sábado, 25 de agosto de 2018

Full circle: Summer Course in English Phonetics...again!

I'm halfway through my PhD and things are getting really exciting. This also means that I'm digging deeper into the areas of knowledge that are more closely related to my research topic, and I have had to leave a few other areas aside. Pronunciation teaching, unfortunately, had been one of those things I hadn't been doing as often as I would have liked...until now!

The usual disclaimers before we continue: this post may get a bit emotional at first, but feel free to skip the first bit if you really can't be bothered with my trip down memory lane!
(Disclaimer 2: these are my own personal views and do not represent the views of SCEP organisers)

Four years ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a bit of a naive post on my experience at the UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics. I attended SCEP in 2010, and it was a life-changing experience for me, as I got to get a glimpse of the type of academic life I wanted to be part of, and let's face it, who can forget their first time ever in the UK, especially if you are travelling exclusively to do Phonetics! (What's not to love, right!?)

So in 2018, eight years later, I was invited to be a tutor in SCEP, and for me, this has been a blessing in many ways. Having the opportunity to teach where I was once a student (I did it at my school, and of course, I also lectured many years at the "Joaquín" I miss so much!) is really a way to give back a little something of all the fabulous input and care I received and to be grateful for all I have been given.

Apart from having a chance to pour some of my pron-passion in, SCEP was also about to give me another great gift: that of revisiting my practice.  Even though I've always been a reflective teacher, and I've been far more critical of myself than of anyone else, when you are not doing what you used to do for such a long time (I've been away from pron teaching almost for 2 years after a decade doing pronunciation and intonation teaching), and when you can take some distance (literally) from it, you start to see things in a different light. Planning my SCEP sessions, knowing I would be teaching students from different walks of life with different L1s and expectations, was quite a challenge, as it meant having to be well prepared, and yet flexible (which, for a control freak like myself, did feel a bit daunting). So each tutorial became an exercise in finding my old pron-teaching self, and reconciling it with my new research perspectives and newly acquired knowledge. It felt good to have the best of both worlds!

However, I feel that the most scary part of the experience was to face my own prejudice: I thought I would not be able to live up to the expectations of my students, as I thought that presumably, attendees would (rightly) expect to be taught not only by expert phoneticians or experienced pronunciation teachers (which I am), but also, perhaps, by L1 speakers of English. I feel really privileged to have been invited to share in my expertise and to have been trusted with the job, as I find it still a bit hard to shake off my non-native speaker feelings of inadequacy (which, funnily enough, I don't project when I'm teaching, as I feel my job is to empower my students as I help them work on their accents. Funny how we can help and encourage others to get better while still battling our self-consciousness about our own shortcomings or fears). Everyone at SCEP has been really respectful and appreciative of my work, including those L1 speakers of English I was lucky to have as students, so all in all, I can consider my prejudice now officially dead and buried.

So it's been really great to see that tutorials were spaces where we all had something to give as a community, where people helped each other with tips and tricks, as we worked on dialogues and role plays, sang to intonation tunes, or tried vocal warm-ups. I was really happy to get my two L1 speakers of English ready to share their perception of how certain sounds or tones "gut-sounded" to them, while I offered my own technical knowledge of phonetics and my trained ear. At least from my own perspective as a tutor, tutorials are part of the "magic" of SCEP, and mine were a real joy (...and while I type this a part of me will inevitably fear my students did not see it this way....but in my heart of hearts, I really hope they enjoyed the sessions and learned as much as I have!).

But enough about me! Let's talk a bit about the course, shall we?

Sorry! Change of plans. I need to take a detour.
UCL SCEP is turning 100 next year. Anyone who has ever heard of Daniel Jones, A.C. Gimson, J.D. O'Connor, John Wells, Michael Ashby, among many other well-known phoneticians (and linguists in general! I need to mention J.R. Firth!), will understand the relevance of UCL to the world of Phonetics, the great contribution to Phonetics as we know it today, in spite of the different, multiple and varied dimensions that make up present-day phonetics.

Extract from The English Language's Tourist Guide to Britain, by Crystal and Crystal, where the mythical Gordon Square 21 is mentioned.

At the famous 20-21 Gordon Square, where Daniel Jones and J.R.Firth (among other famous phon-celebrities) did their magic.

So even though perhaps there is not so much left of that Phonetics world we used to know  at UCL now, since the interests, concerns, and departments are now different, SCEP retains a lot of what we all remember and love about Practical Phonetics, and I am particularly really grateful for all the work Geoff Lindsey, Joanna Przedlacka, and the wonderful administrator Molly Bennett are doing to keep it running and getting better every year.

SCEP 2010 was similar, yet significantly different in a number of ways to the SCEP I found this year.

The structure of SCEP remains the same, with a pronunciation lecture + tutorial, and an intonation lecture + tutorial - 4 hours of hard work every morning!-, and after lunchtime, an ear-training session, and then another lecture (including talks on contrastive analyses between different L1 phonological inventories, the guest lecture, presentations on present-day SSBE and also on speech acoustics, and reflections and resources on pronunciation teaching). I personally love the "school timetable", as it keeps the course dynamic, and the fact that you share activities with the whole cohort as well as with your own small "community" and your two different tutors, makes for the vibrant and positive atmosphere that I experienced throughout SCEP.

The pronunciation lectures are a bit more varied than in the past, and it's a welcome addition that we would have a lecture on Global Englishes, as well as lectures on changes to SSBE. As someone who spent years obsessed with teaching something like "present-day" SSBE in Argentina, looking at the vowel charts we were offered at lectures and in the handbook felt like a triumph: it was amazing to finally get to see in black and white, and disseminated in lectures, those lovely now fronted GOOSE and FOOT vowels, a higher THOUGHT, a lower TRAP, monophthongised SQUARE and NEAR. Hearing so much about the glottal stop and L-vocalisation at SCEP made me feel grateful I had embraced them in my classes in Buenos Aires. Some of the ear-training sessions I sneaked in at were also truly great exercises on perception skills, reminiscent of the Phonetics Hour I have at York where we do all these impressionistic transcriptions and use the IPA as a tool for representation of what is said (rather than focusing on transcription rules of what we "ought to" hear, which is a point I tried to make during the Q&A panel).

The intonation lectures exploited many of the materials and ways of looking at intonation that UCL academics have traditionally developed, so it came as no surprise that there would be references to Wells, and O'Connor & Arnold and to their well-known contributions to intonation teaching. Those who know about my intonation passion/obsession will know I would have loved to make my own intonation syllabus for the course and tweak a few things, but it's impossible to cram so much intonational content in just 10 days, so I obviously understand that we may need to fall prey to simplifications at times, and students did find them very useful!. I think that the energy and clarity that Jane, Geoff, Sam, and Kate put into the intonation lectures really helped students to get a good grip of something that many people find so difficult to understand.

In terms of academic celebrities, it was of course very exciting to see some familiar SCEP 2010 faces, like Geoff Lindsey (course director), Joanna Przedlacka (associate director), Jane Setter, Kate Scott, Margaret Miller, Inger Mees, Paul Carley, and Masaki Taniguchi (or should I say, the official photographer?).

Geoff delivered a fascinating lecture on vowels and the vowel space with admirable clarity and lovely metaphors. Jane contributed to the course with a refreshing perspective on accents by presenting on ELF and Global Englishes, as well as guiding the more practical intonation lectures (And of course, she was in charge of the end-of-course singing, with artistic/composing contributions from Inger Mees and Kate Scott, and the lyrics and background guitar by Tim Wharton, who was not tutoring this year). 

Joanna got us all wow-ing with a recording of Jones and Firth in 1933 and a comparison with present-day SSBE. Kate was in charge of more functional accounts of intonation -referring to syntactic concerns, a few remarks on affect, and also social rituals-, and also delivered a lecture on phonotactics which I really appreciated, as it invited reflection on how rhythmic needs may bring about changes to citation forms at syllable level. Margaret presented on Spanish vs English phonemic inventories, and also shared her collection of pronunciation- and intonation-related misunderstandings.

Shanti Ulfsbjorninn made a great introduction to transcription, phonemes, and allophones. I especially liked the reference to runes and other scripts and the comparison to the IPA and forms of representation, as well as the very clear explanation of surface and underlying representations.

I personally enjoyed the energy of Paul Carley and the content of his lectures: his very clear introductions to consonants, and a very passionate discussion of pronunciation teaching -including a bit of myth debunking and a couple of uncomfortable truths- were a great contribution to the course.

Sam Wood presented some of English's basic nucleus placement rules, and John Harris discussed changes to SSBE as well as a key distinctions between accents in terms of phonological processes (which made me very Yorkshire-sick = as in homesick, of course with all the references to the FOOT-STRUT merger and lack of BATH broadening...see Wells (1982) or the Dialect Blog for more info on these!)

Mark Huckvale (https://speechandhearing.net/) entertained and instructed us through a really didactic introduction to speech acoustics. I have to admit I was envious of his clarity, and as a fan of his software, I was sooo glad I was sitting in that lecture! 

Another really welcome addition was the guest lecture by Richard Cauldwell. Having a great talk on listening, and on how phonology may inform the teaching of listening in a way which is different to the models we can use to teach production was truly something very valuable to those EFL teachers attending SCEP. Like many of the other lectures in the course, Cauldwell's presentation shook the firm ground of many traditional ways of teaching and even of prescriptive views of applied phonetics, and the fact that students in the tutorials the following days were likening several phenomena to the Greenhouse, or to the Jungle, also shows how relevant and significant this lecture was to participants.

Credit: Masaki Taniguchi
The very last taught SCEP slot is always a Q&A. I kind of cheekily accepted the challenge to join in Jane, Inger, and Luke and tackle all those end-of-course queries. To be honest, I wasn't expecting a personal question, so when asked about what led me to get into phonetics, my reflection on how getting into phonetics and pronunciation teaching may have been a result of a personal "trauma" (tongue-in-cheek) of having to undergo speech therapy as a kid because I could not produce the alveolar trill may have been a bit shocking to hear to the audience, but I think no one can deny that I absolutely love phon and pron and I don't think I'll ever regret having taken this path.

Interesting questions included issues of transcription and levels of detail (in this respect, I would have liked to refer people to the introduction to the Illustrations of the IPA, as well as to chapter 3 of Ogden's Introduction to English Phonetics), syllabification criteria (the words "extra" and "selfish" being a case in point - had to put my phonology hat on to deal with that one and refer to the Maximal Onset Principle, as well as related issues of Legality and Sonority I had no time to mention), the usefulness of cardinal vowels, and monophthongisation of central diphthongs (I did not have time to answer this one, but someone mentioned it was difficult for Spanish speakers to monophthongise SQUARE, and added to the comment by Luke on perhaps speakers actually finding the non-rhotic aspect of it tricky, I would say it's a matter of teaching a slightly lower [e]-like sound: in non-technical terms, asking Spanish speakers to start from a Spanish [e], smile a bit more broadly and lower their jaws slightly to produce a long [ɛ] sound.)
Image credit: Masaki Taniguchi
I think the tutorials are at the very centre of SCEP and shape the overall students' experience. There was a fantastic group of tutors making this possible, whose knowledge of different areas of expertise and practice and research interests, ranging from accent coaches, to phon lecturers, to sign language researchers, made SCEP a really rich experience.
With two fellow "new additions" to SCEP, Luke Nicholson (@ImproveAccent) and Alex Rotatori (@Alex_rotatori) - Picture by Alex. 
But obviously the very core of SCEP is the collective of participants. There was a fabulous group of students, enthusiastic and inquisitive, and at least in my groups, eager to learn and reflect on pronunciation and intonation. Great participants and enthusiastic staff really do make one feel that SCEP is a celebration of phonetics!
SCEP 2018 participants

You will have to come to SCEP to learn about the lectures, but if you want a sneak peek of some of the fun resources used during the lectures in general, I could mention videos of MRIs (of course!), vowel space charts with all these lovely "updated" vowels, some poems (Humpty Dumpty and Betty Botter making special appearances), Cantonese YouTubers, Masaki's Tone Gymnastics, The Music Man Song, Ben Crystal's OP rendering of Romeo and Juliet, among others. (What these were used for, I shall not reveal!)

I feel deeply grateful for the chance of tutoring at SCEP. I personally tried to make the most of my tutorials to share with my students a bag of tips and tricks, my ears and my expertise, and I learned a lot about the phonology of other languages, as well as about the way L1 speakers of English react to and perceive certain phenomena. I have tried to make people enthusiastic about my research interests in the intonation sessions, showing ways in which intonation contributes to the construction of meaning and social action alongside the whole range of verbal, non-verbal and pragmatic resources, and by showing a few tools that may help us visualise intonation on the go (with the possibilities of on-the-spot visualisation that Huckvale's WASP and AMPITCH allow). And in turn, students came up with super interesting questions, and observations, and they were all ready to support each other in their production, giving each other their own tips and help, which I think made for this community feeling we created. As with any other teaching experience, you end up realising you have actually learned a lot as you taught!

I personally feel that SCEP is, in many ways, moving with the times, becoming an even more inclusive and diverse space where the whole scope of phonetics is welcome and explored, upholding the importance and seriousness that the study of phonetics requires, providing teachers and professionals alike with an intense overview of the vast phonetics world, and keeping alive the important phonetics story and legacy that UCL is known for.

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