Teaching Information Focus to Japanese EFL Learners 

Michael McCracken

The important difference between English and Japanese is the contrasting ways in which speakers of these languages direct listeners' attention to new and important information in utterances. To begin, Japanese is a syllable-timed language where syllables tend to be pronounced with equal stress and duration creating a flat, "staccato-like rhythm" (Avery & Ehrlich, 1996, p. 74). In Japanese, the relative importance of words is most often indicated (a) syntactically, by placing the words with the most informational value at the beginning of an utterance, (b) grammatically, by explicitly marking important words with particles, and (c) through intonation, by speaking important words with higher pitch. Increases in volume are sometimes also used to stress the importance of words in Japanese but, not nearly to the extent that they are used in English.
English, on the other hand, is a stress-timed language where stressed syllables tend to occur at regular intervals and unstressed syllables are reduced, linked, or eliminated altogether in order to accommodate the rhythmic pulse of the stressed syllables. English speakers indicate the importance of certain words by pronouncing them with increased volume, with greater vowel length, and/or with higher pitch. Syllables in English receive one of five levels of stress in utterances; major word stress, minor word stress, unstress, reduction, or deletion. The content words of English, words that are intrinsically meaningful and informative, like nouns, main verbs, demonstratives, and question words usually receive major word stress. The function words, those that serve merely to identify the relationships between content words, like articles, prepositions, and conjunctions are usually left unstressed, reduced, or omitted. The content word(s) having the most informational value in a sentence receive(s) main sentence stress. Main sentence stress in English is usually found at the end of utterances. A frequent exception to this rule, however, is a variation of main sentence stress called information focus, which involves the pragmatic repositioning of main sentence stress within sentences in order to express contradiction or contrast.

For beginner-level Japanese EFL students learning listening and speaking skills, the suprasegmental aspects of English pronunciation represent one of the first hurdles that must be cleared in their efforts to develop communicative competence. The difficulties low level Japanese learners of English have in correctly using and interpreting the English system for stressing important words and indicating information focus within utterances is attributable to two primary factors. The first is that it is vowel length, rather than tenseness or laxness, that results in phonemic changes in Japanese words. The second is that, unlike English, which uses three primary phonetic stress indicators; volume, intonation, and vowel length, Japanese uses only one, intonation.

In many cases, lengthening or reducing the vowels in a Japanese word will cause the original meaning of that word to be lost or will result in the formation of a different word altogether. For instance, the Japanese word for "here" (koko), will become the Japanese word for "high school" (ko-ko-), if the first and second vowels are lengthened. For this reason, Low level Japanese learners may understandably tend to perceive and evaluate differences in vowel length only as a means of differentiating one word from another, rather than as a variable indicator of stress. In English however, the vowels in a word can be lengthened or shortened considerably without altering a word's meaning or adversely affecting its comprehensibility. An example of this is the word "cocoa," which will continue to have the same meaning even if it is pronounced "co_coa_." Thus, native English speakers intuitively use the tense/lax distinction, which is phonemic in English, to distinguish one word from another and evaluate vowel length only as a suprasegmental stress indicator. In contrast, Japanese learners of English are accustomed to hearing just five neither tense nor lax vowel sounds. An additional complication for beginner-level Japanese students in my experience is that they often learn a somewhat flattened pronunciation of English words in isolation. This lacks the degree of syllable stress, vowel tenseness/laxness, or reduction present in native pronunciations at the utterance level. This is problematic in that deviations from the formal pronunciation of English content words often become extreme when those words are the information focus of a sentence. Therefore, low level Japanese listeners are likely to fail to comprehend content words due to misidentification in precisely those instances where the meaning of these words is most important.

Because two of the three primary stress indicators in Japanese are structural rather than phonetic, low level Japanese learners tend to have difficulty perceiving producing the phonetic cues that are used in English in addition to changes in pitch. Additionally, English speakers often use increases in vowel length, volume, and pitch simultaneously to stress important words. Consequently, the useful sensitivity to pitch that Japanese learners do have is frequently drowned out by interference caused by the other two stress indicators. Hence, a Japanese person listening intently to two Americans talking excitedly to one another in an elevator will likely be left only with the common stereotypical impression that, "Americans are really loud." Another problem for low level Japanese learners is that the phonetic stress patterns of most function and content words in English are not constant, but subject to change depending on the syntactic context in which they appear.

The L2 listening and speaking difficulties described in this paper are predominantly the result of the misapplication of embedded L1 linguistic and communicative rules and perceptive filters. Japanese learners have developed these throughout their lives and continue to use instinctively because they have successfully facilitated communication in the past. Many of these existing L1 rules and perceptive filters cannot be adapted for use in the L2 because of the fundamental differences between English and Japanese sound systems. Therefore, it is necessary to learn and acquire new communicative strategies, linguistic rules, and perceptual skills that are specific to English. This is best accomplished by placing Japanese learners in communicative situations that do not reward the repeated misapplication of L1 abilities and perceptual filters, and that encourage students to: (a) formulate useful generalizations about how information focus is achieved in English, (b) develop problem solving schemata that can be used to deal with future comprehension problems, and (c) increase their sensitivity to unfamiliar phonetic stress indicators. Additionally, while explicitly teaching Japanese students how important words are stressed in English will not in and of itself result in the acquisition of the required listening and speaking abilities, it will serve to tie the tasks learners are being asked to perform to a definable communicative need.


  • Avery, P. & Ehrlich, S. (1996). Teaching American English pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.