jueves, 11 de mayo de 2017

Some phon bits I have learned lately - Part 2

Hi! This is another post on bits I have learned, unlearned, or re-confirmed, during my PhD studies here so far. I am already over six months into the programme, and I am starting to feel that combination of extreme happiness because of all the stuff I am learning, and the bitterness of not being able to do any teaching to apply it all.

So what I am doing at the moment is, apart from using this knowledge for my own research, to employ it to revisit my approaches to the teaching of segmentals and suprasegmentals. I know I am probably supposed to get over my past as a teacher trainer, but the truth is that for years in Buenos Aires I would spend my whole summer re-designing materials, re-thinking strategies, taking on board the advice, the criticism and the feedback, and I think I can now take some sort of distance with my previous teaching experience and yet continue building upon it, even if I may not go back to it for a while.

(Warning: this post is possibly addressed to people who have been doing very advanced or specific work on Phonetics in Teacher or Translation Training contexts, particularly Applied Phonetics lecturers in general. It may not be of practical use today to those looking to do intonation or pronunciation work in EFL contexts, but of course, feel free to go over it. My apologies in advance if you were expecting to find something different!)

So lo and behold, a few new findings I have made while reading stuff and auditing modules here:

Tone "shapes" and perception: Something I have always discussed with my colleagues in Buenos Aires is the inadequacy of the description of many intonational contours and combinations to describe real speech. And then, of course, there is always the imperative need to have a system that learners of English and teacher trainees can handle without despair. The tension between how much to say, how much to teach, how far we want to go... 
What I have re-discovered here at York (thanks for the heads-up on this many years ago, Fran Zabala!) is the detail of intonational descriptions made in the 50s, 60s and 70s, which competes with some simplications from the early 70 onwards, made for the sake of learners, such as O'Connor and Arnold's. Mind you, much as I personally find fault with O&A, it has helped me "hear" things, and produce things, and I will always give it credit for that. However, after a while, you do realise that the way you hear things may have been shaped by the way you learned to hear things. So basically, in order to write my transcriptions of spontaneous speech, my supervisors suggested "freeing" myself from the phonological constraints I had learned, as these obviously did not represent what I could hear (though, truth be told, many of these intonational descriptions work quite well in stories, and speeches, and lectures, and some institutional encounters!) . But then, my duty here in York is to describe speech in as much detail as possible in order to study it. So in a way I guess I would still make similar (perhaps now, better-informed) decisions like the ones I made in Buenos Aires if I had to teach intonation to EFL learners and teacher trainees, though I am not sure yet what intonational "menu" I would present, contour-wise.

E.g.: As a researcher in prosody (there! I said it!) working with casual speech, it took me a really long time, and I am still struggling, to characterise other kinds of "head" and "post tonic" movement, to mark intonation unit boundaries, and even, to see combinations and contours that may differ from those described in these traditional materials. Not because I don't hear what is  going on, but actually because theory has encased me a little. Of course, I am not alone in this, and I have been on transcription sessions where we compare our best efforts, and still see that we disagree over a few intonation units in the transcription of real speech (Richard Cauldwell has an interesting article on inter-transcriber reliability here).

Phonological units and descriptions can really play tricks on your ability to perceive what is really going on, but then, phonological descriptions are concerned with meaning-making, with the system, so one can really wonder whether the specifics of allotonic variation are actually important for an EFL learner if they really don't make a difference, contrast-wise (e.g.: does a difference between a wide or a narrow fall-rise actually mark a contrast beyond paralinguistics?  Perhaps, but I would claim that a fall-rise vs a rise-fall-rise, for instance, would mark a very important contrast, at least in terms of how participants in conversation react to them in their responses, but this is not something one sees in intonation materials...).

And then again, phonological units are, after all, analytical constructs: units which may be selected as such on ground that may not always fit the "slippery", "fuzzy" nature of speech.

Once again, the phonetics-phonology tension here.

Paradigmatic vs syntagmatic approaches: Phonology is about contrasts and systems, and perhaps in my training as a teacher of English, I have been more influenced by phonology than by phonetics. In my own reflective practice as a teacher trainer these last years, I kept stumbling upon different phonetic nuances that somehow completed the picture for me, because in many respects, my learners presented difficulties that were rooted in the phonetics of it all, rather than in the phonology. But I cannot help feeling that the boundaries are really quite blurry there.
Anyways. For many years, I have been concerned with paradigmatic, contrast-based approaches to segments and the suprasegmentals. And I feel it is fitting to the type of work one needs to do when one trains a learner or teacher of English. Now, however, I find myself being drawn to syntagmatic, Firthian prosodies (I am just starting on this, so I cannot elaborate much on this yet), and it can be quite challenging, and yet, liberating from those phonological "prisons" I have put myself in. I am sure I will be able to explain this further and in clearer terms some time soon.

Perhaps I can only mention at the moment the extreme importance of co-articulation. Phonemic approaches at times work against our production, as they may lead us to "compartmentalise" or "encase" sounds as if they were free-standing entities. And at times we are so concerned with getting to teach targets that we forget about all those trasitions, changes and adjustments that sounds make when they "meet". And this goes beyond phonological processes of assimilation, or elision, this has got to do with allophones and with co-articulatory processes that organically and naturally happen as one sound transitions into the next (in fact, many of these changes are even anticipated before we get to the next sound!).
This is a discovery that comes with experience, I think, and I have to admit I started paying a lot of attention to coarticulation in the last three years before coming here, as before that I innocently thought that it was enough to teach assimilation and elision late in the year, and also only focus on aspiration, devoicing and release as allophonic processes, leaving other processes unattended. I know better now!

(And yes, of course, these remarks refer to a very specific Phonetics teaching context, far perhaps from the context of the regular English language classroom where we may decide not to go all the way into the features that make up certain degrees of accentedness and rather, focus on making students mutually (or future-ly) intelligible and comprehensible).

It is clear from these last two posts that over this half year I have collected more questions and self-criticism than answers. And I think that is the most valuable thing, really. That is what one needs to do to move forward: break the walls one builds for oneself, transcend the comfortable place, and know that one is not infallible. One has to be honest with the fact that if things worked well in the past, they might not work well forever, and that students change, and that practices need to change. Change is good, and necessary in this ever-changing world, especially for pronunciation.
Perhaps this was the right time for me to start over after all, before I started getting too comfortable in my own teaching "haven" and practice. Only time will tell. But what I do know now, is that all this new learning actually makes sense because I had the chance of teaching all this fantastic phonetic and phonological stuff to many of you in the best way I could with the knowledge and tools I had available back then. And I miss it immensely. And for this, I will always be grateful.

lunes, 8 de mayo de 2017

Compendium of Facebook posts

This is just a collection of a few informal experiments,anecdotes, and nucleus placement rule examples I have been putting together these last few months in the UK. They have all been published on my Facebook page, so this is just a compendium:

lunes, 1 de mayo de 2017

3 years old!

Balloons on the third ...
Source: clipartsgram.com

This month this blog turns 3.

The beginning. It all started because I had a lot to say about pronunciation teaching in my context, after that fab IATEFL 2014 conference where I discussed my experience with E-Portfolios, and got a sneak peek of pronunciation teaching elsewhere. I needed to tell people what we do in Argentina, because many of us love what we do, and we take it really seriously. I wanted a place to write down things I used to say in my lessons but which would probably just stay in my students' notebooks, or class recordings, things I wanted to revisit, or recycle. I needed a place to also have a post-lesson outlet, a place to ask myself questions about what was happening with my students' and my own pronunciation. I guess this blog has also eventually become a sort of diary for me to trace how my thinking has evolved, and to get evidence of a harsh truth I have learned: the more experienced one gets, the more questions and uncertainties one collects.

A new chapter. Now that I am so far away from home, now that I am not teaching, now that I am transitioning from teacher to full-time researcher, I no longer have much of the inspiration that teaching phonetics full time provided me with.  And perhaps I have other aspirations now as well. So this blog is still finding its way, or rather, I am finding my way in this new world. In the meantime, then, I'll continue, whenever I can, sharing with you ideas, reports, reviews, thoughts, anecdotes, in my usual generally informal tone.

Pronunciation teaching today. Now that there are so many other blogs and websites, and conferences (PTLC, EPIP, PSLLT, among others) and a dedicated journal dealing with pronunciation and pronunciation and phonetics teaching, I am grateful I can still have a voice, and I get to engage in dialogue with others. I am so excited to see that more and more people are sharing their pron-teaching experiences from different areas of the world, and I am really looking forward to seeing what others are doing, and how that resonates with my own experience, beyond what you can routinely read in books and papers, which may not have the "dynamism" that online timing has, although those obviously have an academic outlook and may be more systematically based on research. I think that being able to tell others what you do, and how, and why you do it, and see if perhaps it is useful to someone somewhere else, is something that the Internet is good for. And despite the disdain of some academics for blogs like this one, I strongly believe in the value of these informal, sometimes reflective and anecdotal spaces because they are dynamic, and vibrant, and based on experience, and they are accessible to all teachers, and not paywalled. 

(A detour: I study conversation analysis, and one of the values of CA is precisely that of recognising that whatever happens once in  interaction, even if it does not happen again in other interactions, is as valid and interesting for study as what happens a million times. I wonder if the covert "positivist" demands that many people make for pronunciation teaching may be overlooking that tiny important detail that especially for something like pronunciation, we do not all learn in the same way, and that individual work and feedback are essential. So what works in an isolated classroom in a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires may work for that particular group of students or even for one individual, and it is as valid, to my humble mind, as a technique that may work in a hundred classrooms around the world. And I think accent coaches, for example, know this well, because they need to care for the individual, which is something we should all, ideally, do as teachers. So I think teaching pron is both a science, and a craft.)

So, as PronBites turns three, I toast to a pronunciation teaching world where everyone is welcome, and where, hopefully, people will not attempt to bring others down but instead try to build good things in symphony with others (be it the creative activity makers, the ground-shakers, the high brow researchers, the reflective bloggers, the anecdotal ones, the traditional teachers, the innovative ones...), in healthy and stimulating dialogue with other perspectives and views, and in a community-sharing spirit. 

Thank you all, my readers, for these three years of continued support.