A Rocking Good Time With ELF and Contrastive Stress (oh yeah!)

This is a picture of the ocean.
It is here because I use
the word beach in this post.  

Recently two of my favorite bloggers, Michael Griffin over at Rants, Reviews and Reflections and Russell Mayne at Evidence Based EFL had a brawl dialogue about just who our students will end up communicating with.  The discussion is far ranging, but the take away for me is that linguists like David Crystal (2003), Yamuna Kachru (2008), and Jennifer Jenkins (2009) start off with the fact that the number of L2 English speakers outnumbers L1 English speakers by at least 100,000,000, that these L2 English speakers are using English both intranationally and internationally for a huge range of purposes, and that English is perhaps used less often for communication with a native speaker than it is for communication between L2 English speakers.  Russell wonders if these numbers actually add up, and even if they do, does it necessarily lead to any far reaching implications for how we teach English?  Michael thinks that the shifting demographics nudge learners and teachers towards developing more realistic goals and allows students to focus on how to become competent users of global English as opposed to trying to sound like a native speaker.  

On the whole, I think their discussion is a pretty good snapshot of the English as a lingua franca debate and points towards some of the problems with what it means to focus on comprehensibility and intelligibility when it comes to teaching English.  It also gave me a chance to think about how I teach pronunciation in my own classes.  With that in mind, I wanted to share one of my regular lessons and then explore if an English as lingua franca framework helps me gain any particular insights into how I can gauge the lesson’s value for my students:

Contrastive stress, lesson rationale:

In spoken Japanese, the way to emphasize a particular piece of information is to simply slide it to the front of a sentence.  For example, if I were to take the base sentence, “I heard you went to the Rolling Stones concert in Chicago with Jesse last night,” and wanted to spotlight who you went with, I would say, “With Jesse, you went to the Rolling Stones concert in Chicago last night.”  This means that students are often times unaware of the difference in meaning between the sentence, “I heard you went to the Rolling Stones concert with Jesse last night in Chicago,” and “I heard you went to the Rolling stones concert in Chicago last night with Jesse.”  Not surprisingly, student’s response to this sentence, regardless of where the stress is laid, is often the same.  Usually something along the lines of either, “Yes, I did,” or “No, I didn’t.”  Ignoring stress in this case can (and sometimes does) lead to a breakdown in communication.  So to highlight the importance of laying stress in the appropriate place when speaking, and listening for stress during a conversation, I run the following lesson.

The lesson:

I write up the sentence:

I heard you went to the _______ concert 
with ________ on Thursday in ________. 

I then solicit the name of a band, a friend’s name, and a good location to see a live event from the students.  After I fill in the blanks, I get the students to say the sentence to each other, listen in, and  student and write some of the responses up on the board.  What I end up with is something like the following:

Pattern A:     

I heard you went to the 1 Direction concert 
with Rika in Umeda on Thursday.
+ Yes, I did.
– No, I was at home.

I then say the sentence and add stress to ‘1 Direction.’  I ask the students to copy the sentence in their notebook, writing the stressed word or words in red.  On the board, I circle ‘1 Direction’ in red and label it ‘Pattern B’.  I then have one student say the sentence to another student and see how they respond.  Usually they respond in the same way they did in the above example.  If that is the case I write up the following on the board:

Pattern B:

I heard you went to the 1 Direction concert 
with Rika in Umeda on Thursday.

                     +_____________ 1 Direction.

                      -______________ AKB 48.

I then have students work in pairs to fill in the blanks and usually students come up with something like:

Pattern B       

                     +Yes, I love 1 Direction.
                      -No, we went to AKB 48.

I repeat the same steps as above, only this time I add nuclear stress to ‘Rika’ and after checking which word the students identified as having been stressed, I circle ‘Rika’ in red and label it Pattern C.  I taught this lesson to a group of junior high school students last week and they caught on by this point and needed no additional prompts to come up with possible replies.  Working in pairs, the class as a whole generated a fair number of responses:

Pattern C     
                      + Yes, Rika is my best friend. 
                      + Yes, Rika loves 1 Direction.
                      – No, I went with my brother. 
                      – No, Rika was sick yesterday.

Now students have three patterns and are ready for a short communicative activity.  I have them form groups of three and pick a student to say the sentence in one of the three patterns. The other two students listen and then race to reply.  The first student to say the proper response is the winner and they get to say the sentence with stress in the next round.  Once students get bored of the game, usually just a few minutes, I move on to identifying the remaining nuclear stress patterns possible in the sentence and have students work in pairs and generate responses.  Here are the responses students generated from last weeks lesson:

Pattern D, nuclear stress on ‘Thursday’

                               +Yes, Friday was a holiday.          
                               +Yes, I forgot about Friday’s test.
                                -No, we went on Saturday
                                -No, we went last week.

Pattern E, nuclear stress on ‘Umeda’

                               +Yes, we went to Umeda Hall.
                               +Yes, it was a special event at the station.
                               -No, we went to Namba Concert Hall.

Once students have identified all (or at least most of) the possible stress patterns and generated responses, they play the game one more time.  All in all, this part of the lesson can take anywhere from between 20 minutes to a full 50 minute period.  During last week’s lesson it took about 30 minutes.  The students were laughing and having a pretty good time thinking up responses as well as playing the game.  I even noticed them throwing in gestures such as holding up their pinky finger when stressing ‘Rika,’ which implied that Rika was the girlfriend of the person they were talking to.

Recycling and fluency:

Once students have been introduced to contrastive stress, it makes for a great warm up activity.  Students come into class and there is a sentence on the board, something like, “I heard that your favorite thing to do in Osaka is eat Okonomiyaki with your friends.”  With very little prompting students can quickly identify words or phrases which can be stressed as well as come up with appropriate positive and negative responses to each.  This can lead into a number of activities such as providing students with a role play card as a prompt.  Using the information on the card, students have to say they sentence laying stress on the appropriate word (for examples, the role play card might say, “You hate Okonomiyaki.”). 

So what does this have to do with ELF?????

Jennifer Jenkins (2000) identifies nuclear stress as one of the features to include in a lingua franca pronunciation core for ELT.  So if deferring to the advice of experts is a good enough reason to teach some aspect of English, I guess I have my justification for helping students develop their ability to use and identify contrastive stress.  But to tell the truth, I’m not entirely sure that Jennifer has such a solid case.  In addition to Japanese speakers of English, Nigerians, Zambians, and Indians all spotlight information in sentences in English without relying on contrastive stress (Kachru, 2008).  Spending class time on contrastive stress for speakers of English from these countries who are not going to be speaking with L1 English speakers might not actually be all that worthwhile.  And perhaps even more importantly, I’m pretty sure that if most L1 English speakers were talking to someone from India and that person said, “Kevin only ate the cake,” it would be pretty easy to understand that emphasis is being added to ‘Kevin.’  In fact, research around Communication Accomodation Theory (Giles, et al., as cited in Kachru) seems to show that people naturally accommodate to their partner over the course of an interaction and that as opposed to teaching any particular feature of a particular English, exposure to a wide variety of Englishes is the best way to improve an interlocutors ability to process what they hear (Krachu, 2000, p.80).

All that being said, the students in my school are expected to go study abroad in Australia and to participate in an extended home stay during their high school careers.  Without some practice around contrastive stress, I can easily imagine an interaction like the following:

           Home Stay Father: So you’re going to the beach on Friday?
           Students: No, I’m not.

Then, when the student starts packing up to go to the beach on Saturday morning, the father gets all flustered and wonders what’s going on and says something like, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to today???!!”  In addition, once students practice using contrastive stress, I notice a decrease in those contorted sentences where emphasized information is twisted to the front and banged into the shape of a subject.  So for my particular students, I can see some real value in teaching this particular aspect of pronunciation. 

Still, I don’t want to replace the idea of a lingua franca core with a practical-for-my-students litmus test either.  If I limited what I teach to features of pronunciation which are “practical,” that just puts me in another trap, one in which I have to somehow know more about how my learners will be using language in their future than they probably know themselves. 

So where does that leave me as a teacher?  Does ELF provide me with any useful ideas of what and how to teach in my classroom, especially when it comes to issues of pronunciation?  I wish I had an answer.  In fact, I feel a bit more confused now than when I started writing this post. 

Maybe it would be best to end with a bit of feedback I got when I asked the students what they had learned during a series of contrastive stress lessons I ran last year.  One second year student wrote, “I always forget to say ‘my’ or ‘your’ when I speak in English.  But I noticed how important it is and practiced it a lot in this lesson.  So now I think I will remember it.”  When we teach, we almost always have an idea of what the students should learn.  But that idea, the teacher’s hope, more often than not, finds no purchase on the subtle shifts in our students’ attention.  What our students notice and learn is not up to us. 

Pronunciation provides our students with a physical framework through which to explore and play with language.  And it often does so in a way that keeps learners engaged for longer and with a few more giggles than say a grammar based lesson.  Perhaps when it comes to pronunciation, the point shouldn’t be about the number of people who speak any particular type of English, or the practicality of what they are practicing, or striving to identify a lingua franca core.  When we teach pronunciation, maybe we should be measuring the amount of freedom students can find in the physicality of speaking, and how that freedom translates into the very personal, and very real gains that are at the heart of learning.


Crystal, D. (2003) English as a Global Language. Cambridge
     Cambridge University Press.
Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International      
     Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jenkins, J. (2009). World Englishes, A resource book for 
     students. New York: Routledge
Kachru, Y. & Smith, L.E. (2008). Cultures, Contexts and 
     World Englishes. New YorkRoutledge.

If you’re look for a much more thoughtful and in depth discussion of what EFL is all about and how EFL ideas can be used to help shape a pronunciation class, please check out this series of posts by Alex Grevett over at The Breathy Vowel blog.

Update before posting (is that even possible?): Alex Walsh over at Alien Teachers has a new post up on EFL as it relates to native expressions.  I highly recommend it.

(And a big apology to Dr. Yamuna Kachru for misspelling your name.  Culture, Contexts and World Englishes is one of the mst thoughtful explorations of English I’ve ever read.  And it certainly deserves far better than sloppy name mangling.) 

2 thoughts on “A Rocking Good Time With ELF and Contrastive Stress (oh yeah!)

  1. This was an interesting article. However, I can't help but feel that there is a contradiction in the aims of the lesson here. Your main focus appears to be ELF, which is described as "communicative interactions among mainly, but not exclusively, NNS of English who use English as their chosen tool for communication in international and intercultural settings" (Murata & Jenkins, 2009). However, the focus of your lesson is teaching "native" speaker stress patterns, which, if Crystal, Kachru, & Jenkins are correct, are the less likely interlocutors of Japanese speakers of English. By your students learning to use these patterns (and then assuming they reproduce them in intercultural contexts), they are effectively learning English as a Foreign Language, using L1 speaker norms. This is fine if the intention is, as you say, to visit Australia, but this is not strictly teaching using ELF strategies.Nevertheless, it is definitely useful to draw attention to the difference in the way L1 English speakers use stress, but in teaching English learners how to actually use contrastive stress, in my opinion, it negates the idea of ELF. Japanese learners should be encouraged to think of different ways (perhaps based upon their own norms) of using stress, and the focus should be on ensuring that the message is clear, and on strategies to clarify meaning where the input or output is not clear. By focusing on teaching "native" speaker norms it is not only perpetuating the myth that (primarily) American/British Englishes are the correct way to speak English, but also causes unnecessary anxiety among learners. Only by empowering learners to be creative, and improving their ability to negotiate meaning effectively can English be truly legitimised as a global language, in which there are pluralistic centres of references for standards and norms. The same, in my own opinion, goes for speaking English with Japanese phonological characteristics. In my research I have found that Japanese accents, even those that are heavily influenced by the speakers' L1 (i.e. use of epenthetic vowels (kana)/syllable-timing), do not cause many problems with intellibility. Therefore, English teachers in Japan should not use American or British pronunciation as a target in the classroom, and instead help to build confidence in speaking English with Japanese characteristics, focusing more on making the meaning of messages clearer, rather than highlighting how Japanese speakers are pronouncing certain consonants/vowels "incorrectly".On a side note, although I believe it is useful to expose learners of English to the ways in which L1 English speakers speak (for example, by drawing attention to stress patterns as in your lesson), I believe that teaching of this nature should not be limited to ESOL/EFL contexts. Since they are in the minority, L1 English speakers should also be given tuition to make themselves understood more clearly in international interactions, thus being made aware that the nuances in their stress and intonation patterns may cause problems in comprehensibility and interpretability (to quote Smith), in addition to use of metaphor, idioms, phonological issues such as assimilation/elision (all things that L1 English speakers are often not explicitly aware of). In addition, L1 English speakers should be exposed to more varieties of English in order to raise awareness of different Englishes. If L1 English speakers want to be involved in ELF interactions, it is important that they also learn that English is spoken differently in international and intercultural contexts (and that this is not erroneous or incorrect), otherwise we might as well scrap the argument that ELF exists and maintain that all should speak according to American/British English standards and norms. Wow, I really went on a rant there! Hope my point is clear! And I hope I don't come across as too critical of your lesson; I do think it useful for students, I just don't think it is as ELF-focused as you think it is.


  2. Hi Danny,Some good points and much to think about. In general, while contrastive stress patterns certainly are not a feature of Japanese English, and might be relatively rare in Asia in general, I'm not sure they qualify as "native speaker" stress patterns. Students who use contrastive stress in their 1st language are more likely to also use it in English. And without knowing what it is or what it signals, it could led to issues for students using English even in an EFL context. But I will sheepishly admit that the post, in general does jump from one type of English situation (ELF) to a very different one (study abroad which is an ESL situation). And I think it's quite right to call me on it. And I certainly agree that in an ELF world the onus of communicative success has to fall equally on all participants. So I would certainly hope that L1 English speakers would become more aware of different English norms and try and adapt accordingly. I don't mind a good comment and a good (semi-)rant. So please feel free to drop in anytime.Thanks again for much to think about,Kevin


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