Thursday, April 26, 2012

How NOT to assign English sentence stress and intonation

Clip art: Clker
In more than a few respects, the non-native speaking instructor may have a distinct advantage over the native speaker. Keeping the PEPI framework in mind, here is an example from three years ago that changed my approach to teaching sentence stress, both how to determine it and how to teach it.

I had a native speaking grad student in the MA TESOL who had very little background in linguistics and grammar--more the rule now, rather than the exception. We were doing the standard type of exercise where you are handed a dialogue and asked to underline sentence stress and intonation, based on the typical set of simple rules found in student textbooks, such as this one. What was amazing, was that he would generally underline 2 or 3 times the number of words in a sentence and then indicate that ALL of them had a RISE-FALL intonation "move" as well.

The nonnative speaker sitting next to him, on the other hand, was able to consistently get it "right," at least in agreement with me. His frustration was understandable. Regardless of how much he practiced, his performance not only did not improve, it seemed to get worse. Finally, just before the next quiz, I asked him the right question: How do you go about figuring out where to put stress? His answer: I just say it to myself and underline the words that have more energy on them. Wow.

A few days later, he aced the quiz and became one of the very best at assigning stress and intonation. His solution: Suppress his "inner speech"--and stick with the simple rules and grammatical structure, along with aiming for the most direct, unmarked (lacking contrastive stress) interpretation in that conversational context. Once those focal or prominent locations are identified, THEN haptically-integrate and anchor them affectively or emotionally.

In other words, begin with structure, go to context, anchor stress and intonation--and then pile on attitude! In the PEPI model: UP to LEFT to DOWN to RIGHT. I realize that may sound a bit counter to current "top-down" discourse models for initial prosodic assignment--my own, included! The EHIEP model, however, is designed for the nonnative speaking instructor first--not the linguistically sophisticated (or informed) native speaker.

For those highly auditory native speakers without linguistic training or the emotionally "off-the-charts," it also works like a charm. For nonnative speakers, most of whom do grammar in the extreme already, it clicks immediately, often giving them at least an initial advantage and forcing them to move on to context and mood. Counter-intuitive (and counter clock-wise)? Perhaps. But "PEPI-gogically," on target!

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