miércoles, 25 de octubre de 2017

Brief colloquium report: The Phoneme: new applications of an old concept

Today I poked my head out of my screen to take a break and attend this very interesting talk by Dom Watt, whose Advanced Phonetics student I'm lucky enough to be at the moment.
Here is the abstract:

And below is my own summary, written in one sitting (as usual!). As always, any inaccuracy or misapprehension of what was presented is entirely my fault. Hope this all makes sense to you!

The talk had the notion of phoneme at the centre, and all the debates existing around its "existence". The first minutes of the talk were a nice overview of the "phoneme" and related notions and ideas leading to it through time: from the contributions of the sanscrit author Patañjali in the 2nd century recognising abstract categories of sound that present variability at the physical level, and the first Icelandic grammarians in the 12th century, to the writings of Sapir in the 1920 and the "phoneme slices" that people claim to have in their languages.

More modern discussions ensued of what the phoneme came to be understood as have been developed by Duriche-Desgenetes (1873), Luis Havet, Badoin de Courtenay (1871) with psychophonetics and physiophonetics, and of course, Henry Sweet in the 1870s and Daniel Jones already in 1911.  In the US in the early 20th century, the notion of phoneme came to surface thanks to Bloomfield.

A few definitions of phoneme were revisted by Watt, especially those by Jones (1957), Watt (2009), and a very quote by Pike (1947): "Phonetics gathers raw material. Phonemics cooks it".

A very useful metaphor to discuss phonemes and allophones was recalled by Dom, that of Clark Kent and Superman as being in complementary distribution, and Superman and Spiderman for example being two different allophones of two different phonemes. (It reminded me that I used to refer to phonemes as any of us, and allophonic variants as us in our roles and attires: at school, at a party....Lately I've turned to Johnny Depp as the phoneme, and his million characters as his allophones, his "realisations" in films...)
Other interesting comparisons were introduced, such as the grapheme-allograph relations in Arabic, or even the number of ways we can represent a certain letter, say "A", which poses a very interesting question: what is the boundary that makes a certain sound no longer the same, how much can variation be stretched, what is the boundary?

Alternative analysis of the phoneme included Trubetzkoy's (1939) phonemic oppositions grounded in phonetics, formal notions of phonemes as bundles of features, as those put forward by Jakobson, Fant and Halle in 1952, based on acoustic analyses of instantaneous "time slices" (somehow looking for the centre of events in the signal). Watt also mentioned a game-changer, the work of Chomsky and Halle (1968), that abandons binarity and allows for phonetic gradation with the introduction of articulatory features in their description.

Watt continued the presentation by referring to the debates on the nature and existence of the phoneme that included quotes from Ladd (2013:370) and Dresher (2011:241). The work by Fowler, Shankweiler and Studdert-Kennedy (2016), who revisit a paper they themselves wrote in 1967, was given special attention, since it provides nine forms of evidence of the existence of the phoneme as an entity, including issues like phonemic awareness, adult visual word recognition, the presence of systematic phonological and morphological processes, the existence of speech errors (spoonerisms), and the fact that co-articulation, as was previously claimed, does not really eliminate the presence of a phoneme.

Of course, as Dom remarks, when we look at MRIs, spectograms and waveforms, we may not so easily be able to see discrete units, but machines seem to be programmed to see the signal as composed of chunks. It was interesting to see a cochleargram, because as Watt pointed out, it does show perhaps more continuity than a wide-band spectogram, for instance.

The second part of the talk discussed phonemes in phonetic work done through speech technology, for forensic and also sociophonetic purposes. It discussed some of the findings by (the absolutely brilliant!) PhD student Georgina Brown, who has adapted the ACCDIST programme by Mark Huckvale in UCL into Y-ACCDIST as part of her PhD research. One of the achievements of Y-ACCDIST is the use of the software for speaker comparison even when the data are not necessarily comparable (ACCDIST works well when all speakers have read the same text). I cannot fully do justice to this part of the talk because there are some technical bits that I am not familiar with, and I don't have a head for statistics, but I'll report on what I could follow:
Some examples of the use of the programme were presented, which include the measurement of distance between possible pairs of phonemes through what is known as a Feature Selection process, in which several features are left out to focus on the ones which are most relevant or less redundant, and that helps modelling.
Comparisons across speakers were run through the programme, and Y-ACCDIST was able to assign speakers to a particular accent with almost 90% accuracy. It was interesting to hear that the programme was more accurate when particular features (and not the whole) set was compared, and also when human intervention in the filtering of features to be compared was added to the speaker accent allocation process.
All in all, Watt concludes, the discoveries of the application of tools like Y-ACCDIST and the evidence provided in Fowler et al suggest that it is too premature to declare the demise of the phoneme.
The question period was interesting, and it included comments on issues like the fact that perhaps many approaches to speech analysis begin from the notion of the phoneme but fail to see what happens in naturalistic speech and what participants themselves feel is relevant, and that there is considerable phenomena that cannot be explained through the notion of the phoneme. There is always a search for robustness in experimental settings that fails to see that what should be more robust is what is actually done in natural situations.

All in all, a fascinating talk, with a lot of food for thought. If you ask me, does the phoneme exist? I would say that it's like magic, you feel it's there but at times you cannot pinpoint the actual trick that makes it work.

domingo, 8 de octubre de 2017

Brief conf report: English UK North Academic - University of Liverpool, October 7th.

Yesterday I got on the train from York to Liverpool (in what ended up being an endless 3 1/2 train-train-bus journey...yes, transport may also fail in Britain!) to attend and present at the English UK North Academic conference (programme here).

It was a really friendly, welcoming environment of teachers of English working in the North of the UK, and there must have been over 100 attendees.  I would like to very briefly report on three of the talks, and then comment on my own presentation as well.

Michaela Seserman from the University of Liverpool discussed the tools she uses in her EAP courses to do pronunciation work. Michaela discussed some important questions we need to ask prior to deciding to use certain apps, and also weighed some pros and cons of each. Seserman proposed a form of integration of the in-built voice recognition systems that smartphones currently hold, the tools that Quizlet offers, and the messaging possibilities of the WeChat platform. Even though it was perhaps not very clear how pronunciation improvement actually came to happen, the idea of teacher and students exchanging audio recordings for practice and dictation via mobile messaging is a very appealing one. As Michaela pointed out, these are tasks that learners can also spontaneously decide to do outside class.

Russell Stannard, the TeacherTrainingVids guy, showed how screen capture software (he recommends SnagIt but there are free alternatives available) can help you give better feedback on written work. So a teacher may videocapture a student's written assignment and give feedback (as we might do face-to-face), by highlighting areas of the essay, for instance, and making oral comments on it, or showing the assignment instructions on screen to point out what may not have been addressed. It reminds me of the type of recorded feedback I used to give my students, and I agree with Russell that this whole idea of personalising feedback and having a sort of "conversation" with the student and the material really does make a difference. It's a way of "being there" when you cannot "be there", while also showing students we care for them individually and that we can address each of their specific strengths and challenges -which in writing we may fail to do clearly, or which may be misinterpreted-.

I particularly enjoyed the workshop on corpus linguistics by Dr. Vander Viana from the University of Stirling. Vander showed us some easily accessible corpora (sorry, readers, but I cannot ensure that this will be freely accessible to you in your context/country) and search engines that we can use to help our students test the frequency, acceptability and likelihood of their lexical choices when writing, or speaking. We discussed collocations, colligation, and semantic prosody (which apparently in corpus ling is different from how we understand it in SFL!), and we reflected on the claim that we actually process speech in an "idiomatic" way (not referring to idioms, but to chunks....it was such a great intro point to my own talk later, to be honest!). Most of the cited material came from Sinclair (1991); McCarthy et al (2005); and Tognini-Bonelli (2001), and you can read Viana's work if you visit his webpage.

I was invited to make a presentation thanks to the generosity of Mark Hancock, who put my name forward (I've thanked him publicly many times, but I believe we should always be grateful to the ones who do nice things for us)...and to make it even better, he got me a PronPack t-shirt! And also thanks to Nigel Paramor.
Even though I know my stuff, it is always a bit intimidating to stand in a room full of native speakers of English who teach English and theorise about their own language. I know it is a silly fear, but I know many other non-native teachers of English will sympathise. Anyway.

My talk ("Intonation building blocks for more comprehensive speaking skills training") was based on the type of speaking tasks that I designed for my Lab 3 and Lab 4 lessons at ISP Joaquín V González and Profesorado del Consudec during the last few years. Some background: most of the work that is done during the final two Applied Phonetics modules ("Lab") in teacher training in Buenos Aires (at least) is related to the application of phonological theory to the production of different speech genres (and for this, I am grateful to Prof. Silvina Iannicelli, because I got my first lecturing post filling in for her at ENSLV SBS in 2006, and she had a course planned along a sequence of texts ranging from rehearsed to more spontaneous text type production, and that sort of sparked my interest in the prosodic configuration of speech genres). As I became a bit more experienced, one of the things that usually made me uncomfortable about the type of work we did in these courses was that most of the tasks were based on reading, and there was always an assumption that intonation patterns were easily/automatically transferrable to spoken situations of language use. (It's a bit like doing a million fill-in-the-gap past tense exercises, and then expecting students to automatically and spontaneously use the simple past in their written or spoken stories.)
Plus, at times we also forget that reading aloud is an ability in itself, and that reading aloud as a result of previous imitation of a recorded model of the same text is also another type of ability that activates other skills and requirements. These are highly useful and valuable steps in the process, but they do not amount to, nor ensure, that the students will appropriate intonation patterns. In my tutoring experience, I have had students producing English fall-rises in reading and Spanish rise-falls on the exact same phrase, on a similar context, when speaking.

So at some point in my tutoring/lecturing history, I decided to change that a little, and to use reading aloud as one of the steps of the process, but then also create opportunities for use in slightly more spontaneous speech tasks in a way that ensures that students need to use certain intonation patterns that have been found to have a certain regularity in specific speech genres, or in connection to certain lexico-grammatical structures.

So, back to EUKN: My talk was about speech genres, and how several speech genres have higher degrees of "writtenness" in them (Eggins, 1994), and how these have perhaps more easily predictable and stable patterns of intonation and chunking; whereas more interactive genres challenge the intonational descriptions as we know them (such in the case of "list intonation", or the intonation of questions).

I put forward the metaphor of building blocks as a means of proposing that for some speech genres, it is useful to see information units (and some lexicogrammatical collocations) as part of the same block that students can monitor as a whole as they plan their next block (rather than worrying about putting together a string of words, one after the next, when they talk).

I have followed a process that goes from the breaking of the dichotomy between spoken vs written texts, into a continuum of levels of writtenness-spokenness (as SFL scholars have done for a couple of decades), and the use of a building block metaphor consisting of LEGO type blocks that occur in more written-like spoken genres (where the blocks have a set role, position, and the final goal is clear), and TETRIS blocks that we may encounter in more interactive texts (where trajectories are built as we go along, and there are lower levels of pre-planning.

I will only be able to share a few of my slides, as I am writing an article/resource on the whole notion and application of intonation blocks (and I'm also seeking psycholinguistic and further classroom evidence), and I owe the English UK North attendees the preview of the full set of slides (because I have authorised EUKN to do so).

Some comments on challenging, through corpus-study, the notions of "question intonation", and "list intonation". How intonation in real life as manifested in different speech genres does not easily exhibit the intonation patterns described in ELT textbooks.

Reflection upon the fact that we generally don't do speaking training in an integrated manner, as we may do with written genres.
Possible (though never definitive, nor exhaustive, nor always fixed, because language use.... ;) ) organisation of different speech genres along a cline.
The building block metaphor I propose to inform lexico-grammatical, sequential and intonational choices.

An example of a production task (which probably we have done in our lessons a million times!) that we can exploit to teach step-ups in pitch, and contrastive accent.
Examples of lexico-grammatical blocks in initial position that do anticipatory work. These have been found to be quite consistent in LEGO types of texts (the ordering and tone choice works differently in interactive texts)
Example of an outline for student production of short conversational stories that focus on grammatical choices and the preparatory (loop) or advancing (increment) contextualisation by rising or falling tones (respectively)

Example of ways in which we can contextualise reported speech through level tones and contrastive stress in TETRIS-like situations of language use (though also common, with direct speech, in speeches, or lectures, LEGO text types)

Examples of ways in which we can create opportunities for use of level tones in conversational lists (vs counting, or sequences of steps where lists may be found to have rising tones)

During the presentation, I systematised briefly some of these (basically, it was like teaching my whole Phonetics 2 syllables in 50 minutes!) and presented a number of activities to illustrate how we can generate opportunities for use of these building blocks, and then, of course, it is up to every teacher to find ways of helping students monitor their spoken texts, block by block. 

I am sure that the idea of working on speech chunks is not new, or revolutionary, but I wish to emphasise how intonation can be an active, essential, part of each of these blocks of processing and production, and how the notion of a block can contribute to students' awareness that linguistic structures work together, making different contributions in the contextualisation of meaning and structural organisation of speech.

(And the refs!)

All in all, this was a really enjoyable event, and very special for me, as I haven't been teaching for a year (starting this week again, yay!) and I spent this whole year trying to find an excuse to write down the principles and ideas that informed my integrative intonation teaching methods when I was lecturing in Buenos Aires. Hope they make sense to you!

(And now...back to my research. Enough productive procrastination!)

P.S.: this post somehow opened up a chest of memories for me, and I forgot to acknowledge another lecturer, Prof. Claudia Gabriele, who in her own way showed me that there are ways of "creating opportunities" for practice of intonation. I was her Lab assistant for a few years, and I was particularly inspired by her use of role plays and other speaking tasks for a more natural application of intonation patterns. Sorry about this unintentional omission in the original post.