martes, 18 de abril de 2017

Some phon bits I have learned lately - Part 1

(This is an automatic publication of a blog post drafted in February 2017)

During these last few months, I have been re-drafting my research proposal for my PhD, reading lots of biblio, auditing a few modules and writing a couple of sample analytic tasks. Having all these experts around is fabulous, and I have learned a lot, but it is difficult to do justice to the quality of teaching I have received. And that is one of the reasons that led me to stop blogging for a while (though I suspect I won't be able to stay off it for long). I could not bring myself to post improptu stuff that may "misrepresent" my learning and the quality of teaching here.

My life now studying language in use is quite different from my reality six months ago. The truth is that a phonetician in-the-making in a Teacher Training context, at times you get trapped teaching some "half truths". For many years I have tried to live with it, tried to make phonetics teachable, succeeding and failing in the process, but I always held in me that little feeling of inadequacy that came with knowing that the reality of speech is far more varied, and perhaps less explicitly rule-governed than I have allowed my students to see. I have to admit that being able to lecture in Discourse Analysis was liberating, as it was a truly descriptive module, versus my Phonetics courses, which in many respects, because of the context and the limitations of the type of work we had to do were, in many ways, slightly prescriptive. I have always tried to give tools to my students to be able to account for what they do, and for what other speakers of English do, but it is true that still, this was all very limited.

Anyways, leaving my (justified) guilt aside, I can now say that being able to study language as it develops in interaction has released me from the "straitjacket" I had put myself in (mind you, I loved my work and I was quite happy with my teaching discoveries and frameworks, as this blog should attest!). Now I have the chance to see the English language as it functions in everyday life, and I get to analyse snippets of data in great detail every single day, and this, for me, has meant learning, and mostly, as well, un-learning stuff.

In an attempt to start sharing with you some bits I have learned, I will outline a few interesting points that I have been reflecting on as a result of the classes I've taken, and the books I've read:

The International Phonetic Alphabet: we have all known for ages that the IPA has a number of limitations, but being able to study the sounds of other languages (many of which I did not know existed!) helps you see how limited the IPA may be if you play by its rules, and how fuzzy the boundaries between phonetics and phonology, and between what is phonemic and allophonic, really are. Some of these issues were outlined as early as the early 1900s with Henry Sweet, so go figure!
So, for example, in Arrernte (an aboriginal language of Australia), /ᵗn/ is actually a phoneme, that is, it is contrastive with /n̪/, for instance. We had an interesting discussion in a class as to whether is it length that may help us phoneticians impressionistically distinguish this from a nasally released [t], for instance, and it could be one of the possible answers. But certainly, as a tool and a convention, the IPA is really useful, but it may not be enough to capture all the necessary detail. A good take on this is Local and Kelly's "Doing Phonology" (1986) book, and of course, Ladefoged's wealth of work.

Intonation and "meaning": I have, for many years now, found the word "meaning" uncomfortable when teaching my intonation courses, and many of my pedagogical decisions to make intonation "teachable" ended up falling into the unfortunate use of this word. I have tried to focus more on the functions of intonation in the last couple of years, but I may not have been consistent enough. Truth is, intonation as such does not hold any "meaning" and it works alongside the lexis, grammar, the pragmatics, the gestural aspects of the utterance and the sequential position in the interaction to achieve social action and it is made sense of through participant response (in very simple terms!). Intonation is an important resource in the way we make our social actions interpretable to others, a "contextualisation cue" (Gumperz, 1982). We cannot see it in isolation, and we certainly cannot just only work with isolated or artificial examples as a final product, as you can see in many textbooks, still.
Intonation remains one of the most essential, yet undertaught aspects of English language teaching worldwide (this is widely discussed in some chapters in Grant, 2014 among many other books/papers), and I believe a lot of work needs to be done alongside other areas and skills of language in order to help teachers make it "teachable".
Over the years, I have come up with a few solutions for this, and I expect to be able to write something coherent at some point, but not after I have analysed a great deal of data. I am a little bit annoyed with introspective intonation manuals, to be honest, and I think it is time someone did some corpus-based intonation teaching framework-ing! (I am working on a paper on this, I'll see if I manage to put it all together! I know that for someone who claims to have worked sooo extensively on intonation, I have to admit my blog does not appear to reveal it, at all, but I will try to write more on intonation teaching in the future)

Intonation and some particular practices: Anyone who has taken Phonetics 2 with me will know that I have an obsession with chunking, parentheticals, lists, and questions. And the most rewarding thing I have found when I came to York was that there are lots of studies of interactional phonetics based, precisely, on those four topics! And many of their findings do match many of my hunches (yay!), some of which I have taught systematically. Just to illustrate: we are currently working on lists, here, and we have a corpus of 300 lists. Having listened to 198 lists already, I have only found three lists that have the pattern: rise+rise+fall, and these do not look really like lists per se, but rather, as sequences of events. So I was thrilled to see that my insistence in using level tones for some kinds of lists (which I would neatly explain in my lessons with proper theoretical justification from Brazil and friends) holds true really frequently in "real" life (It would be very long and complex to explain at the moment the way I used to teach this in my lessons, it's a well-kept secret between my students and I, ha, but I will, at some point.).
And in terms of questions, I would dare say you will be frowned at here for claiming that yes/no questions have rises and wh-questions bear falls, something I have "banned" in my own lessons. (Just to give you a heads-up, at the moment I am trying to look -informally!- at the intonation of requests with and without "please"...some very interesting things going on there!)

These are some of the bits I have been studying in detail here, both from books and data. And my "informal experiments" at supermarkets, coffee shops and train stations. I will try to share further in future posts (part 2 is scheduled for publication some time in mid-May).