sábado, 20 de diciembre de 2014

"Occupational Hazard": Intonation and Comprehension - Another set of observations in passing

Sorry I have not been updating the blog lately. Good news is that I have finally submitted my MA thesis, so I guess I will be getting up to speed with all my drafted posts and ideas soon!

This year I have read and heard a lot about the influence of phonology in listening and comprehension. It is clear that the ability to sustain one's attention through time is also a key element in making sense of speech.

In the book by Cauldwell that I have reviewed, there is a description of the complex phenomena that occurs in spontaneous speech, with all the blurred areas and the "squeeze zones", whose knowledge or awareness of can inform our listening comprehension practices.

Some interesting experiences I have had in the last few months have led me to (informally) hypothesize that phonological knowledge can at times affect comprehesion, particularly in my case, when this knowledge has hindered the possiblity of paying attention to the actual meaning of the message!

(BTW, this is a mere retelling of a personal experience and not an attempt at a research paper, but if any of you out there wants to take this up ..... go ahead!)

I posted a tweet in this respect a few weeks ago, and it got retweeted as:

So I guess that my basic knowledge of intonation can be an "occupational hazard" at times. And in this post, I would like to briefly, informally, share with you why.

This year, more than ever,  I have been involved in exams, interviews, lunch/dinner talks, and meetings with native speakers of English.  And one of the things I have almost unconsciously found myself doing, is trying to decode the speakers' intonation, in each and every of these interactions. As I listened to my interlocutors, I was matching contours in my mind, and linking them to the phonological theories and abstract meanings, and communicative values I recalled from the bibliography. 

In general, it all went pretty smoothly, and I think (or hope, rather) my interlocutors did not get to notice, until.....until something went wrong. The moment I could not place a certain contour in the "boxes" of my mind, the moment the intonational contour did not seem to match the pragmatic meaning I thought that utterance was projecting, then both the words and the contour would disappear from my short term memory, and I would miss my cue. These mismatches completely led me astray.

Of course, it could easily be claimed that I was forcing my attention to be split into decoding the actual meaning and decoding the form. After all, I do this all the time when I watch films or series, and I even echo certain utterances when they are interesting, intonation-wise (and I've taken to doing this for Spanish as well!). But I guess that there is something in the face-to-face, synchronous, live nature of communication which appeared to add some extra difficulty to my ability to sustain attention and decode at the same time.

These experiences led me to think about my Phonetics II dictations. I have to admit I am not a big fan of dictations, myself, though I somehow acknowledge their contribution to the course and to the learning process. (I do have alternative ideas to test these skills, however. Who knows, I may introduce some big changes to my 2015 courses.....). What I notice in my students' dictation papers is that their focus is so greatly placed on the form, that they sometimes fail to decode certain items or whole utterances because they are not making sense of the meaning. I do, in general, provide a short context, but as students have so many "on-the-task" concerns, as they are, in fact, being assessed through dictations, there is no room for meaning. In this respect, I attended some thought-provoking talks at the conference in UNSAM by professors at Universidad de La Plata and also Universidad del Comahue, who presented some very interesting activities to contextualise dictations and make them "meaningful". There is also a research paper on dictations and pragmatic expectancy grammar by my friend and colleague Francisco Zabala that also discusses these issues. So I guess that one thing is what we expect to hear, another is what we hear, and yet another thing is what happens when these two factors interact in an activity that is to be assessed and marked.

So in my introspection as to what "blocked" my ability to start producing answers straightaway whenever my interlocutors nominated me to produce the next turn, I found another element - an affective element. I guess I also feel I am being assessed. Probably not by my interlocutor, who is genuinely communicating with me, but by my own personal expectations and misconceptions, and even, obsession, regarding the intonation I feel I should hear, and the one I should produce "in return". I am assessing my own knowledge of the intonation systems of English. I am probably, even trying to still find evidence that some of the theories I have read do work. I am even, I guess, trying to find answers for the things I can't explain, theoretically-wise.

Looking back, affective issues and self-esteem are important in my ability to comprehend spoken language. I had this experience in the streets of York (my favourite place in the world, by the way) last March. As I was walking, a lady who was selling Avon products approached me. She asked me a question with a rising tone that completely lost me. I could not get a word she said and I started feeling hot and red in the face. I replied with a high rise "Sorry?", and she repeated the question. I felt so ashamed about having lost it again, that I risked a "No, I'm afraid" as an answer, and I got a "Oh, that's why!", which made me feel so puzzled and embarrased that I just uttered "I am sorry, I have to go" and stormed off. I kept thinking, as I walked away, that if I had said "Sorry, I don't understand" with a Spanglish accent, I would have received a more intelligible answer by this woman. And I think that this is what made me so angry at myself. (Shrink alert!)

All in all, this post has been an attempt to present some feelings regarding intonation and comprehension in a personal diary style. I guess that some of you out there have experienced similar situations and emotions regarding listening comprehension. If you are studying phonetics and writing dictations, you may even find some of these frustrations familiar. I'll try to "relax my grip", or as someone has suggested, "suspend my knowledge" on my next interactions with English speakers to see if things change. I'll keep you posted!

P.S. I am sorry if any of my readers happened to be one of the people in the occasions I described. You are then duly warned that you may encounter an intonation-freak in our next meetings....

martes, 11 de noviembre de 2014

The "Voldermort Effect" of second/foreign language learning: Another reflection in passing

The usual disclaimers: I have tried to make this post as spontaneous as possible. There are a number of lexico-grammar, pronunciation and intonation issues I would definitely correct, but I have decided not to. And, YES, I might be a bit looney. But if you don't see yourself reflected in at least one of the remarks I make, I seriously doubt you speak a second language.....


sábado, 18 de octubre de 2014

"Non-Native" Accents and Chastisement: Reflection in passing

These last two weeks, I have been engaged in conversation with friends and with colleagues from different parts of the world who, for some reason or other, ended up discussing pronunciation issues with me. This is a post which will only take me twenty minutes to write, but I did not want these thoughts to "fly by".

I could not help noticing that in each and every of these weeks' exchanges with these colleagues, there was common feeling, a shared assessment of the whole "non-native accents" experience, which I dare call "chastisement". These are some of the situations I have witnessed to or been told about:

  • At one of the places where I work, a teacher trainee was "chastised" for using a glottal stop instead of a final /t/. I myself have been "chastised" for producing a glottal stop intervocalically.
  • A friend was in the United States and was "chastised" for attempting a "native like" accent (and a British one at that!) and not going for an "Argentinian Espanglish" instead. Another friend had a similar questioning look by someone from Israel, who was also a teacher trainer.
  • A student was "chastised" at work for not attempting a "native like" accent in his communication with North American customers and going for a "more global variety" of English, (if such a thing actually exists, beyond Jenkins' ELF Core, I mean).
  • A teacher trainer was "chastised" for upholding RP as a model. Another teacher trainer I know was "chastised" for attempting an Estuary English-like accent (no time for a debate on the "existence" of this accent here!) as a model. A group of students have "chastised" these two teacher trainers for not upholding a General American accent instead.
  • A methods teacher "chastised" a phonetics teacher trainer for not expecting an "international English" approach for her trainees. The phonetics teacher "chastised" the methods teacher for downplaying the expectations teacher trainees had for their own accents, and language proficiency in general. The teacher trainees "chastised" both teachers for not considering their expectations of a more modern variety of standard British English or American English accents for themselves.
I was wondering, having been "chastised" myself , whether the "chastisers"(myself included) had cared to ask the objects of their criticism:
  •  What type of accent they wanted, what model speakers they have got in mind. I know what accent I want, at least! and I ask my first year trainees what model speakers they have in mind (I have received answers to this question with models from Harry Potter movies, American series, even a Nigerian poet, the accents their previous teachers of English proudly "sported", and one student who said she wanted to have her mum's accent...sweet!)
  • The reasons behind their personal choice of accent: preference? imposition? didactic concerns? identity? 
I guess that in any side of the scale, we can all be "chastisers" and "chastisees" (!?). At times we read the newspapers, and we see how the British appear to react to RP as an  acrolect and to certain basilects as well, and I wonder whether we are not doing the same, whether we uphold General British, or RP, or General American, or an Australian variety of English, or even English as Lingua Franca as an approach to pronunciation. I can't help feeling a certain "guilt", given that what I do is, in a way, "accent reduction" (awful as it sounds!), but at least I try to be empowering in my teaching of Phonetics, so that in any moment of their careers, my teacher trainees can end up selecting any accent of their choice by knowing the basics of articulation and transcription (my knowledge of Phonetics, for example, has allowed me to learn French phonetics even knowing very little French!).  I introduce my teacher trainees to the complexities behind pronunciation teaching and the factors involved, and we consider in the last courses during their training what the different "accent needs" of our English learners in different scenarios might be, and what learner expectations they may encounter.

I won't stop feeling guilty, but what makes me feel a little bit better is the fact that I know my context, I know my trainees want to have a great command of the language, and I know about the limitations we may have in our teaching contexts as well when it comes to trying to cater for the linguistic needs and wants of 20-35 students per class. Which does not mean there is a lot of thinking to be done. And I've got another 30 years of teaching ahead of me, so surely a lot will change, a lot of new voices will be heard, and I hope, plenty of updates will be introduced.

I guess that just asking questions and recognising oneself both in the role of "chastiser" and "chastisee" is a great starting point for change, or at least, for some common sense.

An afterthought. I have edited this post for linguistic "horrors" (just a turn of phrase) a couple of times today, as I initially typed it in a rush at 4 in the morning.
I am currently doing in--service pronunciation training, and I am working with graduate teachers who need to improve on their accents, and being able to help a teacher who wants an American accent after being exposed to a British variety during her training has been a great challenge, and a great joy. 
As I was re-reading this post, I couldn't help thinking about my ideal Laboratory Practice classroom, one with no time concerns or technical limitations where I could have training materials for different accents and cater for different individual interests.

I would like to enter the Lab on day 1 and say, "what English accent  would you like to have as a future teacher or translator?". And then have parallel syllabi, parallel sets of training materials, time to teach a general class AND to give individual feedback....If you ask me, that is what I would like to do! 

martes, 7 de octubre de 2014

Phonetics-To-Go: Mobile Apps for Pronunciation Practice

Today I made a very humble presentation at one of the Colleges I work at, and the one I graduated at as well, for the annual "Jornadas", organised by a special commission in the English Department called EDAPI.
Bad hair day, as usual :p

I have decided to call the presentation "Phonetics-To-Go", as I have mostly done a review of some free or "low-cost" mobile apps I have found that allow you to take pronunciation with you, everywhere!

A few disclaimers:

  1. I have only reviewed free apps, free trials and some 1-dollar apps. I know there are brilliant paid apps out there, but they exceed the scope of my presentation...( and my pocket at the moment!.)
  2. The inclusion of these apps in my PowerPoint slides does not entail any endorsement. During the presentation I listed some of the pros and cons of each app and made a point of whether they include ads or require further payment, for instance.
  3. I have focused on a few apps and a few skills. I know there are more advanced apps out there that allow you to work with spectograms and waveforms, to mention but a few, but I have addressed the profile of my audience and I have mostly focused on ELT.
  4. I don't get any benefits out of reviewing these apps. Feel free to try them, and test them, install them or uninstall them, but do so at your discretion.
  5. Not all apps will work on all devices, in spite of the operating system. For example, the apps for Blackberry only run in BB10 devices.
  6. Before downloading an app, always read its description, check the company/individual behind the design, and particularly focus on the "permissions" you need to grant for the app to work on your device.
  7. What to do with these apps and how to apply them in your lessons is a choice you will need to make for your own groups, levels and culture. I will, in the future, devote a post to possible uses for these apps.

Having made all the preliminary remarks I thought fit (faithful to my usual quest for "down-to-earthness"), here's the PowerPoint for you:

Phonetics-To-Go from PronunciationBites

Hope you find these apps (and my warnings) useful!

sábado, 13 de septiembre de 2014

Conference Report #1: III Jornadas de la Didáctica de la Fonética (UNSAM, August 29th, 30th - Sept 4th, ENSLV JRF)

I attended a truly enriching event two weeks ago: a conference on the teaching of Phonetics, called " III Jornadas de la Didáctica de la Fonética", at Universidad de San Martín and the "Post-Jornadas" at "ENSLV Juan Ramón Fernández".
This post will be an attempt at reporting some of the highlights of the conference, at least according to my own personal interests. The pictures of the slides are a bit blurry but you can enlarge them by clicking on them, at least.

The conference started with a recorded interview to Alan Cruttenden by Mgtr Roxana Basso, which tackled points such as the use of the label "General British" and the motivations behind that choice (which I'd seen Jack Windsor Lewis explore years ago here) and the current associations in the media with RP. Mgtr Basso also discussed the future of the so-called Estuary English, to which Cruttenden, as many such as Prof Wells have done, agrees it will not become a future standard or "replacement for RP" as some people have claimed. Some interesting bits that were mentioned that make instruction and priorities for pronunciation teaching different from the ones ELF may propose were related to the role of word stress and hesitation pauses, which help learners become "native sounding", if that is the aim. There were quite a number of interesting views in these 20 minutes, and I could not take them all down, but the videoconference by Basso-Cruttenden will be made available online soon, so I'll link to it HERE once it is online.

The opening panel was brilliant, and I particularly enjoyed the presentations by:
  • Alejandro Renato, who is working on an "intonation map" of Argentinian accents of Spanish using Sp-ToBI, from a connectionist perspective of perception. Renato mentioned the complexities behind the study and systematisation of intonational features, including the effect of sonority and duration, for example, in the measurement and meanings of contours, the need for a consideration of a "microtonal" dimension, and the multiplicity of dimensions operating and the amount of different layers of info encoded in a single contour. Brilliant remarks included the fact that human processing time is not lineal, as we work on different "temporal windows". There was also a critical review of ToBI.

  • Leopoldo Labastía, made a fantastic presentation on the ways we mark foreground and background information in Spanish and English through tone and focus (in my humble opinion, the best talk at the conference):

  •  María Emilia Pandolfi, an expert in the Phonology of Italian, discussed different activities to make pronunciation work more significant, communicative and contextualised.

On Friday afternoon, I made the most of the talks by:

  • Francisco Zabala, friend and brilliant colleague, who discussed ways of teaching Phonetics I from a top-down perspective. He has found that making students aware of stress, the contrast between content and function words, and the overwhelming presence of schwa, together with a few rules of thumb regarding spellings, can ensure student success in transcription and pronunciation.
  • Marisol Hernández,  teacher and actress who discussed some ideas to relate our pronunciation work to drama, and made a point of how talking another language is a way of "staging something through our bodies" 

  • Gonzalo Espinosa, Alejandra Dabrowski, Leopoldo Labastía from Universidad Nacional del Comahue reviewed the functions and intonation of cleft and pseudo-cleft sentences in English and Spanish and showed some great integrative materials for the Language and Phonetics lessons. I was truly inspired by the way they have managed to design instructional materials which place prosody in context and lead students towards using intonation naturally.
  • Adriana Cáldiz et al from Universidad Nacional de La Plata who reviewed different theories relating politeness to prosodic choices.

And later, I also made my own presentation on
ways of teaching the prosodic configuration of instructional discourse, based on my 2013 research and on the type of work I have been doing on Systemic Functional Linguistics and Discourse Intonation in the last two years, with my Lab 3 and 4 and Phonetics 2 courses.

Saturday morning was also interesting, with inspiring talks by 

  • Andrea Perticone, another colleague who has a great brain for Phonetics, particularly everything acoustic. She presented her preliminary findings on the way we hear tones, and particularly on what happens when there are "non-prototypical" tones, in our context, those tones that go beyond the "mould" presented by O'Connor and Arnold, which dominates our teaching of tones from an imitative perspective. There were thought-provoking remarks on micro-prosodic effects that need to be considered for pitch measurement (pitch scaling, intensity, duration, the temporal dimension) which ToBI may not consider; issues of stylisation and compression, and allotony. Looking forward to hearing more on this, it was great!

  • Lucía Rivas and  Miriam Germani from Universidad Nacional de La Pampa, who are also working on the prosodic configurations of genre from a SFL perspective (they are like my intellectual soul-mates!). They discussed their experience teaching intonation and discourse, and the need to get away from mere taxonomies to engage in discourse analysis proper, not only discussing linguistic but also paralinguistic features of text ypes.

  • Diana Martinez Salatín, who reported on an experiment relating pronunciation to transcription errors from interlanguage phonology theories.
There were also talks by colleagues from UNLP and UNCo stressing the importance of doing contextualised, significant dictation and pronunciation practice with authentic materials.

I missed the talks by Miriam Germani on Storytelling, and Ana Irazábal (Phonology FB page editor!) called "Funology", which I would have loved to attend, but concurrent sessions are like that.

On September 4th, the "Post Jornadas" took place at Lenguas Vivas Juan Ramón Fernández. My colleague Francisco Zabala made a presentation on the connections between phonetics and listening in our context of speakers of Riverplate Spanish learning English, and he reviewed some of the issues that affect comprehension and intelligibility. There were also some live comprehension experiments which proved how complex the whole process can be.

Almost a century of English pronunciation teaching in my country!

The next speaker was Patrick, a language assistant from the US, who commented on Upspeak, and some findings from the original paper on "Jeopardy" by Linneman. The presenter also made connections with political discourse and presented his own hypotheses on the matter.

Finally, another presentation by Andrea Perticone. This time, she discussed some connections between the Gestalt (notions of figure and ground) and issues of focus and tone in English, with clear examples and illustrative videos, very useful for learners. (And my intelligent phone run out of its unintelligent battery, which is why I don't have any pics, I am afraid :( )

Whenever I attend a conference, I generally feel excited about the networking, even more thrilled to learn new things, but I also cannot help feeling a bit miserable when I find that most of the research I do is self-imposed, non-funded, and that attending conferences generally means asking for the day off and getting that money discounted from my salary because the red tape in the City of Buenos Aires for us in tertiary education is just so impossible. 
Anyway, I believe this conference was brilliant, as I have found like-minded people doing work on prosody more even than before, and to see we all come from different places and traditions and still see eye to eye, and that we all "dared" trod the path of intonation and meaning, which many people fear so fiercely, was just inspiring, and I am really grateful for the experience.

So here's the bunch of us, like-minded Phonlings from ISP JVG, ENSLV JRF, UNCo and UNLPam phonetising over food! Obviously!

It is always the case with concurrent sessions that you miss out on a lot of presentations you would ehave liked to see, so I am not reporting on all the papers, obviously. If you are curious, the whole programme and presentation titles are available HERE. And I have made a summary of my live tweeting below:

viernes, 29 de agosto de 2014

Tools & Apps #1: Typing IPA symbols

Today: How to insert IPA fonts in a document, website, mobile device....and more!

(Disclaimer 1: I know there are lots of posts on this in pronunciation- and tech-related blogs, and there are many tools I am not reviewing here, which you can consult in my Scoop.It collection at the end of this post. I am just presenting the ones I myself have found useful, with the usual warnings and "user discretion" advice!)
(Disclaimer 2: I have tested these tools on a Windows 7 and a Windows 8 computer, and on mobile devices running Android 4.1 and Blackberry 10.2 versions. I cannot help those Mac/iOS users out there, I fear, though some of these may work on these systems as well.)

The easy way out

There are a number of "phonemic typewriters" on the web you may want to try out. In general, all you have to do is to click on the keys and transcribe your desired words/passage. You then select your transcribed text and copy and paste it on Word, on the Web, on Twitter, on Facebook, you name it!

  • I have found David Brett's typewriter really useful when in a rush, for a basic broad transcription, though given some recent changes to GB you may not find all the symbols you need. 

    David Brett's
    Pete McKichan's Phonemic Script Typewriter below works similarly.

If you need to go for narrow transcription with different diacritics and symbols for other languages than English, you may try Typeit .

Weston Ruter uses the IPA chart to function as a typewriter. Great resource if you need to be reminded of the place and manner of articulation of the symbols you are typing, among other features:

Even easier? Think again!

Yes, dear students, we've known about these for YEARS! And I have trained my eye to recognise transcriptions using these tools. Because what matters in the end is the rule behind the use of a certain sound for a certain spelling, or the choice of a particular weak and strong form, these websites may not be "the coolest" thing to use (especially if you have to sit face-to-face exams, where your knowledge should come straight from your head!). So, yes, these resources may be time-saving, but not grade-savers in the end. So think twice before using them to complete your homework transcriptions. And if you do use them, check the transcriptions against your spelling and weak-strong form rules, trying to account for every bit transcribed, or attempting to spot "errors". 
(Now, having made my usual "witch lecturer" warning, off to reviewing these tools)

Some websites offer a text-to-pronunciation transcription. Yes, they do! I myself have used them to prepare some keys to transcriptions or dictations for my lessons, but found I had to use up quite a lot of that time I thought I'd saved correcting errors or making more suitable choices of pronunciation. 

One of the most popular among my students (Busted!) is PhoTransEdit. You can see from the capture what I mean about "correcting mistakes", but I have to admit it is one of the most accurate tools of this kind I've found so far in spite of some "horrors":
Lingorado offers a similar functionality, but uses /ɛ/ for British English /e/, and it also presents a few issues with weak and strong forms and happY, for instance:

Many of these have iPhone, Android and Windows 8 mobile versions, which makes IPA-typing on your mobile or tablet easier. Other mobile apps I have tried on Android and Blackberry 10 include:

Multiling Keyboard: I found this integrated keyboard hellish to use at first, but once I got used to it, I could type IPA really easily. You just need to get acquainted with the location of the symbols on the keyboard and learn some swift movements to make your choice, but the keyboard includes diacritics as well, and I believe all the trouble is worth it. I have produced transcription keys on the spot for my learners, typing almost at the same speed rate they were handwriting their symbols on the page!

Phoneme Converter: if you are familiar with the shortcuts for the IPA symbols to type on a PC (see below), then this tool is going to allow you to type really fast using ASCII-IPA (say, using the @ for /ə/, for example) in order to paste your text later anywhere on your mobile device. This is a capture of its use on a Blackberry 10 device, though it is in fact an Android app:

A bit more challenging, but worth it! 

Indeed, having the IPA fonts in your computer does make things easier for us, and yes, it does pose a bit of a challenge. But once you are over the initial struggle of download and installation, all you need to do is remember the codes to type those symbols that just "don't look like regular letters", so to speak.

UCL (includes also a phonetic keyboard):  http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/resource/phonetics/
  • How to install the fonts
Some of the websites above present the fonts as "packages" which "self-install" the fonts with the only task of downloading and opening the file. Some others, however, require manual installation.
If that is the case, on a Windows computer, these are the usual steps:
1. Download your fonts, and if zipped, unzip them.
2. On the File Explorer, copy them (or select them and click "ctrl + C") as you would do with any file.
3. Open the Control Panel. Double click on "Fonts"
4. Paste your files (or click "ctrl + V")
That should do the trick!
  • How to type the symbols
If you use a word processor, for instance, you just need to identify the name of your font and select it on the list of fonts,  in much the same way you change from Arial to Times New Roman, for example. 
The symbols that look like letters, so to speak, are typed directly, and if you need to consult the way of typing in the other "foreign-looking" symbols, you can check the article below:
(Mind you, there is a "logic" behind the system, with the velar nasal /ŋ/as a capital N (shift + n), the STRUT vowel /ʌ/ as a capital V, the NURSE vowel /ɜ/ by pressing "3", and so on! You'll be up to it in no time!)


Regarding intonation, things may be a bit "rough", particularly if you use tonetic marks, unlike the conventions used for ToBI that use letters and some (*%!-+) symbols.
Those keyboard tools that offer diacritics do have tone marks you can use, and the fonts listed above also present a few, particularly the one on intonation at the UCL website.
At times, however, it appears to be more useful to use arrow marks with superscript and subscript formatting options . Some people  use slanted lines \ /, others, following the conventions of Discourse Intonation, place words on different lines to show key/termination variation.
These may be just some ways of coding your transcription for intonation, which will depend on your chosen theoretical framework.

Truth is, marking different levels of key and termination may prove a bit of a struggle. There are a few fonts going round, but as I cannot accurately trace the source, I cannot post them just yet. Should I get permission and a reliable source, I will make them available here, I promise! 

IPA tools: My bag of tricks

As usual, here's my full collection of resources to type IPA symbols.
 The links to some of the resources reviewed here will be found in this collection, as well as many other tools I have not reviewed because of their price, effectiveness or accuracy. You can check them out and tell us about your own experience in the comments box below.

A final word

Being able to transcribe on your PC or your mobile gives you the chance of not only showing the pronunciation of a particular word or phrase on the spot, but also, and more importantly, it gives you the freedom to design your own flashcards, acrostics and other teaching materials on any web platform or piece of software. If you use the typewriters, for instance, you can also embed the symbols on Facebook, Twitter, and your blogs and platforms, allowing us "phonfreaks" to share knowledge or code "secret" messages for other "phon-nerds" worldwide!

sábado, 16 de agosto de 2014

Pronunciation and Grammar: The regular simple past inflection -ed

One of the things I try to instill the most on my teacher trainees is that pronunciation can easily be taught alongisde other language areas and skills. I have found this makes many teachers feel relieved and more confident about teaching pronunciation in the EFL classroom, as there are generally many myths and misconceptions regarding the way phonology should be tackled in the lesson (more on this on a future post!).

One of the obvious choices of pronunciation features to teach together with grammar arises when the simple past is taught, specifically the regular past inflections -(e)d.  

The Rules
A brief review of the way the rule goes:

We look at the infinitive form of the verb:

  • If the last sound is voiced (except for /d/), we use /d/.
  • If the last sound is voiceless, except for /t/, we use /t/.
  • If the last sound is /t/ or /d/, we use /ɪd/ (in other accents of English, /əd/ also possible).

This constitutes a great opportunity for students to become familiar with the concepts of "voiced" and "voiceless", to feel the vibration of their vocal folds for voiced sounds by placing their hands on their throats, or covering their ears to feel the "buzz", or sensing the vibration on the top of their heads upon the production of a voiced sound (the contrast /s/ /z/ (the "snake" and the "bee") is generally a great choice!).

Other teachers "shun" the presentation of voiced/voiceless contrasts by teaching this rule by referring to spellings . In my humble opinion, why complicate matters further by engaging the memory in endless lists when in fact voice/voicelessness can be "felt"!

A few warnings!

I feel it is my "moral duty" to make a few observations regarding the pronunciation of regular past tense endings and their teaching:

1. We cannot assume students will know how to pronounce all the infinitive forms of the  verbs they encounter, and they may make mistakes. For example, a Spanish speaking student not yet familiar with the sound /dʒ/ may deem the last sound in the verb "judge" to be a /ʃ/ or a / tʃ/, for instance. So this will result in the wrong choice of -ed pronunciation.

BUT, more importantly....

2. The contrast /t/-/d/, to be honest, is not always kept. Why? Well, simply because in final position before silence, or when followed by a voiceless sound, /d/ will present varying degrees of devoicing [], that is, it will lose vocal fold vibration during the whole or part of its production, and will thus approximate /t/ in its production. There will also be no audible release if followed by  affricates or other plosives, or by silence (optional, according to Tench 2011:66) , or subject to delayed release if a homorganic (a consonant sharing the place of articulation, in this case, alveolar), follows. That is, the final stage of the /t, d/ will not be heard, you will be keeping the release "to yourself", so to speak, till the next plosive is produced. A more technical discussion of this can be found in this blog post by John Wells. Another very interesting and illustrated discussion of these allophones can be read about in Knight (2012).

So what should I be focussing on as a teacher? Primarily, vowel length. Vowels preceding the ending /d/ will be longer; compare: complained [kəmpleːɪnd], complaint [kəmpleˑɪnt]. It has been established by both ELT and ELF pronunciation experts that vowel length may be an important source of confusion and unintelligibility at times, so it is something worth teaching at some point or another.

You could also work on the avoidance of an "exaggerated" ending to work towards a non-audibly released /t/ or /d/ in the contexts where release is not usually heard. However, I know many teachers who would prefer an exaggerated production of the ending as "proof" that the past tense is being produced. And I have to say, it may pay off in oral Language and Grammar exams! Better to be heard producing the past than having to explain (if you are ever given the chance!) that in fact you know your Phonetics theory well!

BUT, even "worse"....

3. When these past forms are followed by other words starting in consonants (except perhaps /h/) resulting in a cluster of three consonants  in which /t/ or /d/ are medial, these past markers can, and sometimes are, elided, as Tench (2011:96), explains. Cruttenden (2014:314) describes the tendency of elision of voiceless continuant + /t/ or voiced continuants + /d/ followed by a consonant at word boundary: finished late /fɪnɪʃt leɪt/ , refused both /rɪfju:zd bəʊθ/. Similarly, elision will apply in combinations of voiceless plosive/affricate + /d/ or voiced plosive/affricate + /t/: , looked like /lʊkt laɪk/, rubbed gently /rʌbd dʒentli/. Cruttenden claims that it is the context that makes up for the lack of the past tense marker in these cases.

Jack Windsor Lewis, however, claims they are generally not elided if followed by an obstruent or nasal (#11 - here) and focuses on the producing of the right non-audibly released allophones instead.

So what do we do?

If we want our teaching of English to be "enabling" and "empowering" for our learners, we need to teach the rule as it is. We may focus on the contrast /t/ - /d/ to different degrees depending on the objectives our class needs to meet, but I personally believe there should be at least a contrast between some sort of [t] sound (be it an attempt to a devoiced [d̥] or other "version" of /t,d/) vs /ɪd/. Students' rendering of past forms often include an overgeneralization of the rule, with varying versions of the /ɪd/ ending produced for all verbs, [wotʃedwotʃid] even [ɣwotʃid]  for "watched", to mention a very common example. So I claim that there should be at least a contrast between the /ɪd/ ending and some other variant for /t, d/, which you will define according to your students' needs and level.

Truth is, with this basic two or three-sided contrast, we have already got a lot on our plate, as the production of consonant clusters is a huge challenge in itself, and at times, students appear not to produce their past tenses in speech because of the cluster rather than because of lack of knowledge of the past tense in itself, as my colleague Prof Terluk rightly points out.

How do we assess this?

Lists of regular verbs can be used for both perception and production, and different experiments can be carried out by students to check whether the last sound of the infinitive is voiced or not. In my experience, teenagers find this exercise pretty entertaining (Just don't "spoil" it, as I did, by showing videos of the vocal folds in operation....couldn't help myself, I guess!).

The web is also filled with automatic-grading tasks for students to try and identify the right ending (check the collection of resources below) to extend pronunciation work beyond the classroom.

Whenever a written exercise on the simple past tense is checked in class, students may be asked to also pay special attention to their oral rendering of the past verbs. My secondary school students would deem an answer given by a classmate as "wrong" if the past tense was not pronounced correctly, even if the written version was correct. Thus, you can always make the most of a "boring" grammar exercise check to practise pronunciation! (Killing two birds with one stone, that is!)

For a successful grammar-pronunciation integration to take place, the production of the 
-ed ending needs to be monitored and, yes, assessed. A very successful task I tried on my secondary students consisted in their planning and recording a criminal confession (the unit was related to "Crime") in which at least 10 regular past verbs had to be used. They would then have to self-assess their production of past tenses by counting the number of regular past verbs and the number of -ed endings produced correctly in their recording, to give themselves a percentage of correct answers. These percentages would then be "double-checked" by a classmate. This helped me realise that at times students are harder on themselves than we teachers can be with them, feedback-wise!


As usual, here's my share of collected resources to practise the application of the -ed rule:  http://www.scoop.it/t/pronunciation-bites/?tag=ed+ending

Hope you have found this post useful, and as usual sorry about having to reveal the "dark side" of a topic which, at first glance, appears to be easy to teach. When you've given it enough thought, you will notice it is indeed simple to teach, and you will, of course, make your own choices and adaptations based on your own groups and courses. Good luck!