Saturday, November 6, 2010

Chants: Stressed Grandmas

The lower secondary government textbooks include many games, poems, and chants. As an American faced with teaching some of these chants to Nepalis, I find them to be often silly, occasionally confusing, and in some cases mildly disturbing. But I think they provide a very useful but hidden service to the students. My first week I taught a chant that started out like this:

"Grandma's going to the grocery shop.
One, two, jump, hop."

How would you teach this as a back-and-forth between the teacher and student? How would you pronounce it? I raised my hands like a conductor and waved my hand in time and spoke the first line this:

GRANDma's GOing to the GROcery SHOP
1                         2                        3              4

Imitating me, they responded like this:

GRANDma's GOing TO the GROcery SHOP
1                         2          3             4                5

It took four or five tries before they spoke it exactly the way I did. English is a stress-timed language, and Nepali is a syllable-timed language. That means that in English the rhythm and speed of the language is determined by stress: we try to keep the time between one stressed syllable and the next approximately the same throughout the sentence. The time between "GRAND" and "GO" is equal to the time between "GO" and "GRO," so we have to smush three unaccented syllable together in the middle: "-ing to the."

In Nepali and other syllable-timed languages, the distance between one syllable and another is always equal. You can often hear this in the accent of nonnative speakers of English (this is also true for Hindi and French, for example). It sounds as though they are stressing EV-ER-Y SY-LLA-BLE E-QUA-LLY. So the students imitated me by stressing every other syllable in the sentence.

This is a very difficult thing to learn about English, and these chants are an incredibly ingenious way to teach it to students. However, these exercises are much less useful if the teacher does not understand the intricacies of English rhythm and prosody, which is very often the case. It really helps if you a native intuition about these things. This is one of the reasons why I am focusing on teaching speaking and listening skills while letting the counterpart teachers handle reading and writing.


  1. Wow, that's super cool. I think I probably would have thought it was just a silly song that had no relevance but now it makes total sense. Keep up the good work!!