Message Units

Example Feedback

Definition: Message units are “the primary unit of spoken discourse” (p. 71) and consist of utterances or short phrases separated by brief pauses and/or characteristic intonational patterns.” Message units “typically have one prominence and an intonational pattern following this prominence” (p. 71). “Research on short-term memory originated by Miller (1956) [suggests] a limit of seven plus or minus two chunks of information. Message unit boundaries typically, but do not always, match boundaries of grammatical units such as noun or verb phrases or clauses.”

Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin (1996, pp. 175-176): “Each typical intonation unit (or thought group):

    1. is set off by pauses before and after
    2. has an intonation contour of its own
    3. contains one prominent element
    4. has a grammatically coherent internal structure

 

“There is no foolproof way to divide an utterance into intonation units. In rapid speech, intonation units may be fairly long; in slower speech, they may be shorter, and breaks between units will therefore be more frequent. Where the utterance divisions fall will also depend on the individual speakers, with some speakers producing fewer breaks than others. Finally, such divisions are dependent on the performance context. Public speakers, for example, tend to pause frequently to make their message clearer or more emphatic.”

AKA: thought group; intonation unit (or tone unit)

Impacted by: the speaker’s (physical) need for relatively regular inhaling/exhaling of air; speaking rate (because of the speaker’s need for relatively regular inhaling/exhaling of air!); grammatical phrases; the number of words within a grammatical unit the speaker wants to focus the listener’s attention on;

Impacts: focus; intonation

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References:

Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin (1996)

Ingels, S. (2010). The effects of self-monitoring strategy use on the pronunciation of learners of English.In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference, Iowa State University, Sept. 2009. (pp. 67-89), Ames, IA: Iowa State University.

 

 

Word Stress

Example Feedback

Definition:

Alternative labels: lexical stress

Impacted by: intraword contrast stress

Impacts: focus

Types:

Learning goal: automatic production of standard English word stress

Common problems:

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References:

Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin (1996)

 

 

Focus

Example Feedback

Diagnostic questions:

  1. Do listeners frequently complain that I am “talking too fast”?
  2. Do listeners complain they have trouble figuring out (or remembering) what I’m talking about?

 

Definition:

Focus describes the pronunciation adjustments English speakers make to focus listeners’ attention on whichever words of their message most powerfully contribute to communicating what they are trying to say. Specifically, focus refers to how English speakers (1) lengthen the stressed vowel of key words in their message1 and (2) pronounce these key words (particularly their stressed syllable) at a higher or lower pitch than other, less meaningful words.

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Stressed vowels in English are usually pronounced longer than unstressed vowels. However, when stressed vowels are located within words speakers count as key to their message, these key words’ already-long stressed vowels become even longer.

 

Why focus matters:

If speakers do not put focus on the key words of their message by (1) lengthening their stressed vowel and (2) pronouncing these key words at a different pitch than surrounding words, both nonnative and native English listeners will identify a message’s key points more slowly (e.g., by trying to figure out each message unit’s grammatical point of focus). Because listeners are thus slowed down in processing the speaker’s message, they will often complain speakers are “talking too fast!” Additionally — particularly if speakers are giving an extended presentation of complex content that is unfamiliar to their audience (as commonly happens during conferences and classes) — listeners will quickly tire trying to identify the speaker’s main points without access to the standard pronunciation cues marking focus in English. As a result, listeners may (1) fail to identify speakers’ key points (and thus their main message) at all and (2) even if listeners successfully manage to identify most or all of speakers’ key points, they may nevertheless lack adequate time for putting these key points into long-term memory (and thus be unable to remember a speaker’s message clearly).

Impacted by: which words the speaker particularly wants the listener to focus on; message units (in that message units usually contain one point of focus); word stress (as determinant of which syllable in a focused word will be most strongly marked with a clear vowel, mostly likely along with additional vowel length; and either the highest pitch, lowest pitch or point of pitch change in the message unit (and possibly with an increase in volume)

Impacts: intonation

Alternative labels: prominence; primary phrase stress

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References:

Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin (1996)

Ingels, S. (2010). The effects of self-monitoring strategy use on the pronunciation of learners of English.In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference, Iowa State University, Sept. 2009. (pp. 67-89), Ames, IA: Iowa State University.

 

Intonation

Example Feedback

Definition:

Alternative labels: none (?)

Impacted by: message units; focus

Impacts: intonation

Types:

Learning goal:

Common problems:

Practice activities:

 

References:

Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin (1996)

Ingels, S. (2010). The effects of self-monitoring strategy use on the pronunciation of learners of English.In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference, Iowa State University, Sept. 2009. (pp. 67-89), Ames, IA: Iowa State University.


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