martes, 2 de enero de 2018

Bliss & Fear: Teaching an Intro to Phonetics seminar to L1 speakers of English

Hiya! Sorry about my blogging silence. In part it was due to my having finally embraced the fact that I am no longer a pronunciation teacher, nor a lecturer in Applied Phonetics, apart from the fact that this context I am in has humbled me in many ways, and I no longer feel entitled to an opinion in many issues. I guess I have become even more aware of all the things I don't know, and of all the stuff there is out there to learn. However, in this new world I am in, I think I can position myself as an experienced teacher in Applied Phonetics, at least as someone who has held that role for a decade in Higher Education and has learned a lot from success and failure, and at the same time, as a student (re/un)learning a lot of Phonetics, so I think that perhaps the next posts will be written in that "capacity", if you wish.

This time, I will be writing (in one sitting, as usual, so forgive the typos) a few reflections on the most exciting challenge I've faced this last term: teaching a seminar on Intro to Phonetics to three groups of students, most of whom speak English as their L1. I would like to compare this experience to my teaching experience in Buenos Aires, and share with you how I felt in this (terrifying) journey, and what I have learned.

This term at York, I have been in charge of three of the nine seminars in Intro to Phonetics and Phonology for undergrads (mostly L1 speakers of English) in their first year of their BA. We've got students from different BA programmes, including degrees in different languages, and in Language and Linguistics. In Buenos Aires, I taught Phonology (though in practice it was Phonetics AND Phonology) at a Translation programme to Spanish-speaking students with a B2 level of English (I've taught a few other courses, most of them at Teacher Training programmes but I'll be discussing Phon1 as it's the one whose content mirrors my module here at York).

At York students have a lecture every week, taught by the module convenor, and then a couple of days later they come to seminars with their homework and reading (hopefully) done. Apart from these two compulsory hours a week, students can come to backup sessions or office hours for questions or extra practice. My students in Buenos Aires at the Translation programme had three running compulsory hours a week, comprising theory and practice on articulatory phonetics, phonology, transcription, and ear-training.

My task here at York is to help students bridge the gap between theory and practice in the topics of the week, and to guide them in the procedural part of the course, particularly transcription, ear-training, and applied theory. The first term (10 weeks) is all about Phonetics, and the topics covered  include:  the anatomy of speech; transcription types; the description of cardinal vowels and vowels in general, and the classificatIon of different consonant groups spanning the whole IPA chart; allophonic variations in certain contexts and across accents; an introduction to different visual representation types; a few bits on acoustics; and ways of studying phonetics instrumentally and experimentally. Students are asked to take in a full textbook (the lovely "An Introduction to English Phonetics" by Richard Ogden) in two and a half months, and become familiar with and competent in the use of jargon in order to explain articulation. Apart from self-correcting quizzes on the class website, students were assessed during this first term through an essay, in which they had to describe the articulatory sequence (in detail) of their pronunciation (whatever their accent) of the word "pudding". When they are back from their Christmas break, they will have a test on transcription, ear-training, and theory, to bring this first part of the module to a close.

If I look back on my Phonetics and Phonology I courses in Buenos Aires (8-month-long modules),  there were quite a few coincidences in terms of content: even though over there we focused only on General British (with a few remarks on General American), my students learned the classification of vowels and consonants, explained articulatory processes, learned transcription rules and skills, did ear-training/dictation tasks, and engaged in production quite a lot, since the improvement of their pronunciation of English was, in part, the underlying goal of the module.

My Buenos Aires students were assessed in different ways, including recordings of pronunciation practice materials, phonemic dictations and transcriptons, and tests on theory, most of which were mostly related to recognition, and with some exercises devoted to explaining phenomena (the Translation courses were more limited in content than the Teacher Training programmes, where perhaps the accounting of theory was done more thoroughly).

In seminars at York, we discussed sagittal sections and animations of articulation to identify sounds in different languages, drew diagrams illustrating manner of articulation, tried a few simple transcriptions of words in different languages, attempted narrow transcriptions of different accent variations, and we also worked on the production of cardinal vowels and other sounds, to build proprioceptive awareness as a tool towards better perception as well.


A first big difference between by Bs As and my York experience was that in Buenos Aires, I would only mostly focus on a single variety of English, whereas at York, I have had to up my teaching skills for not only different accents of English and Englishes, but also, for the phonetics of sounds in different languages, especially in view of the work that as linguistic researchers students may have to do to describe languages and language change when doing fieldwork, for example.

Another key difference was that at York, most of my students could hear the difference between vowel contrasts of English (perhaps not so much between cardinal vowels at first, or vowel contrasts in other languages), and I hardly needed to make any point of spelling-to-sound relationships. So, for example, in terms of a FLEECE-KIT contrast, all my York students needed to know, was probably the symbols used to represent what they produced or heard, whereas my Buenos Aires students needed to learn associated spellings, and of course, be trained in perceiving them as different from the Spanish i-like target, and from each other. 

Whereas in my own courses in Argentina students needed to integrate the whole awareness-perception-symbol-spelling package, at York it has mostly been a perception-to-symbol challenge, and the building of proprioceptive awareness of what they themselves, as L1 speakers of the language, are producing. I would say my English-speaking students struggled more transcribing what they themselves were producing, more than anything else. It was fun to produce speech sequences in slow motion to identify aspiration, devoicing, anticipatory rounding, not to mention the comparison between different starting points for diphthongs, and TRAP and STRUT varieties among different students in the class (it was fascinating!). I discovered while doing this how all my teaching of pronunciation of L2 had equipped me with tools that my English-speaking students could use to make sense of their own pronunciation, believe it or not!

Another fascinating and scary difference lay in our (my students' vs my) experience of English. I, of course, have the teaching expertise and the theoretical knowledge of Phonetics, but I certainly do not have the experience in accents and in everyday English that my students here at York have. At home, it was perhaps easier to be in "control" of things, since my experience of English and my knowledge and awareness of phonetics was, in general, vaster than that of my students, and we were on an equal footing as Spanish-speaking learners of English. My task here at York forced me to juggle my knowledge from years of reading and teaching with what my students thought they'd heard, to what I think they could have meant they heard. All of this, plus, my getting to grips with their own accents (a huge variety in each group), which also posed decoding challenges on my part every time a question was asked (oh, yes, I had to tune-in very quickly to their accents to make sense of their questions!). 

In spite of the L1-L2 differential, both my students of Phonetics in Buenos Aires and those in York had similar sets of difficulties in the process:
  • getting to know the symbols and associating them to particular sounds
  • building proprioceptive awareness of what they are producing
  • becoming familiar with jargon and using it appropriately
  • making sense of technical texts
  • writing cohesively and coherently

I know I should not make a big deal out of this, but being able to project my slides and show animations and play IPA audio files on the spot for everyone to see/hear, as well as having the opportunity to type IPA symbols, or to show a sagittal section instead of drawing it, has made a big difference. Back in Buenos Aires, thanks to the lack of government investment in educational institutions, booking a projector was virtually impossible (two or three for the whole college!), and I would spend a lot of precious time during my sessions writing transcriptions on the board, or drawing diagrams (with the markers I'd buy with my own money, and getting a harsh voice due to dust whenever I had to clean the chalkboard in some classrooms).  Not to mention the fact that we had no internet connection in some of our colleges, so web resources had to be set as homework. Should I also mention that students would have had no access to up-to-date bibliography if it hadn't been for their lecturer's (let's call it) "good will"?
Yes, my students in Buenos Aires did cognitively "record" a lot of things faster because they were always copying from the board, and engaging in some sort of live-processing of content that some of my slide-staring students at York may not be doing, but the time I have in my hands now to help students experience and see things and read up-to-date stuff rather than to have them copying things from the board, is something I am really grateful for.

My experience of having taught Phonetics before has been an advantage despite my linguistic "disadvantage". It has allowed me to sequence the tasks in a way that I think helped students understand the science behind the theory (I'm convinced that it's all about the way we grade content, after all), and it made it possible for me to predict and anticipate some difficulties that students were going to have (which, self-fulfilling prophecy or not, they did have). I obviously do not have control over all the aspects of course as I did back home, as the lectures are planned and delivered by someone else, the seminar tasks are already set (I did add a lot of things of my own, as I could not help myself!), and even though I mark their exam papers, I have no role in the design of assessment. So in a way, I am delivering someone else's "vision" of how Phonetics should be taught, and even though it's been a challenging thing for me, it's also a good way to learn to see the world and the subject differently (after all, I am on the other side of the world now!)

Of course, I think my undeniable strength as a tutor is my passion. I love teaching, and I love Phonetics, so I think that I may have managed to pass that on a little, with my quirkiness and my cheerful slides, and my constant "could you say that again, please?" to my students, as I attempted to draw their attention to differences among the accents in the room, grinning with fascination as I heard them say the words.

It all goes to show that I have learned an awful lot of Phonetics from my students, to be honest, and I think that on my part (based on the good ratings they gave my teaching at the end-of-term feedback surveys), I have made Phonetics accessible and a little bit more understandable to them.

I'll be back at teaching in a couple of weeks, doing Phonology this time (I have to admit I'm not as excited as I was with Phonetics, which I like better....sorry!), and I hope I can have an even better experience helping students appreciate and understand this fantastic world. And as I do that, learn even more Phonetics from them.