Type stress timed languages into your favourite search engine (I’m trying out Swisscows right now as an alternative to the Orwellian Google), and you’ll get all sorts of hits telling you about the differences between stress-timed and syllable–timed languages. If you’re reading this page, you probably already know the difference, so I’m not going to bore you with a detailed explanation here. Let’s just quote from a reliable source, the British Council:
A stress-timed language is a language where the stressed syllables are said at approximately regular intervals, and unstressed syllables shorten to fit this rhythm. Stress-timed languages can be compared with syllable-timed ones, where each syllable takes roughly the same amount of time.
English and German are examples of stress-timed languages, while Spanish and Cantonese are syllable-timed.
Other commonly quoted examples of stress–timed languages are Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Russian and Arabic, whilst French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Romanian, Turkish and Korean are additional examples of syllable-timed languages.
We’re then told that because syllable-timed languages give approximately an equal amount of time to each syllable, learners of English from such languages are likely to have problems with the rhythm of English and consequently ‘may sound foreign or overly cautious‘ (https://www.lucidaccent.com/post/2017/07/23/syllable-stress-vs-syllable-timed), or ‘have problems recognising and then producing features of English such as contractions, main and secondary stress, and elision‘ (https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/syllable-timed-languages). In short, either learners stress–time their English or they’re in trouble.
To get out of trouble, they need to do a lot a tapping of feet and clapping of hands and keeping up with their teacher while they repeat ever–longer utterances that present growing numbers of unstressed syllables to be blurted out between the stressed ones:
|One||and then||Two||and then||Three||and then||Four|
|One||and then there’s||Two||and then there’s||Three||and then there’s||Four|
Except? (You knew I was going to say this, didn’t you?). Well, except that for a start, there’s no real evidence to support the categorisation of languages into stress– and syllable–timed. Some time ago, Jonathan Marks (co–founder of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group), pointed out that:
Although the notion of stress-timing is often referred to in pedagogic models of English pronunciation, and forms the basis for some classroom materials for pronunciation development, there appears to be no hard evidence that it really exists.Marks, 1999: 191
Peter Roach makes the same point, but in quite a lot more detail:
There are many laboratory techniques for measuring time in speech, and measurement of the time intervals between stressed syllables in connected English speech has not shown the expected regularity; moreover, using the same measuring techniques on different languages, it has not been possible to show a real difference between “stress-timed” and syllable-timed” languages.(Roach, 2009: 110)
Roach (1982) also suggested that:
- no language is totally stress-timed or syllable–timed, although languages will differ as to which type of timing predominates.
- the same speaker will exhibit different types of timing on different occasions and in different contexts of speaking.
Moreover, as others have pointed out (Collins and Mees, 2008: 132), the Englishes of the West Indies, of many parts of Africa, and of the Indian subcontinent, have been influenced by the syllable-timing of their local languages and are more syllable-timed than stress-timed. And in a world where English is a global language, the rhythm of a lot of the English our learners are going to hear will be influenced by the speaker’s L1, i.e. will also be more syllable-timed than stress–timed.
So where does this leave us as practitioners? Well, as always, that rather depends on what your students need. If they need to sound like native speakers from one of the Inner Circle countries, then they’re going to have to master all the subtleties, delights and nuances of stress–timing. And good luck to them!
In contrast, work on gaining productive competence in stress-timing (always assuming such a thing exists) would not be a good use of classroom time for students whose target is international intelligibility. Partly this is because stress–timing is not necessary for intelligibility in ELF contexts. More importantly, however, the connected speech features of native-speaker pronunciation that come together to generate a stress-timed rhythm (schwa, vowel reduction, weak forms, linking, assimilation, elision and coalescence), can – individually or in combination – have a negative impact on ELF intelligibility. I’ve already mentioned this problem in earlier posts, and it’s why I placed these features last week within the domain of the learner’s receptive phonological competence.
Oh dear! Gone are all those wonderfully kinaesthetic, clappy–hands and stampy–feet exercises that we love to do in class in an attempt to install a minimum of rhythm into our learners’ English. Gone are the chants and the songs. Gone are the endless humorous limericks. Gone is all the fun! God, I hate ELF! It’s so boring!
Except… (Did you spot this one coming, too?) Except, that there is a part of rhythm that does need attending to both for NS–oriented goals, and for international intelligibility. And that is nuclear stress. Nuclear stress (also referred to as tonic stress, and in most coursebooks as sentence stress) is essential in the construction of meaning in English. This is true regardless of whether you are interacting with native or nonnative speakers. Native speakers use nuclear stress in all sorts of sophisticated ways, and learners need to be aware of this, both to understand a speaker correctly when listening, and to be able to express themselves clearly and effectively when speaking. But a good command of nuclear stress is also needed in ELF contexts. Incorrect nuclear stress draws the listener’s attention to the wrong part of the sentence and this can cause them to misinterpret what has been said, or simply not to understand.And how does nuclear stress placement tie in with stress-timing? Well, if your learners are coming at English from a syllable–timed language, they will probably not be good at making the nuclear (tonic) syllable stand out sufficiently. Because of L1 transfer, for example, your learners may inadvertently place the nuclear stress, or at least what their listeners perceive to be the nuclear stress, on the last or penultimate syllable of an utterance.
Take something as simple as ‘What time is it?’, for example. This I beginner stuff, but Spanish–L1 beginners would make the first three syllables roughly equal in length, and then give nuclear stress to ‘it’, drawing the listener’s attention to the wrong part of the utterance, and possibly causing the listener to misconstruct the intended meaning, or to not understand anything at all. Either way, we would need to intervene here and bring our learners to the point where they are clearly and deliberately placing the nuclear (tonic) stress on ‘time’. And that would mean bringing out the difference between strong and weak syllables, which is the basis of the rhythm of English.
‘So everything we’ve been doing with songs, chants and limericks is back in!’, I hear you cry with undisguised joy. Well, no. Part of the work we’ve traditionally done on rhythm is back in – the part about helping learners to generate a clear difference between stressed and unstressed syllables and to put the stress on the right syllable(s) in order to construct an exact meaning.
But part of what we’ve traditionally done (and do) is still not back in – the part about schwas, vowel reductions and weak forms. These features central to the rhythm of most native-speaker Englishes actually obscure syllables (even to the point of making them disappear), and this is not beneficial to ELF intelligibility. John Field, David Deterding, Jennifer Jenkins – listening and pronunciation experts all now seem to agree that the frequent, sometimes massive weakening of unstressed syllables is not helpful for international intelligibility.
Summary time again. (And thanks for getting this far. I don’t know where you get your patience from.)
- Pronunciation teaching in ELT has dedicated/dedicates a huge amount of attention to the stress-timed nature of the rhythm of English.
- For twenty years or more pronunciation experts have warned against the binomial classification of languages into stress–timed or syllable–timed.
- Most languages have elements of both types of timing, although in a given language one type tends to dominate.
- The naturally occurring discourse of most native speakers of English frequently does not display more than brief moments of stress–timing.
- Learners aiming at a goal of native-speaker pronunciation will have to acquire productive competence in all of the connected speech aspects of pronunciation that come together to generate the stress–timed rhythm that listeners perceive most NS Englishes to have.
- Learners aiming at ELF/EIL use of English should not be taught to produce these connected speech features of NS English, since they are widely considered by experts to be detrimental to international intelligibility.
- Learners coming to English from syllable–timed languages will often need to work on one key aspect of rhythm, the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables in an utterance. This is because of the impact that this has on correct nuclear stress placement and the construction of meaning.
I used to do so much work on rhythm in my classes. I loved bringing songs into the classroom to that end, which you can see here. It’s hard to give this sort of thing up. It’s fun to do and students enjoy it. But if you’re short on time (and we always are), and if your students are going to use their English for international communication (and they mostly are), then you really need to stop and think before you give over an hour of valuable class time to the rhythm of songs or chants or limericks, however stressed their timing may be.
Collins, B and Mees, I. M. (2008). Practical Phonetics and Phonology. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Marks, J. 1999. ‘Is stress-timing real?’ ELT Journal, 53/3: 191–199.
Roach, P. (1982). ‘On the distinction between ‘stress–timed’ and ‘syllable–timed’ languages’ in D Crystal (ed.). Linguistic Controversies. London: Edward Arnold.
Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. 4th edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.