sábado, 12 de noviembre de 2016

Course report: Managing your Voice

Those of you who have been students of mine will know that as a pronunciation trainer I got very serious when it came to voice care. Working on pronunciation requires working on your voice (and of course, finding your L2 voice): stretching your pitch range, finding new articulations, and thus, new "resonances", etc. At times, for some people, this may result in strain, and that is when we need to intervene. We are not speech therapists, but we have the duty to tell students when we feel there is something that needs to be seen to by a professional. And as we are (well, I was) training teachers, I think it becomes all the more important that we train our students on ways in which they can take care of and manage their voice in a healthy manner. Denying that voice care is part of our job, is, in my very humble opinion, a serious neglect. I have seen far too many colleagues and students get serious vocal trouble, and I would not want to see this happening to more teachers.

I personally underwent some training at the Instituto de la Voz in Buenos Aires (I am so grateful to Carlos Demartino and Fga. Liliana Flores, they saved my voice!), because I needed to take care of my own (at the time, "decaying") voice, and then I felt I was responsible for passing this on to my students. I had an opportunity yesterday, here at York, of reviewing some of my training and doing a bit more in a short course called "Managing your Voice", delivered by the two most fantastic facilitators I have met lately, David Howard and Francis Newton.

So in the next few paragraphs, I'll be sharing some of their "tips and tricks" with you. (I don't have access to the slides, so I will have to describe them for you, I am afraid!)

The course began with a lecture. David Howard is an engineer (who actually also trained in UCL with Gimson!) and gave a very interesting review of the organs of speech. What made it fascinating is that the description was made in both biological and engineering terms. So alongside the diagram we are all familiar with, he included one that showed fabulous representations of the diaphragm as a piston, the intercostal muscles as a bellows. He discussed the whole phonatory and articulatory process in the three stages, according to activity: the power source, the sound source, and the sound modifiers. With the help of some videos and some gadgets (pic below!), David showed how the whole mechanism works.

Through some eletroglottograph (EGG) recordings, the facilitator showed us the "noise" the vocal folds make before they are amplified and turned into specific sounds. He recorded members of his choir, and we heard their "singing" through the EGG output. It was fab!

I was particularly interested in the description of vowels, because in my previous training at IV I had also found the treatment of vowels by speech therapists quite surprising. At times when we describe vowels in articulatory terms in our phonetics courses we focus on tongue raising and lowering,  and of course, what part of the tongue is involved. For speech therapists and speech science in general, the focus is also on the areas of resonance within the mouth cavity that result from tongue movement, which is why for a vowel like // it is not just the front tongue raising that interests us, but also the resulting space in the back area . David showed vowel production and resonance with the use of an electrolarynx and two tubes that had already been set with three spaces of resonance for Japanese vowels [i] and [a]. (Of course, after the course I just had to get into eBay and see whether these were available!)
Elecrolarynx and the oral cavity tubes. The elecrolaryx would send air into the tubes and these would produce vowels! 
This is David's demonstration of an electrolarynx and the tubes:




After the theoretical presentation, we had our practical session with Francis. Some of the highlights are described below:
  • Dos and Don'ts (applicable 1-2 hours before performing/teaching/lecturing):
    • Don't drink: coffee or black tea (astringents), alcohol, fizzy drinks or coke
    • Don't eat: chocolate and banana (high levels of fat, cannot be "washed off" easily with water, you need acid, like lemon, to do so), dairy products
    • Don't shout: in difficult spaces with bad acoustics, just choose your spot and make sure there is more space in your mouth, overarticulate if necessary. It will make a great difference!
    • Dooo drink: lots of water, herbal teas.
  • Posture:
    • you need to make sure your neck stands high and tall but you should look forward, not up or down;
    • you need to stand straight, as a "Frankfurt sausage" (ha!), finding your posture by standing on tiptoe and making sure the golden thread that goes from your head to the floor acts like your axis.
    • you need to make sure your shoulders are not "crouched", so you should try to act as if you were wearing a "Bolero jacket" (that is quite high at the back) and you needed to bring the back of it down.
    • (sorry about this one!) in order to make sure your belly comes out (yes, ladies, essential, sorry to say!) and your diaphragm has enough room to do its job, you have to imagine you are holding a lemon between your butt cheeks (of course, we just had to laugh!).
  • Exercises:
    • going from a normal [a] sound very softly towards your creaky/frying quality helps you feel and somehow massage your vocal folds;
    • to check your that you are breathing properly, and to see how the diaphragm, intercostal muscles, and belly work, you can try very energetic sequences of [fːtʰ], with the plosive halting the /f/ really strongly. You should keep a hand just above your belly navel to check this.

At the end of the course, we were asked to introduce ourselves briefly, and we received some feedback on our speech, posture, and presentation skills.

***
As teachers, our voice is our most precious treasure. We need to be systematic in our vocal exercises, before and after using our voice for a long time. Dr. Howard reminded us that over the course of one day, a teacher will have made her vocal folds vibrate over a million times (imagine getting other muscles of your body to move that much in just 8 hours!). So always keep your water at hand, work on your posture, make sure you feel grounded to the floor, and be kind to yourself.

***
Some extra tips I've learned at Instituto de la Voz:
  • To avoid clearing your throat or coughing (both could be really damaging to your vocal folds, if you need to cough, do so gently), you can produce a continuous alveolar trill [r] for a few seconds (easy for us, Spanish speakers!)
  • you can massage your larynx area gently with your thumb and index finger, going in circles.
  • you can create more space in your mouth by making sure your tongue has got enough tonicity. Stretch your tongue out (as dogs do when they yawn), to the front and to the sides.
  • Yawn!

jueves, 27 de octubre de 2016

This week's "Chirpy Remarks"

Hiya! I am finding it increasingly difficult to do any writing these days, as I'm terribly busy (believe me, being a student full-time is quite heavy!). But then, my mind still strays in the "pronunciation teaching" sphere every now and then (though someone told me today "that's not who you are anymore", and I have to come to terms with that), and I needed to voice some thoughts, so I decided to make the most of my 8 am morning walk to Uni to do some recording. These audio files are noisy and are not very cohesive, but they do serve as a sort of "diary" for my thoughts on pronunciation teaching, and how different classes, discussions and papers make me see my "past life" in a different light.

So here's the summary this week's early morning, out-of-breath but really passionate "chirpy remarks".



lunes, 17 de octubre de 2016

domingo, 9 de octubre de 2016

Event Report: PronSIG's Different Voices - University of Brigton

Yesterday I travelled some 500 km to the lovely University of Brighton to attend and present at PronSIG's "Different Voices" event. It was a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues and also to see how pronunciation teaching is "handled" in other parts of the world.

Here's my report on the talks I had the chance of watching (as usual, any misrepresentation of the information here is entirely my fault, and evaluative comments are entirely my own). The full programme is available here, and the live-tweeting/facebooking, here and here. (Otherwise, you can check the storified version of all tweets at the bottom of this post)

***
The opening plenary was by John Wells. His talk, "Don't be frightened of intonation!" was a brief review of the some of the content and examples in his 2006 intonation book, so to us, many things looked pretty familiar, but there were some people in the audience scribbling non-stop on their handouts, so there was a lot of new content for some attendees. Wells' presentation started with a discussion of what systems of intonation could be said to be universal, and which, language-specific. Among the first, tonality was included (perhaps I will not entirely agree that it is wholly universal, myself, but then, I don't know as many languages as Prof. Wells does!) and then tone was considered to be partly language-specific, partly universal. A large focus of the talk was on tonicity, and there were cases of broad and narrow focus, contrastive focus, event sentences (which Wells called "events and disasters" ;)  ) and some intonational idioms. Regarding tone, Wells reviewed the typical fall vs rise distinctions and their associated typical grammatical contexts (statements, pardon questions) and the implicational meanings of the fall-rise. There was also a mention of major vs minor information (instead of using his reference to trailing and dependent tones), which somehow reminded me of Tench (1996). I think the best tip given was the importance of teaching tonicity through deaccentuation rules. At least for Spanish learners, this is essential!

The second slot was made up of two smaller sessions. I attended Michael Vaughan Rees' "The do it yourself tongue twister kit", which was a truly entertaining and creative workshop on alliteration and rhythm that included a competition and even a final group chant jazz session!. We had fun building rhythmic and alliterative verses based on the idea of "X bought Y", (X=name; Y=product, and the verb "bought" could also be replaced by an alliterative synonym or other verb). Such a simple verse, and so versatile!
BTW, I personally love Michael's book "Rhymes and Rhythm", and I fully recommend it to teach aspects of connected speech.

The next session was by the wonderful Richard Cauldwell. On this occasion, Richard reviewed the use of the software Sonocent's Audio Notetaker to train students for oral examinations and presentations. Through the software, different chunks of audio were colour-coded according to the criteria selected (the choice of tone, for example) and feedback was added to students' recordings. Cauldwell demonstrated how a textbook unit can also be presented in AN, on a single page made up of the combination of text, video, image and the audio panels (this looked like a particularly attractive idea for materials design!). I particularly love Richard's ability to make complex ideas so simple, and the use of metaphors is certainly one of his greatest achievements: the idea of "mountainous" speech (using rises and fall rises, chunking appropriately) vs the flat monotone"valleys" many learners engage into in their reading or speaking activities. Richard specified that his goal was to help students make their speech "listenable" without perhaps going a bit deeper into rules of intonation which could make the speech predictable, but not necessarily "listenable". This last bit reminded me of many of my teacher trainees who were somehow "overadapted" to intonation rules, and overapplied the same patterns in their speech, devoid of all expression and meaning (and I am not talking oblique orientation here, I mean the fall-rise + fall pattern trap, the continuous use of the same pattern over and over again!). At times the overapplication of rules does make machines of us, and we forget about expression, about making words mean....
Richard's handout is available here.

After lunch, we were all looking forward to the always great Adrian Underhill and his very unusual presentation title "...somewhere in the air, floating, not reachable...", based on a lovely piece of reflection Adrian received as feedback after one of his training courses. This is a very difficult presentation to describe, because it was all about proprioception. It is one of those things that you need to film and watch and try over and over again. Just a few highlights that I feel I can communicate in writing:
Underhill's premise is always the same, and it gets more and more real and clear with every presentation I see: we have to take pronunciation out of the mind, and into the body, pronunciation is an "embodied" thing, and a greater part of this is about developing propioception, "the inner sensing of what the muscles are doing, and how much pressure is being applied". Underhill claims that many teachers fail to help students with their pronunciation because they are not aware, physically speaking, of what is going on in their mouths, and they just try to refer back to their books.
We tried a number of metaphors for different parts of the mouth (trees, sky, marshes...), we reviewed the four "buttons" (lips, tongue, jaws, glottis), we tried word choreographies and different speeds and voice qualities that enabled us to feel articulation of words, connected speech as it were, in different ways. We were also invited to try different sound discovery sequences, looking at how one sound can help us discover the others.
I am sorry I cannot do justice to this presentaion, but I guess it's one of those things that need to be "experienced". Some of the pics of the slides will at least give you an idea of the different propioception prep we tried together:


























I was up next, discussing some ideas on "pron-tegration". Since I will not be making this presentation any more (and I wonder if there will be more pronunciation teaching presos from me in the future, given my current teaching-less status! *cries a little*), I am sharing my slides with you here (those of you attending my talks for E-Teaching Online and UNSAM will probably recognise some of the proposed activities):





Liam Tyrrell was in charge of the last concurrent session. He discussed "attitudinal intonation" and the challenges that teachers find when trying to teach intonation for attitude, the sort of  reasons behind this "benign neglect". There was a mention of some current and previous literature on intonational descriptions, and how difficult these appear to be when it comes to applying the concepts to practice, and a few remarks on how pitch range is different in different cultures, which makes an intercultural class even harder to teach in this respect. An interesting discussion ensued after the presentation, regarding all the aspects that pertain to intonation, and to whether certain things can, or should be taught, not only in terms of production, but also in terms of being able to read pragmatic meaning (sarcasm, for instance).
My personal take on this is that intonation can be taught, that there are underlying rules, and thus, it is not erratic (otherwise we would not be able to recognise meanings, I believe), but then there is also a lot of variation in the choices made (as with all other linguistic systems!). So I guess there is a standard "intonational toolkit" of meanings that can be generalised, applications that can be made to be "safe", and others, which will definitely depend on context, and on genre. We cannot teach intonation outside genre, outside context, and I believe that is one of the great "sins" in intonation teaching, the presentation of de-contextualised examples that apply as generalisations. (One of the reasons I am doing this PhD, by the way, is precisely to overcome those limitations. Anyway, this has become a very long personal detour!)

***

All in all, it was a lovely meeting of pron-thusiasts and experts, in a beautiful setting (the Falmer campus is really something!), in an atmosphere of genuine attempts to share in our passion for pronunciation teaching.


***

miércoles, 5 de octubre de 2016

Colloquium report #1: Researching, Learning and Training Late Second Language Speech', by Kazuya Saito

Hi, there! I've been looking for excuses to blog before my read-load and write-load become bigger than they already are, and I have found one! Every Wednesday, one of my Departments (yes, I am member of both the Language and Linguistics and the Education departments) has a colloquium, and today's talk was highly relevant to us, pron-lovers.

Kazuya Saito, from Birbeck Uni in London, has presented the results of his research on late L2 acquisition. "Late" acquirers would be those individuals who start learning a second language after puberty, here defined as people aged 16 onwards. His study involved Japanese speakers in their late teens and adults who had settled in Canada.

Find my (informal) report on the event below, with a few of my own comments, of course. (The usual disclaimer: all misinterpretations or misrepresentations of the info presented are my own)

***
The talk began by reviewing two well-known models of L1 and L2 acquisition (or actually, "learning"? That is a whole separate debate....): the Speech Learning Model (SLM) by Flege (1993, 003, 2009), and the Critical Period Hypothesis (for this, Saito quotes Abrahamsson 2012, DeKeyser 2013, but the CPH dates from much earlier). Saito claims that these theories trigger different predictions as to what could happen to late learners.

The SPM would predict that enough exposure ("experience effects") to L2 will help learners to invoke those speech learning abilities that we applied for our L1, so age will have an effect on their ultimate level attainment, and so will the length of residence in a foreign country. The CPH, on the other hand, predicts that near nativelikeness is not attainable after puberty, which would affect late learners, and it also establishes that the skills employed for the learning of a second language involve general cognition -that is, explicit and intentional processes - rather than the explicit and incidental language-specific processes. (This latter point, I think, is very, very important when it comes to favouring explicit pronunciation instruction. However, the role of explicit pronunciation instruction was somehow argued against -or downplayed- in this presentation). In other words, for the CPH, the effects of the length of residence will also be limited.

This lit review finished with references to conflicting results in studies related to the effect of length of residence and age (mental note: go back to Linda Grant's (2014) edited volume for examples!). There was also a reference to something that is highlighted in other studies I have read, the role of motivation and aptitude as well in determining the levels of ultimate attainment. What is more, the presenter made some slight criticism to the methods employed in some of the studies, as they focused on native speaker evaluation of accents globally. Thus, Saito's "niche" lies in the focus on one specific pronunciation feature: the Japanese flap [ɾ] vs English /r/. (Two comments: I have used /r/ for the English version because it was not very clear to me whether the target was an actual retroflex approximant [ɻ], or the alveolar [ɹ] one. And for the Japanese sound, the alveolar tap symbol was used, but in the speaker's description, I often wondered if it was not the alveolar lateral flap [ɺ] that was referred to. The Handbook of the IPA says that for Japanese it's [ɽ], actually, so I should have asked! ).

The difficulties that Japanese speakers face when it comes to English /r/ are threefold: two of these are related to adjusting cues already present in Japanese: the retraction of the tongue body -shown as the lowering of F2 values, acoustically speaking -(which is why I guess the target /r/ is a retroflex, perhaps) and the prolongation of length/duration; whereas the new feature for these learners would be  the presence of labial, alveolar and pharyngeal constructions, manifested acoustically in the lowering of F3.

The study was aimed at discovering some patterns in terms of the effect of AOA (age of acquisition) and LOR (length of residence), and it involved a number of Japanese people who had moved to Canada after they had turned 16, and most of them had only had instruction in English at school -using a Grammar Translation method, according to the presenter-. They have all been described as being "highly motivated" to attain a high level of English because of their need to communicate. The experiment consisted of testing the subjects' production of English /r/ in a picture-description spontaneous production task (adapted from Munro and Mann, 2007). In all the pictures there were target words with /r/, and in order to make sure participants were tested in a more spontaneous situation, the first 3 descriptions were presented as being "for practice", and the other four were used for the test.

The results of the study revealed the following:
  • In terms of tongue retraction, most participants improved over their first six months of residence, and after that period, in this respect, their performance was deemed native-like.
  • As for duration, the correlations were significant after 12 months of residence.
  • When it came to the development of the new parameters (F3), levels of attainment were diverse and late acquirers were definitely at a disadvantage (only those moving to Canada before the age of 20 achieved better results in this study), but definitive changes were seen after 10 years of residence (!).
(Very interesting!)

Some implications for teaching were mentioned later. (I have to admit that this is perhaps where I would disagree the most, but it is true that I have worked in non-immersion contexts, and things are definitely different there). Based on these results, Saito contended that an effective tool is the use of contextualised instruction over explicit instruction of the target sound. Some of the activities mentioned included the use of prompted discussion and role plays with target words that were corrected on the spot. Some included /l,r/ minimal pairs, others did not. The testing of these activities after training students for 4 hours in two weeks rendered an improvement in students' /r/ sounds from 60% to 75%. (Plus, the "shock effect" of constant correction cannot, of course, be underrated, if these are highly motivated students!) In my view, explicit pronunciation instruction (because of the employment of these cognitive procedures mentioned earlier) is necessary to help create these new articulatory habits. I do, however, strongly make a case for contextualised and communicative pronunciation work, but not as the entry point to learn the sounds, but to make explicit instruction somehow transferrable to more spontaneous contexts (and this is, after all, the end result that Saito was seeking).

There were some very brief, but interesting questions. The issue of U-shaped learning and plateaus that is described in some psycholinguistic theories (if I remember correctly, Major's Ontogeny model, for example?) was brought up, inviting in a way the exploration of a more diachronic study of the same subjects. Another issue mentioned is whether a similar effect would be reached for the training of VOT as a low functional load feature, which was considered non-distinctive (well, I may have disagree with that, I believe that both VOT and vowel length can be distinctive in native-speaker's ears, no matter their allophonic status!).

All in all, it was a very interesting and thought-provoking talk with many implications for pronunciation teaching, both in immersion and other ESOL contexts. And a confession: at first, I was doubtful about attending a talk about Japanese, but I have to admit this whole uni experience has really widened my horizons to all the beauty and human and cultural wealth there is in this world.

domingo, 18 de septiembre de 2016

The only permanent thing is change

"The only permanent thing is change", they say. And even though my life has changed to different degrees in these last 15 years as a teacher, at times things change a bit more drastically.
If you have been reading me, you will probably know that I am an Argentinian EFL teacher, lecturer in Practical Phonetics and teacher trainer in Buenos Aires. This is the life I chose for myself many years ago, and after years of hard work and relentless study (and yes, at times a little bit of luck...), I have little by little been able to attain different teaching posts. I can't really say how grateful I am for this decade of pronunciation teaching. I have learned so much from lesson planning, and grading, and first and foremost, from my students, and my success and failure while accompanying their process. 

But today, a new challenge awaits. I envisaged a new life for me, because I think I don't know enough (to my own standards, that is) about phonetics, conversation, pragmatics and communication in general, and I want to learn more; I have this thirst to continue improving on  my understanding of English phonetics to be able to put all my intuitions and hunches in line. And I had to be honest with myself and tell myself that perhaps I was not going to find all that knowledge and all those resources I needed close by. So I made a bet, a sort of dream investment, a couple of years ago. And today, I can say I have achieved a new dream, the beginning of a new dream.

I will temporarily stop being a teacher (well, working as a teacher, because..."once a teacher always a teacher"!) to become a full-time PhD student. And I will be leaving my beloved country for some time, where English is my classroom-only language, to move to a place where I will be probably only use English, from dawn till dusk. And yes, Pronunciation Bites will perhaps change as well. It will may become a log of personal stories of social failure with my apparently posh English, or a blog of observation of different accents of English, a set of reflections on things worth teaching, and who knows what else may become blogging-worthy!

I am so grateful to all the people who have taught me so much in Argentina, in direct and indirect ways. I learned tons from both confrontation meetings and coffee sessions with colleagues and friends; I learned a lot from master classes and from words in passing; from books and from behaviour; from gossip and from advice. I am grateful to my friends, my students, my colleagues and the administrative staff at each and every place I've taught or studied at. I am also grateful to all those people I cannot, sadly, take as role models. I have been infused with ideas of who I want and I don't want to be from each and every person I've encountered, and each and every situation I've had to face, and I am deeply grateful for that.

I won't lie. I find this new experience equally scary and fascinating. I can't wait to embrace the world of learning that awaits. I can't wait to start a life of having almost nothing, of giving up on so many things I've achieved and collected over the years, to humbly get into this "you know nothing, Jon Snow" type of state. I may succeed, or I may fail miserably. But I will try to keep this space open, because I believe in sharing and  because I will always be a teacher, and think like a teacher, and live like one, and most importantly, because pronunciation is, and will always be, my passion.