Wait, are they speaking English?

Duck-Rabbit_illusionIt’s movie night at home. You browse the International titles on Netflix, and make a selection. You sit through opening credits, then the dialogue begins. Frozen, with your hand hovering over your popcorn, you sit in confusion—Wasn’t this movie supposed to be in English? Why aren’t there subtitles? The confusion passes as you pick out a word or two, and you realize that the characters are speaking English, it just doesn’t sound like your English. After your brain makes the shift, it’s like seeing the duck AND the rabbit in this classic optical illusion, and you can now enjoy the movie. But you might turn on the subtitles anyway, just in case.

Even though English is commonly spoken in places as diverse as India and Scandinavia, South Africa and the Caribbean, its status as a global language means that its speakers have a variety of intonations, cadences, accents, and pronunciations. Part of this is from simple linguistic evolution—the way a language is spoken changes with time and new generations of speakers—and part of it is a result of influence from other languages spoken by the speakers.

In my experience, a big contributing factor has to do with the timing of a speaker’s other languages. Some languages, like Spanish and Georgian, are considered syllable-timed, where every syllable is “weighted” equally. (And based on my experience with both of these languages, they have a kind of rata-tata quality, rather than a sing-song quality). Other languages, like Japanese, have mora-timing, which is harder to explain, but has to do with the weighting of syllables with single or double vowels. Meanwhile, English, Dutch and German, as well as Scandinavian languages, are stress-timed, where stressed syllables are weighted more heavily than unstressed ones, and unstressed ones are often squished together. The stressed/unstressed quality is called iambic pentameter in poetry, and this example from Shakespeare serves as an illustration:

a ROSE by A-ny O-ther NAME would SMELL as SWEET.

In regular speech, that rhythm is not as strict, and the unstressed syllables in these sentences get squished together:

Doyouwanta PIECE of CAKE?
SURE, youcanhavesome COF-fee withthat.

(As an aside, stress-timing is the culprit for grammatically acceptable AND unaccepted contractions–whether I’ve/can’t/didn’t/etc., and gonna/wanna/didja/etc.)

You may find, in your work with learners from various language backgrounds, that syllable-timed and mora-timed languages influence their speech patterns in English. This may or may not mean they’re harder to understand, but it could mean that it takes longer for them to sound “native-like.” Of course, we don’t want to minimize their accent—it’s more about cultivating their intelligibility.

One strategy for getting students to notice their intonation and speaking patterns is to use shadowing, as discussed in this post. One way to do this is to share a short video clip or recording with students. Listen to it a few times to ensure content understanding. Provide them with a transcription, or have them write one out themselves, to really hammer away content learning. Have them mark the stressed syllables in some way, as they listen to the audio again. Have students work in pairs to imitate the speaking pattern of the speaker, and reflect on how it differs from the way they would speak. Sometimes, noticing our own habits is all it takes to jumpstart another wave of learning.

Do you work on pronunciation in your classroom? What kind of activities do you use to help students sound intelligible and proficient?


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