15 Prominence: Teacher’s Corner

By default, English puts focus on the last word of a phrase. If focus is placed anywhere else, listeners will understand it as expressing emphasis. Therefore, when speakers put non-default emphasis on words they do not mean to emphasize, listeners may not successfully identify the speaker’s key points.

Particularly if speakers are giving an extended presentation of complex content that is unfamiliar to their audience, this can lead to listeners lacking the processing time necessary for storing these key points. Without standard prominence, listeners quickly tire trying to identify the speaker’s main points. If they are unable to process a speaker’s message at the speed they hear it, they understandably complain the speaker is “talking too fast.”

Prominence is impacted by several things, including:

  1. in the case of emphasis/contrast focus, the specific words a speaker particularly wants listeners to notice,
  2. thought grouping (in that thought groups usually contain one focus element) and
  3. word stress (as determinant of which syllable in a focused word will be most strongly marked with additional vowel length; with the thought group’s highest pitch, lowest pitch or point of pitch change; and possibly with an increase in volume.

There are a number of methods for indicting prominence in a sentence or phrase. For example, the question How do you do?:

HOW do you DO?

How do you do?

Hòw do you dó?

o     .      .     O

All of these different methods are showing the same thing — How receives secondary prominence, the first do and you receive weak prominence, and the second do receives the primary prominence.

Some teachers find it beneficial to use the same method they employ in teaching word stress, so that there’s an element of consistency in their teaching. Others like to employ two separate methods to highlight the differences between the two suprasegmentals. This is a conversation that you need to have with your learners.

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Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English by Timothy Kochem, Monica Ghosh, Lily Compton, and Elena Cotos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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