Activity: Expression and new information

A difficulty for all levels is recognising what is presented as new information within the clause. New information comes through stress in the Expression stratum and differs from the Theme – Rheme distinction of the clause. Here is a short activity to get learners focusing on new information in a simple dialogue. The dialogues all feature a repetition of the same lexico-grammatical clause but the focus of the new information shifts in each case. Learners could try predicting where the stress might fall and then work with a teacher to discuss why it changes. The dialogues are below (possible stress in bold):

Dialogue 1:

A: What‘s your name?

B: It’s Bob. What’s your name?

A: It’s Jane.

Dialogue 2:

A: How old are you?

B: I’m 24. How old are you?

A: I‘m 25.

Dialogue 3:

A: What do you do?

B: I’m a doctor. What do you do?

A: I‘m a lawyer.

Dialogue 4:

A: Where are you from?

B: I’m from Sydney. Where are you from?

A: I‘m from London.


‘Truthiness’ and Expression

There was an interesting article on Huffington Post by Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, about the word ‘truthiness’ which was first used by Stephen Colbert on his The Word segment to describe the ‘quality of knowing something in your gut or your heart, as opposed to in your head’. It turns out that this relative bias does actually have some scientific basis in psychology and neuroscience as Mooney describes it in the article. He goes on to discuss the possible differences between conservative vs liberal brains.

Interesting, but what really caught me from a linguistic point of view what Colbert’s use of Expression stratum to emphasize this difference. Here is his definition of Truthiness:

Truthiness is, ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

Note the difference in meaning between “I feel it”, where the mental Process is emphasized (the “emotional quality”), and “I feel it”, which highlights the self as Participant (“selfish”). The key for Colbert’s definition, therefore, hinges not on a lexico-grammatical distinction but on a phonological one. I imagine this difference would be difficult for most learners if they only consider Expression in terms of ‘sounding natural’ and not how it relates to the Content stratum.

Activity: I wish I could fly

Here is a quick and simple activity for Elementary or Junior High students that highlights the importance of stress for New information. It followed on from a lesson using “I wish…”.
First, at the top of the whiteboard, write the following three sentences:
1. I wish I could fly.
2. I wish I could fly.
3. I wish I could fly.
The student’s form two lines at the rear of the class. The teacher then says one of the sentences. The front two students run and write the number of the sentence and back. The first student back is the winner. That student then comes out of the line and says the next sentence. The team with all students out of the line is the winner.

Further to this game, another activity that then puts the Expression into the context of a dialogue was to put students into pairs and practise a dialogue such as:

A: I wish I could play the piano!

b: Well, I wish I could play the drums!


The Alphabet Song

Here, in Japan, there are two versions of the Alphabet Song. There’s the familiar one:

W-X-Y- and Z–,
Now I know my A,B,C,
Won’t you come and sing with me?

The version used in most Japanese schools, however, is:

Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.

Now I know my A,B,C,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.)

This got me wondering what exactly the function of the ABC song actually is. You might think that it is obviously to teach children the alphabet but I’m not sure this is the case. If it were, then the Japanese version is much clearer and does perform, and is designed to perform, this function. Yet the original version is quite different. I personally think that the role of teaching the alphabet for the original version is, in fact, secondary. I think the primary function of the ABC song, and similar nursery rhymes, is to teach fundamental concepts of how a text is constructed – it provides a bridge between the spoken and written worlds.

Firstly the original version rhymes. Each line ends with a lengthened /i:/ sound. Textually, this introduces the concept of rhyme as a resource for cohesion across a text. Secondly, it introduces the concept of rhythm, in this case a regular trochaic (strong + weak) pattern, introducing rhythm as a resource for cohesion within a text. These two together provide some idea of generic coherence – they hold it together as a text and we can recognise it as such.

The second part of the song provides a link between the stratum of Expression and that of Content. Both the rhythm and the rhyme are the same yet it is now mapped onto the lexico-grammar. This demonstrates formally the interaction between the two stratum and how lexico-grammar is realised through Expression. Semantically it also introduces a basic clause relation of statement + suggestion (in the form of Now that…Why don’t...).

I think then that the ABC song does, in fact, do more than just teach the alphabet. It introduces the fundamental concepts of texture and textuality and the operation of the three stratum of Expression, Content and Context. The importance of songs and nursery rhymes is also well-recognised in L1 acquisition (see Guardian) and it would be interesting to see any effects on L2 acquisition. The Japanese version of the ABC song, however, is quite different.


Activity: true/false 2

True/false activities are also useful for demonstrating the role of the Expression stratum in highlighting given and new information within a clause. Let’s take two examples:

  1. The boy is 11 years old.
  2. He rides his bike to school.

In the first example, the new information is ’11 years old’ which, in an unmarked clause, is given tonic prominence: The boy is 11 years old. In the second example, we find a more complex weak-strong iambic pattern, He rides his bike to school, that highlights certain elements within the clause.

When we present these two as being true or false, however, the focus of given and new information changes in a slight, but important, way. If we take the first example first, the given information becomes the entire previous clause, The boy is 11 years old, packaged as a single nominal group (it could be replaced with ‘it’) while the new information is is true. This change is reflected in the Expression stratum:

  • The boy is 11 years old is true

The given information is spoken quickly and without any tonic prominence, which moves to the word false. The two pieces of given information (The boy is/The boy is 11 years old is) would take roughly the same time to be spoken. Similarly with the second example, we move from an iambic pattern to one in which there is a single piece of new information:

  • The boy rides his bike to school is false

Again, the given information is spoken quickly and without stress.

This difference in speed and intonation indicating a nominalised clause can be difficult for both elementary and advanced students (Japanese, for example, does this grammatically with either the particle の, no, plus a topic marker は, wa, or 事, koto). Using true/false activities can be a good way of pointing out the difference.