I can go.
   Listener: You can’t go?
   Student: Yes, I CAN go.

The frustration experienced by students when they believe they are speaking clearly and grammatically correctly, but they are still misunderstood, is palpable in this kind of conversation. However, there are some simple, low-cost ways of helping students avoid this kind of frustrating exchange.

All Words Are Not Created Equal

As I said in a previous blog, English is a stress-timed language. This means that not all syllables in English are said with equal stress. Some words convey important information. These content words are stressed; we say them longer, louder and higher than the other words in the sentence. The function words (I call them garbage grammar words, just to make the students laugh) are unstressed. They are said more quietly and weakly. There is a comprehensive list of these words in Melody Noll’s fantastic book, American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections (2007). (If you are not teaching in the USA, don’t be scared off by the word American in the title; her tips work for all kinds of English pronunciation!)

Main verbs are usually stressed because they tend to give essential information. However, auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs, are usually not stressed, unless they are negative. Hence, the conversation above occurs frequently. Students whose first language is syllable-timed want to pronounce each word clearly when they speak English, but native English speakers’ ears are trained to only listen to key words. Conversely, when a native speaker says something like,

     “By 3:00, I will have been studying for more than 6 hours, so I’ll be ready for a break.”

The student hears,

     “… I’lluhbin studying …”,

which sounds unlike any vocabulary word the student has ever studied.

So, What Does This Mean For Grammar Teachers?

It is not enough for us to simply teach the structure of the language. We also need to make sure that students can actually use the language successfully in a conversation. One important part of this is being familiar with the role stress plays at the sentence level. We need to make sure that when we cover target structures in our classes, we also prepare students for the stress or lack of stress they will hear and be expected to use in the world outside the grammar class. 

The Glorious Elastic Band – Part Two

As I mentioned, a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog extolling the virtues of the elastic band, as it is particularly helpful when introducing students to the pronunciation of regular verbs in the simple past tense. However, its usefulness does not end there. In fact, elastic bands can also help students master the pronunciation of the perfect and progressive tenses as well as modal verbs like can. I give an elastic band to each student in the class and then we read sample sentences. We pull hard on the elastic band when we say the stressed words and relax it when we say the unstressed words. This helps students to really feel the difference between the two kinds of words. 

A Round of Applause

Another wonderful strategy for helping students to internalize the rules of sentence stress is clapping. Meyers and Holt (2001) demonstrates this technique clearly in their videos. On the board or using a PowerPoint presentation, I write the key words of a sentence. For example, for a sentence like, “I haven’t been able to wash my hair.” I would write the words haven’t, able, wash, and hair on the board. Then, students and I chant the words and clap in rhythm several times until the students are repeating and clapping in unison. Once the students have the hang of that, I add in the other words, writing them in a small script and crowding them between the main content words. The students then read the entire sentence while clapping, but they should not change the rhythm of their original clapping. In other words, students accelerate through the unstressed words to fit them in between the stressed words and claps. This activity is a lot of fun and efficiently reminds students of the importance of speeding up on the unstressed words and slowing down on the stressed words.

Incorporating pronunciation into grammar lessons needn’t be stressful (pardon the pun) for teachers or students. Some simple strategies for helping students feel the rhythm of English can make all the difference. There is no reason to neglect this important part of the process. After all, most students aren’t studying English just so they can fill in blanks on worksheets. They want to USE English easily to communicate. Not being aware of the norms of sentence stress can hinder them in their goal. However, students most likely won’t master the skill overnight. Applying English stress to their speech will take months or even years of conscious effort. Our job, it seems to me, is to show them the path and help them along.


Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (2001). Pronunciation for success. Weston: Aspen Productions.

Noll, M. (2007). American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections. Oakland, CA: The Ameritalk Press.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My English is Better than Your English!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I returned some days ago from East Lansing, Michigan, where I gave a six-hour workshop on grammar to over 150 gracious, enthusiastic ESOL teachers from all around the state who eagerly wanted to understand more about the workings of the English language. The six hours flew by, and I feel very grateful to have had the experience of meeting and chatting with those teachers.

One of the topics that came up while some of us were chatting during breaks and after the workshop dealt with a subject I had brought up in the early part of the workshop, namely, standard English vs. nonstandard English, also known as regional variations. A number of the teachers wanted to know if one was better than the other, and which form of English (e.g., standard American, standard British, etc.) should be considered “the best.” I quickly explained that there is no such thing as one form of English being better than any other and that all forms are fine if they work all right for the people who use them. I added that we have what is gingerly referred to as standard English, which seems to be the language that’s understood and used by the majority of educated native speakers. I suggested that the teachers might want to teach standard language to our students first, but that there was nothing wrong with introducing regional variations, nonstandard English, at the appropriate level and appropriate time.

Here are some examples of regional variations as opposed to the standard forms. For example, in pronunciation, since it was the fall and the leaves were starting to turn colors, I mentioned foliage (/fo – li – әj/ as the standard, /fo – lәj/ as the regional variation). Then one of the teachers brought up auxiliary. She’d noticed that I pronounced it /ŏg – zIl – yә – ri/ while she always said /ŏg – zIl – ә – ri/. Which one was standard, she wanted to know. I told her the way I pronounce the word is standard, which surprised her. But she said she’d pronounce it that way from now on.

Then there are words. In Michigan, years ago, people called a couch (sofa) a davenport. And when you were thirsty and didn’t care for water, you’d go to the fridge and get a pop (a soda). So couch or sofa is the standard word, and davenport was the regional variation. Refrigerator and soda are the standard words, while fridge and pop are regional variations. Does that mean the former are better than the latter? Not really. The only thing that may be important for us ESOL teachers is to know which should be taught first to our students. Or perhaps the two forms should be taught at the same time. Food for thought. One other thing of importance is attitudes that native speakers have about standard language as opposed to nonstandard forms. How judgmental are people about nonstandard pronunciations and vocabulary compared to the standard language?

Of course, American ESOL teachers aren’t the only ones wrestling with these questions. While preparing this blog entry, I contacted a friend of mine, a writer and editor in London, to get his take on what is considered standard language in the UK. I did the same with a friend and colleague in Sydney, Australia to hear her views on this topic, and will discuss her answers in my next blog entry.

So here are the questions I put to my British friend, Mick O’Hare, along with his answers. Mick has written some wonderful books and is an editor at New Scientist magazine:

Mick, is there a standard British English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech? Is it different from “received pronunciation”? And if it is different, who learns that and who learns RP?

Only in the public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Rodean (posh private schools to you), I believe they still teach RP through elocution. Otherwise you are taught in the accent (generally) from the area in which you were born. I guess teachers tend to iron out dialect, but as far as I know there’s no law over pronunciation. For example, my teachers would have said /fæst/ whereas my wife’s would have said /fast/ purely because I’m from the North and she’s from the South. And, of course, we all had teachers who came from different parts of the country, so they just taught in their own accents. I don’t recall any calamities. RP is taught to the wealthy or the aristocratic, but it’s dying out to a certain extent as regional accents become more acceptable and as English homogenises generally through TV, etc.

Is there still any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Britons poke fun at the way other Britons speak?

Yes. my wife’s mum, for example, who speaks RP, thinks that only RP should be allowed on the BBC (even happily says it to me). But even so, society is far more egalitarian now and it matters far less. Nonetheless, certain prejudices apply to certain accents: good examples would be the Birmingham ‘Brummie’ accent, which is associated with being stupid and rather universally disliked, Glaswegian which is considered incomprehensible by everybody else, Geordie (much the same), Yorkshire (my accent), which is considered dour or down-to-earth. On the other hand, some accents such as Edinburgh, Highlands, West Lancashire, and West Country are considered ‘pleasant’. And everybody who is not a cockney hates cockney because they all love themselves too much, the chirpy l’il sparrers!

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Britons in other parts of the country wouldn’t understand? (I’m talking about regional variations within England, not including Scotland, Wales, or Cornwall.)

Yes, lots. Loads of dialect words. I’m not too up on other areas, but obviously, because of rhyming slang, there are simply hundreds in cockney. And I know East Anglia has a lot, but in Yorkshire we have plenty ― these are the ones I know best. My granddad could speak virtually in a different language if all the dialect words came out at once. A few that spring to mind are laik (“play” ― I still use this and also laikers for “players”), baht (“without”), allus (“always”), claht (“cloth”), and snicket (“alleyway”).

Pronunciation might still catch people out area to area.

Thanks very much for your i
nsights, Mick. I think it will be helpful for English teachers, no matter where they are, to read your take on these points about British English, compare them with things I’ve mentioned about American English, and then think about whatever form of English may exist in their parts of the world. This may have more of an impact on how they teach English than you might think at first glance.

Any thoughts, folks? If something comes to mind, please share it with me by leaving a comment.