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....

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