Some years ago, when I started learning Russian, I had one huge bugbear. Stress marks – or the lack of them.
If you’re a Russian learner, you’ll recognise that initial frustration. Firstly, Russian is an unfixed (or phonemic) stress language. That means there’s no predictable rule to determine where the stressed syllable of a word falls. Stress patterning varies from language to language, even in the same family. Russian’s close cousin Polish, for example, is a fixed-stress language, with stress so regular that you could set your watch by it. In Polish, almost without exception, the penultimate syllable of every word carries the weight.
So, with unfixed stress languages, stress can come anywhere, and that gives you a little bit of extra information to learn with each new word. Granted, some languages do give you a helping hand. Greek, for example, has stress as unguessable as Russian, but (so considerately!) the stressed syllable of a word is always marked with an accent. Thank you, Greek!
Not so in Russian. And it’s crucial to know where the stress is, especially in words with the vowel ‘o’, which is pronounced differently in stressed and unstressed positions.
But perhaps it’s less of a nightmare than it might seem at first glance…
Memory Stress Test
The fact is that unmarked stress does leave you to provide that extra information from your mental lexicon, which is tough at first for non-natives. In the early stages, it will involve a lot of looking up in a dictionary, where stress is usually indicated.
But as I gained confidence in Russian, a bit of magic started to happen. I started to enjoy a big boon of satisfaction when recognising a word ‘in the wild’ straight away, knowing where the stress was from previous learning and exposure.
It’s just a guess, but I wonder whether the extra bit of brain work is actually a helping factor in committing those vocab items to long-term memory. You have more information to store away with each word, and more mental heavy lifting involved to recognise and retrieve them when reading. In short, that’s more work to master them, and more work means more time for your brain to mull them over. It’s like a constant fill-in-the-gaps challenge to keep the language-learning mind in a constant state of workout.
The effect is even stronger in the case of Hebrew. Now Hebrew is quite a different kettle of fish, but the same phenomenon crops up for learners in another guise. On one hand, the stressed syllable is quite regular in Hebrew. Rather, it’s the entire category of vowels that isn’t usually indicated at all in text.
That means that the onus of filling in the phonetic shape of the word is completely on memory and experience. As a learner, you have to draw on all sorts of clues to match the word on the page to the item and its pronunciation. It’s a kind of fuzzy-matching process that really sharpens your recognition of vocab.
I haven’t come across any research into this yet, but it might make a good dissertation topic for some enthusiastic linguist at some point!