Thursday, November 13, 2003

Today’s blog comes to you with the letters a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,j,k,l,m,n,o,p,q,r,s,t,u,v,w,x,y and z.

Listening to one of my advanced students reading out a piece of writing I got thinking about how I could help them sound more natural – about the (jargon alert) contrations and sounds we make without even realising it. Here’s an example: "What did you do at the weekend?" A non-native speaker would pronounce every word and sound clearly; however a native speaker wouldn’t. We don’t pronounce the ts in What or at and we use what’s called the weak form of the: the e sound is like the a in ago rather than the ee sound in see; using that creates the strong form of the.

But the real swallowing of language takes place at “..did you...”. What we really say is “Ju”: “What ju do...”. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t easy to hear or speak if you’re not a native speaker.

Ok, enough of the prologue. The real reason I’m writing about all this is to talk about ‘stress time’. That’s not a euphimism for lessons that your boss decides to come and observe but rather the reason that these wierd sounds appear (or disappear, more to the point). I’ve just learnt what it really means and it’s bloody amazing.

Try the following: Tap your hand on your desk (or use a drum if you really want, but there are cliches about sledgehammers and nuts that would be apt if you did so) in a regular beat. And count: one two three four.

Now, keeping the beat going, count: one and two and three and four. All the numbers fell on the beat, right? If not, do it again, making sure they do (you freak).

So we have:
One Two Three Four
One and Two and Three and Four

The numbers are in bold because they're the important words; they’re the ones we naturally put more stress on. Now, instead of ‘and’ between the numbers, say ‘and a’:

One and a Two and a Three and a Four

Numbers still on the beat, right? Now use “and then a”:

One and then a Two and then a Three and then a Four

Da da. Numbers still said on the beat, even though it’s the same beat we used at the beginning. And you did that naturally (didn’t you?). Even though it meant saying “..and then a...” very fast.

Whenever we speak we put stress on the important words – usually question words (Wh...), verbs, adjectives, nouns and negatives – and we pronounce these stressed words on a regular beat. This often means swallowing the other sounds and sometimes adding sounds – notably js and ys – to smooth things over. Really. Look:

What did you do at the weekend?

Ok: I can see that you’re not convinced (or don’t care). I have to rush off now but tomorrow (or maybe later) I’ll put some more examples on here. And, more interestingly (I hope), I’ll also write two of the thoughts I’ve had as a result of learning all this: (i) the possible evolutionary connections between music and language; and (ii) some reflections on what this tells us about good (and bad) writing.

In the meantime I’m off to teach Italians the many confusing ways we use the verb ‘to feel’. Meanwhile, here's a picture of Italian genius for you:

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