miércoles, 15 de marzo de 2017

Voices in Society: A Workshop on Prosody

This week I got to spend three busy days in the always busy (yet energy-infusing) London, more specifically at Queen Mary University, to learn more about prosody. The workshop was called "Voices in Society", it was organised by PhD candidates Andy Law and Elisa Passoni, and Dr Esther de Leeuw and it was funded by the ESRC.

Excited as I always am about learning more about prosody, this workshop was really overwhelming in terms of all the things there are out there to continue learning about! I will make a brief review of some of the areas and points raised during some of the talks, and I will, whenever possible, add links to research material, tools or website of the presenters, if any of my readers wishes to go further into any of the topics.
The usual disclaimer (because I have to): As this is a personal blog on personal and academic interests of mine, what follows is not a formal review of the workshop, and it was written as a means of summarising my "take-home points". It is, of course, also meant to share my experience with my teacher-readers. It was written in almost one sitting (on the train from London to York, actually!). And of course, any errors or evaluative comments are entirely my own, and do not represent the views of my University.
Day 1: Intro to Prosody, and Rhythm
Dr Esther de Leeuw discussed the huge realm of prosody by reviewing some of the basics. We were (re)introduced to the subdomains of prosody, and their perceptual and acoustic correlates (with the usual warnings, like F0 not strictly being "pitch", and the fact that our perception of pitch is not linear, but logarithmic). We got to play around with the thresholds of human perception of pitch, using the Hearing Test of the University of South Wales here. Dr de Leeuw also addressed some of the distinctions (or lack of) in the literature, such as the suprasegmental-prosody labelling, and the differences between tone and intonation. 
We tried an exercise of perception of the Three Ts from a scene in "The King's Speech", and simple as it was, it still revealed some of the inter-speaker differences in perception we may find, especially in terms of segmentation and the level vs rise contrast.
In the second session, we did some Praat analyses of tonal alignment, pitch span and pitch level. It turned out to be a complex exercise, but the following sessions were very helpful in clarifying some of the uses of the measurements made (especially for tonal alignment, which is something I never thought of considering for CA).

Dr Lawrence White discussed rhythm and everything involved in it in great detail, and with some very cool videos! Dr White addressed the now debunked stress-timing vs syllable-timing dichotomy by referring to some studies that analysed rhythm production and perception cross-linguistically. Phonotactic constraints and syllable constitution, as well as the fact that many studies were conducted from the basis of stress as it happens in English -thus disregarding the role of stress in other languages-, were found to be responsible for the initial categorization of these two distinctions. Dr White proposed a metric that entails determining the interaction between percentages and ratios of vowels over consonants and vowel duration and standard deviation. We got a really detailed and exciting demonstration of segmentation in spectograms according to manner of articulation to help us make the right measurements.
After the teaching session, Dr White discussed some of the rhythm perception studies on different languages he conducted on babies, some entertaining SASASA perception tests (where syllables in an utterance are replaced synthetically with SASASA), and a few findings regarding the role of phrase final vowel lengthening.

Day 2: ToBI, PRAAT scripting, and research on L1 attrition
Prof. Mariapaola D'mperio delivered a great introductory workshop on AM and ToBI. There was a very interesting historical review of how ToBI came to be, and what were the great findings in Pierrehumbert's 1980 thesis, as well as very convincing arguments as to the representational goals and uses for prosodic typology. Some very interesting points were tackled in passing, such as compression and truncation and alignment. A great part of the session was devoted to discussing the elements of prosodic structure, and then we tried a few exercises which can be found in the MIT site.
Even though I had some very basic (very, very basic) background in ToBI, I have to admit I was prejudiced, but Prof. D'imperio said all the right things: the importance of listening (over merely looking at the PRAAT waveform), the fact that phonetics and phonology have fuzzy edges at times, and that what is contrastive is at times difficult to define, as well as the need for multidisciplinary work on prosody. Once again, I confirm that a great part of what you can "hear" is affected by the model in which one has been originally trained: I hear step ups where perhaps some people who do ToBI hear glides; I understand the notion of rise-falls  on a nucleus as a different notion from what some people in ToBI woud call a LH*L-L%, for instance, where there may be a low "onset" (in British terms) and a fall on the nucleus. I think this session was a great eye-opener for me to understand many things that in the past I found contradictory in papers, and to confirm that we (either ToBI or British-school people) hear the same phenomena, but we process it and label it differently (with all the implications that this entails, of course...).
In the afternoon, Prof D'imperio discussed her research, and she mentioned some very interesting studies that address the complexities of chunking and phrasing (especially in French), and how different types of cues work differently in different languages (fascinating!)

Dr Stephen Welburn made an introduction to PRAAT scripting, which makes automatising tasks in PRAAT much simpler. It was only a brief tour, but I'm certainly going to try and start designing my own scripts! 

Dr Anouschka Foltz made a very interesting discussion of her studies of L1 attrition, which broadly defined is the loss of native-like proficiency of speakers of L1 as speakers grow to be bilinguals (perfect description of me, I am no longer a reliable speaker of Spanish, especially in terms of intonation!). Dr Foltz discussed the intonation of questions in Arabic speakers of English, and then presented another study of perception of contrastive accent and eye-gaze anticipation.

Day 3: Stats, R, and more research studies
Dr Anouschka Foltz made a quick, yet clearly-presented tour of different functions in R, including basic stats, mixed models and Growth Curve Analysis. Lots of work for me to continue doing in this area!

Dr Candide Simard presented her research consisting in the documentation and description of an Australian aboriginal language, Jaminjung (see Wikipedia entry here). It was a truly fascinating presentation that discussed the vicissitudes of doing this kind of work with a very special community, with specific cultural traditions, and a language which has got less than 50 native speakers at the moment. Dr Simard modelled the intonation systems of this language with reference to topic and focus (theme and rheme), communicative function, and to other emerging structures. 

Dr Erez Levon covered the topic of High Rising Terminals in London speech in young men and women. Dr Levon attempted to find clear acoustic differences between HRT fulfilling different functions, but the findings were not signficant in this respect. What was found in this particular context is the tendency for women to use uptalk to request alignment, and for men to apply it for affiliation-seeking purposes, among other more relevant functions (which I have to admit I did not get to take down). I think my attention was focused on these functions because I believe there could be a different realisation of the rise for alignment or affiliation projection, so I actually presented this as a suggestion in the Q&A session for the presenter to perhaps look into.
I am not a sociolinguist, but I sometimes find the men vs women criteria for exploration a bit problematic for reliable findings, and I would perhaps work on other variables myself. I think, in any case, that it is very interesting that there were no significant differences in the realisation of these rises. Who knows, perhaps conversation analysis could help untangle this point! (Sorry, could not help it!) (Plus, I do believe there must be something in the way these rises are produced that leads to their being interpreted differently!)

Dr Tiina Eilola presented some interesting studies on the way people perceive the language of emotions in bilinguals.  By referring to models such as the Revised Hierarchical Model (Kroll and Stewart 1994) and the Circumplex Model of Affect (Russell, 1980), Dr Eilola discussed her framework and findings on Gujarati speakers of English who moved to the UK. She explained the different processing of "positive", "negative" and "neutral" emotions, and the participants' evaluation of English as being the language of emotions for them over their own language (which reminds me of a lot of feelings I have in connection to my L1 and my L2)
I know I am missing out on a lot of detail here, but I just wanted to give you an idea of all the fascinating learning experiences, research and topics I have been trained in the last three days. If any of you happens to be interested in any of the presentations, and you wish to ask further, please use the comments box below, or check out the researcher's websites for related publications and possible ways of contacting them.
 A huuuuge thank you to Andy, Elisa and Esther for the great organisation of the event. And let's face it: prosody rocks!

viernes, 10 de marzo de 2017

An impulsive reply.

I know I should not be blogging, and less so, because I keep doing it impulsively, but as I read discussions on pronunciation teaching and teacher training, I think I need to say things.

Not so long ago, I heard someone from the States say that people in my context were "poorly trained" , because they did classroom studies in their schools and did not include basic statistics in their papers, or they retold tips and tricks they had used in a sort of "narrative" form. I have seen presentations by teachers in my country, I have seen many teachers in action who may not know about regression models or control groups (I don't know about those so deeply myself) but who make "scientific" decisions all day: they test activities with their students, they change things if the don't work out, they try again. They are scientists in their context, they do research even if they don't notice.

To be honest, I think these teachers do a far better job in their EFL context than I would do in a controlled experiment at Uni with students who need to use English outside the classroom for their everyday life. Experiments can tell us a lot about the way people react and work and think in controlled and less controlled environments, but I am not too sure I want to *only* inform my practices by looking at these experiments, because my teaching reality is different, and because many of these studies are not always honest about the scope to which they can be generalised.

I find talking to other teachers as informative as a research paper. I honestly think none of the two actually give a complete and generalised picture of what really happens when people learn to pronounce a foreign language.

I think that my so-called Third World country teachers get fabulous initial training for what they need to do, and encounter everyday classroom realities that I have not seen reported in any paper; realities that force them to continue self-training at times. I think that calling them "poorly trained" is just a poor appreciation.

As a researcher in training, I see the value of research in moving science forward, but as a teacher, I feel the injustice of many teachers not being given a "voice"  if they don't join an academic community. I don't know how to solve this issue, and as a teacher trainer I have tried to instill some interest in research in my trainees so that they find a way to make their experiences heard, but what I do know is that the only "poor training" I can attest to is that of those people who enjoy belittling and undermining others whose reality they don't know, or understand.

jueves, 2 de marzo de 2017

Reflection in Passing: The Macro and the Micro in Pron Teaching

I awoke out of my blogging lethargy today as I was catching up on my social media and read a few interesting things, like Mark Hancock's "Models in Pronunciation" post here. Since I have been reviewing some pron teaching ELT materials and websites lately, I thought I wanted to make a brief comment on some of the things raised in Mark's post and in other materials I've looked at, which are also related to the complexities I discussed in terms of the whole pronunciation goals issue here. Even though I agree with many of the points being raised in that post, and in the work of other pronunciation teachers that attempt to teach for intelligibility (oh, how to define such a thing! I think it is as difficult as to define what an "English accent" is!), I thought I could comment on things that have to do specifically with my (past) reality in Buenos Aires.

My usual disclaimer: this is a reflection in passing, written in one sitting and in a colloquial style, and not meant to be scientific or academic in tone.


When I think of pronunciation teaching in the whole diversity of Latin American classrooms (well, to be fair: Argentinian, actually? Ciudad de Buenos Aires-based, more precisely? --> soooo different from what you see described in European and North American papers and videos, mind you!) , I see a continuum of things that goes from the macro to the micro.

I see macro-aspects as I see phonemes: ideal and abstract. Macro aspects, to my mind, include: governmental policies, institutional requirements, departamental agreements, textbooks, and your syllabus. At these levels, you have a number of instructions to follow, methods to apply, and contents to teach. Whether internally imposed or designed by you, based on expectations or on your past experience, these generally still reflect an abstract idea of what teaching a certain course should be like. 

But then, you have the real thing, the actual "instantiation", the allophones of it all: your students. And this is what I call the micro. This is what the real deal is, and this is where you do all your real work. Now, if you do pronunciation work in your lessons, and you try to do it as well as you can, you will know that no matter how many plans and guidelines and tips and tricks you may have, what each student produces is fantastically unique. You may predict what type of difficulties they may encounter because of their L1, or because of the material, but you will always end up with a fabulous array of different allophonic variants of people and productions, and in order to do a good job, you need to address those individually. To what extent, to what aim, towards where, specifically, that is your own decision.

We teachers make decisions at the micro level. No matter how many macro frames of rules we may be imposed on, the moment we close the classroom door, we are in charge of our allophones.

So where does the target accent thing fit in? I would say that the choice of a so-called "model", a target accent, is always at the macro level. Pretty much as it is when you see policies, textbooks and syllabi that claim to teach standard grammar, or spelling. They also use an idealised target which may, or may not, in reality, be a target, and may, or may not, reflect what happens "out there" (Quick detour: have you ever seen an exercise on how to use "ain't" and "innit"?)

Now, to my mind, a "target accent" has always been like a Cardinal Vowel chart. You know when you learn the cardinal vowel chart you are told that the vowels there are reference points, and they do not really belong to any language in particular? Well, that is how I have always seen what has been described as "General British". A variety which was once based in what people now see as "posh RP" which is used as a reference in dictionaries and instructional materials, a proto- (or perhaps hyper- or perhaps archi-?) variety that may or may not have a large number of "native" speakers but which is seen as some as the prestige variety for education, and politics and which, presumably, hides your geographical origin. At least, that is what GB is by definition. To my mind, and very humbly so, "General British" is an amalgalm of features from which many other real varieties can be obtained, or fine-tuned into, even non-native varieties, and that is why it is, to me, a reference accent, rather than a target accent, in much the same way we have "reference" rules for grammar or vocabulary or spelling. I know some colleagues may feel similarly about "General American".

I think we need a reference accent, something that may sound English to our ears and something that, as non-native speakers of the language, makes us aware of how our speech organs work in other languages. I think this works pretty much in the same way as our need to have a reference grammar, or a spelling guide, or a dictionary. I think that is why we train teachers to produce a certain proto/hyper/archi variety (and some of us perhaps have tried to make it a bit more real by smoothing out of this reference accent some of the "posh" or "Victorian" bits).

But then, at the micro level, we make decisions. We know our students, we know what they can produce, we know what they struggle with, we (hopefully) know what they want to produce, and we want them to find some form of English voice that will make them feel comfortable with who they are when they speak another language. We work on our students' accents on an individual basis. 

As I sit here, 12.000 km away from home at 8 in the morning, I have to admit that as an EFL teacher at secondary school I have felt freer in my pron teaching practices than perhaps as a teacher trainer, where there were expectations as to what I had to help my students achieve, but I hope I have been able to exercise my micro-decision powers in the best possible way. I hope I have, over the years, improved on my ways of helping my allophones reach something based on the reference variety that they can later fine-tune into the best version of what they want to sound like.

(PS at 10 am: Of course, all of this does not mean or imply that you can't deal (you must, I think!) with other varieties of English and "non-native" varieties of English, especially, though not exclusively, for perception purposes. Just saying.)

domingo, 5 de febrero de 2017

Taking a blogging break

Hello, everyone.

As I may have mentioned before, life here is really hectic. There are quite a few deadlines, and there is my daily reading and writing routine to attend to. I have fabulous professors around, and of course I am being trained by my impeccable supervisors, and I am learning lots, which over here usually means asking myself lots of questions and trying to solve lots of methodological and theoretical problems. Apart from all the studying (some 50-60 hours a week these days), there is another fact: I am no longer teaching. 

This blog was born mostly as a result of questions or difficulties I encountered during my lessons and debates with colleagues. It has been an attempt to put in writing just a few of those many things I have taught, which I have not seen anyone else put in writing. It has been a way to share ideas that others may find useful when teaching. Now, this blog has, to a certain extent, changed its direction, and it has become a sort of personal log, which is really fine by me, as I have always considered myself a teacher-learner.

It should be quite obvious right now, but this is not a commercial endavour of any kind, either. I may in the future consider publishing some handouts or theory sheets, but it is not my motivation really to use this space for profit (something that many people still don't understand).

I feel the pressure to share with you all my new daily findings, and still do so in a way that will not tarnish my university's reputation, or misrepresent my views (after all, if I wanted any misrepresentation, I already know a few people who never sat in my classes and are now talking about me as if they knew me or truly understood the theoretical undepinnings of my work...anyway). Writing in a rush, and in one sitting, has somehow worked for me in many opportunities, but perhaps that is not necessarily something I want to do anymore, or at least it's something I want to do less frequently. Recording my "chirpy remarks" on the go was fun, but it may not have been as professional as I would have liked it to (though it does the job as my own way of keeping an accent log, I must admit!).

The thing is, over here, I have made lots of discoveries, and I have also proven a lot of my hunches right. This makes me really happy, and at the same time, makes me feel a bit bitter. I have a lot to say, but perhaps I am not ready to present it in the best possible way.

I am in the transition from teacher-researcher into a researcher that carries a teacher in her mind and heart.

And in order to do this the way I want to, I need time. At this point, it is either my own research project in the making (plus the challenges of having moved abroad really recently), or doing this properly.

So rather than putting more pressure on myself on getting all my drafted blog posts out, or using this space as a response to uncalled-for criticism, I have decided to take some "time out", and focus on my own research until things start falling back into place. 

I may publish my drafted posts in a month or two, I may not. I don't really know. I just want to make sure my Pronunciation Bites blog stays as a place of reflection and enjoyment, a place to continue pouring my passion for phonetics and teaching, as I have conceived this blog to be from day 1.

My Facebook page and Scoop.it collection will still be very much active, so I'll surely see you over there. Thank you for your continued support.

miércoles, 25 de enero de 2017

Blog posts I would like to write

Time goes by and my guilt for not doing any writing over here increases exponentially, especially as my mind is always relating every single piece of my reading to my former teaching.

I thought I might just sketch below a few thoughts that in the future, (time- and imposter-syndrome-permitting), will become full-fledged blog posts.

  • Teaching phonetics to EFL teaching trainees vs (?) teaching phonetics to future linguists. This post is already sketched, but yet not ready. It compares the type of training (goals, biblio, assessment) we provided in Buenos Aires (and more specifically, in the places where I worked) versus the training students get here in their BA in Linguistics. 

  • Teaching intonation to non-native speakers of English: genre-specific training is the key. Ever since Abercrombie (1965) we have heard that descriptions of intonation are better suited to "spoken prose" than to what happens in interaction. I believe that many of the descriptions in intonation manuals (those that are not based on introspection and made up examples...not pointing my finger at any but you know which ones I mean) work very well with the production of "monologic" (a contested notion for us, discourse people) texts, such as lectures, and stories. Some descriptions might even work well with some institutional encounters, where some patterns may be a bit more stable (though not always, I always sit next to the counter at coffee shops to see how baristas take the orders!), but conversation needs its own model. And that is very difficult to establish, at least, prescriptively*. So perhaps the textual/discoursal function of tone works pretty well against real life, but transactional and interactional descriptions of tone need a lot of corpus analysis yet. I still think that even though intonation does not have a "meaning" in itself, many of the generalisations we make are all right to be on the "safe side" for our EF learners, but if we want to transcend this and be able to describe what is going on in real interaction, we need more analytical and theoretical tools (and if you give me four years, I might come up with something...after my thesis, of course!).

  • Obliqueness, stylisation and intonation teaching. As I mentioned in one of my "chirpy remarks", obliqueness (Brazil et al, 1980) is something that happens in many languages, and may not be a result of L1 transfer when L2 learners produce it. It has got to do with the approach to the task, and I could argue that "direct orientation" is also an ability that could be taught and learned, even in L1. Stylisation, on the other hand, is really very common, and following Ladd (1978), the whole notion of obliqueness could be seen as a continuum that includes stylised versions of other tones, such as the rise and the fall-rise.

I know these remarks may look very obscure, but there is "matter in my madness", I swear. All I can say is that years of trying to test intonation hypotheses and methods with my students have not been in vain, I got nice evidence for many of my claims, and I hope to be able to lay them out to you over here in the future. And of course, I've got a million other questions and new theoretical quandaries that I expect to be able to sort out some time in...the next....20 years?

See you around!

*Just in case: I am not arguing we should be prescriptive, I am just assuming that intonation teaching in ELT and teacher training (if done at all) is pretty prescriptive.

miércoles, 21 de diciembre de 2016

More chirpy remarks (November & December 2016)

Hello! Doing some proper writing is really tough these days, so here's an update of my latest rambles on pronunciation issues and accents while on the go. Enjoy!

miércoles, 7 de diciembre de 2016

Workshop report: "Pronunciation Matters (?)" - Uni of York, Dec 7th

Today I was really lucky to get to attend a fantastic workshop/talk on pronunciation at my Uni called "Pronunciation Matters (?)", delivered by Prof. Sam Hellmuth. I was really eager to attend because I had the chance of auditing Prof. Hellmuth's classes this term and I can attest to her great knowledge, experience and teaching skills (and many of you know I am not easy when it comes to praising people!).
Below you will find a short account of the talk in my usual colloquial style and in one sitting (so sorry about any potential typos!). As I always say, any misunderstanding of the content presented is my own fault, and evaluative comments on the presentation are attributable to me alone (unless explicitly attributed to someone else!).
The session began with Sam's exploration of her journey from being a learner of Arabic -and a few embarrasing moments of her own- to becoming a teacher. This first anecdote lead to questions regarding pronunciation goals and how we can measure pronunciation gain, issues which were discused during the presentation by the presenter and the participants (as there a few slots for group discussion, which was really exciting!). (BTW, if you want to learn more about pronunciation goals and the complexity behind their selection, you can always go back to my early 2015 blog posts: here and here)

The first group discussion already triggered those heated pron-teaching-related discussions we are all familiar with: accentedness vs intelligibility, the difficulties in defining intelligibility, what accents we should teach, what accents learners want to learn...After the discussions, Sam also mentioned some well-known references in the EFL and ELF worlds, such as the paper on L2 accent and credibility issues, and accent discrimination problems in the US in the job market, among other things.

The following step in the presentation included a quick review of studies on three forms of "pronunciation gain measure": (foreign) accentedness, intelligibility, comprehensibility (these terms have been widely defined in the papers and books by Derwing and Munro if you need to trace them back, more currently discussed in the 2015 Pronunciation Fundamentals book, which guides some of the discussion by Sam Hellmuth in this lit review). There was a very interesting overview of different research findings which could potentially point to interesting teaching priorities, which I will try to summarise below:

  • accentedness, that is, the "perception of how different the accent in question is to the L1 accent used as reference" was highly dependent on suprasegmentals, though of course segmentals also play a part (Anderson-Hieh et al 1992)
    • Quick detour! Here's a fun fact that Sam presented: an accent can be even detected in speech recordings played backwards, according to Munro et al 2013 (which could be attributed to voice quality, or in my view, to base of articulation)
  • intelligibility, that is, "the extent to which someone understands whath was said", is not dependent necessarily on levels of accentedness. That is, a native-like accent does not necessarily make an intelligible accent. Suprasegmentals appear to have a diminished role in ensuring intelligibility according to the studies by Munro and Derwing (1999) and others. (I have my objections here, as usual...but they would need a whole post)
  • comprehensibility, in other words, "the listener's perception of how difficult it is to understand an utterance", can also be affected by prosodic choices.
  • An alternative measure could be that of fluency, but it was not planned as part of this presentation (and I agree, it does deserve a presentation of its own!).
Consequently, these variables can be affected by different types of "pronunciation errors" and carry important teaching implications regarding goals, and the teaching of segmental and suprasegmentals.

Another quick reference was made to the (in)famous Critical Period Hypothesis and the findings by Munro and Mann (2005) stating that it is possible to improve your pronunciation after puberty (which, to be fair, is what most of my teacher trainees and myself have done! We ought to consider ourselves heroic!?). (BTW, more on the CPH and pronunciation in my review of Linda Grant's "Pronunciation Myths" book here). This could be seen as part of the "good news" regarding pronunciation improvement.

A very interesting comparison ensued, between two possible selections of features to teach when it comes to pronunciation:

Fraser (2001)
Jenkins (2000)
> NS hearer
1.     word and sentence stress
2.     syllable structure (phonotatictics)
3.     vowel length distinctions
4.     major consonant distinctions
5.     vowel quality distinction (those with a high functional load)
6. minor consonant distinctions (those with a low functional load).
>NNS hearer
1.     consonant inventory
2.     some phonetic detail
3.     consonant clusters
4.     vowels
5.sentence stress (especially for contrast)

 Note: Jenkins' proposal is described in more detail in the ELF blog: https://elfpron.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/what-is-the-lfc/

A brief explanation of functional load followed, together with some comments on possible criticism to current teaching materials that place too much emphasis on contrasts like /ð,θ/ which have a low functional load in English. And here I need to input my own voice: I agree entirely with this point, but I think the problem is not the inclusion of this pair as part of the materials, but the actual grouping of features. I completely understand the fact that these two sounds are articulatorily similar and differing in voice, BUT I think a more teaching-friendly approach would present this sound together with those that may bring trouble for learners, such as /d/ vs /ð/ or /s/ vs /θ/ for Spanish speaking learners of English, for example.

Finally, in this lit review, some of the most interesting bits appeared: the discussion of how possible ways as to how we can actually measure pronunciation gain, and what different bits of research have found.
  • Saito (2013) has reported that training phonetic perception may be a way of improving in production, which is a claim that has been also tested in other previous studies in other languages. (BTW, if you want to read my report on a talk by Saito earlier this term, click here).
  • The Beginner Language Learner Survey conduected in June 2014 with learners of German at the Uni of York compared students' answers regarding their feelings when it comes to pronunciation: native speakers of English learning German valued comprehensibility more over intelligibility and accentedness, though the three of them were rated high. Those learners of German whose L1 was not English valued intellibility more highly over accentedness (with quite a low rating in comparison) and comprehensibility.
  • A very interesting piece of research by Sam Hellmuth and Florence Edwards compared learners' accentedness ratings to establish whether pronunciation improvement could be due to their "year abroad" experience or to individual cognitive abilities. The data, which included a questionnaire regarding their "learning context factors" (age of acquisition of L2, experience abroad, motivation for a native-like accent, etc), and the results of a non-word repetition task (Gupta,2003) pointed at very interesting findings: students who appear to have been graded as more native-like are in fact those who have a better "phonological working memory" (PWM), the ability to retain phonetic detail in your mind and reproduce it.  These were presented as the "bad news", since the "year abroad" experience did not necessarily lead to a more native-like accent, and this would relegate accentedness achievements only to the "gifted". However...
  • a second study, this time on "stress deafness", implies that there are many things that can be learned and taught, and that the phonological working memory can be trained, and that the knowledge of other languages is really beneficial when it comes to pronunciation matters. This other study was initially done for French by Dupoux et al (2007) and it was replicated by by Bethany White (2013 graduate), and it tested native English speakers' perception of stress in English, Spanish and Japanese non-words. In short, the results revealed that students had a lot of trouble in the "sequence recall task"  (retrieval task of strings of words with different stress patterns and a final "OK" which blocked access to acoustic memory), and those students who had some knowledge of Spanish did slightly better for Japanese. This study also established that in fact stress "deafness" in another language is a phonetic "business", as lack of reduction (lack of schwa) was a defining factor in those who had trouble identifying stress in Spanish and Japanese. (I have to admit I chickened out of asking this because I may have been entirely wrong, but as we listened to some of the non-words which were supposed to be controlled for intensity and pitch changes, I could not help noticing that the Japanese renderings did show some pitch difference across syllables (naturally!?) and I myself believe this can also affect perception, for obvious reasons. But I did not ask at the time, so treat this as just a fleeting impression!). This study has interesting implications for teaching, at least for English speakers learning another language, since it can be used to redefine the teaching of stress by actually helping students to tune in to phonetic features over stress rules, at least for perception purposes. And this also supports the tenets of those models of second language learning based on inhibition of first language perception (Darcy et al 2015, for example)

Even though it was a very short session (time did fly by! I wanted more!), a lot of very interesting comments, findings and debates cropped up. Once again, this shows how "hot" pronunciation is as a topic (in all possible senses!), how much research is still needed, and on a personal note, how I wish all the work being done in Argentina could get researched on and published, as we have so much to say on pronunciation teaching, and so very little reported.

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