sábado, 31 de agosto de 2019

SCEP100: 100 years and 85 iterations of the Summer Course in English Phonetics

It's really crazy to see that a whole year has gone by since I wrote my last blog post. A whole year, four conferences, two awards, three terms of teaching, 140,000 words written on my thesis, and -let's confess-, three blog post drafts that never saw the light of day later, here I am again.

And yes, I'll be talking SCEP (Summer Course in English Phonetics), a super intense and intensive two-week course on English Phonetics (everyone's dream, I know!). I was once again blessed with the fabulous experience of being invited to be a tutor, and on a very special year: SCEP has turned 100! It's not the 100th iteration, though, because of several interruptions, but the first SCEP happened in 1919, believe it or not!

Former SCEP Director, Michael Ashby, and Judith Crompton compiled this lovely history of SCEP sheet, which you can see below (zoom in to read better):

As usual, this is a blog post written in almost one sitting (during a train journey from London to York, and one breakfast slot!), so do forgive any typos and the overall rambling style. I have also collected a few pics, whose authors will be properly attributed. If you want to get a sneak peek of some of the highlights, I would totally recommmend following SCEP on Facebook or Twitter, or checking out the #SCEP2019 hashtag.

The usual disclaimer: The opinions presented here are my own, and do not represent the views of the organisers.

I have discussed my experience as both a student and a tutor at SCEP in the past, so you can read about the structure of the course in those posts. Today, I would like to describe some of the highlights of SCEP this year, and add a few reflections, as usual.

Changes in the venue

My last two SCEP experiences took place in the Cruciform building, opposite the main UCL venue. It was really nice to be in Chandler House this year, though, as it is the current house of Speech Science studies in UCL, and our rooms were cosy, and the right size for our tutorial groups.

The lectures took place in the Eastman Dental Hospital, and it was lovely, in spite of sometimes having to sprint to my tutorials, to walk through the beautiful gardens nearby, chatting to participants and other tutors on our way there.

Changes in the schedule

Student feedback demanded more ear-training, and SCEP listened! This year, there were 2 ear-training sessions most days, one focusing more on segmental, and the other, on suprasegmental features (if you really believe in that separation, that is!). I have not been able to attend many of these, unfortunately, but those I did participate in -as an infiltrated tutor ;) - were lots of fun! Participants were exposed to nonsense words, sequences of syllables with different tones, sentences and passages with different intonation patterns, etc.

As a tutor, it really was a great help to know that participants were covering important aand tricky segmental and suprasegmental contrasts in their ear-training sessions, and it made my job easier, as I could focus a bit more on production.

The intonation lectures were, as a result of this change, put in the afternoon slot, and even though the after-lunch hour may induce some need for napping, the afternoon lecturers were really enthusiastic and energetic, so no one was found to be dozing off -in spite of the heatwave! Singing to different English tunes, or seeing intonation in action in different contexts of use is totally  my own to-go activity after I've had some lunch in the lovely St George's Gardens nearby.

The order of some of the lectures was changed, and I particularly liked this, as I think it made quite a lot of sense to have the lectures on teaching pronunciation (Jane Setter), accents (Geoff Lindsey and Josette Lesser), historical phonetics and phonology (John Harris) and speech science (Mark Huckvale) towards the end. Many of us who have lectured in Phonetics would be shocked to know that by day 3, students had been introduced to voicing, place, and manner of articulation of SSBE consonants, the vowel chart, and a considerable number of allophonic variants, something that any introductory Phon-Phon course would need four weeks (at York, for instance), or almost a whole term (in my experience training teachers and translators) to get to cover!. But that's a Summer Course for you, and of course, trying to cater for the needs of over 90 participants with different backgrounds and degrees of prior knowledge is never an easy task. Having said this, SCEP is really, really good at offering tailored ways of dealing with content in different ways and formats, so that everyone gets theory, training, and feedback, according to their background (more on this below!).

Jane Setter on her Teaching Pronunciation lecture

It was also really nice to see new faces doing the lecturing: this year, Luke Nicholson joined the lecturing team with really engaging sessions on consonants, with some lovely articulatory animations, and some fun memes. The intonation lectures were in the hands of Geoff Lindsey, Kate Scott, and Jane Setter, and the other lectures on segmentals were delivered by Paul Carley, Joanna Przedlacka, and Shanti Ulfsbjorninn (more on the lectures below!)

Luke Nicholson discussing processes of connected speech

Centenary [ˌsenˈtiːnᵊri] activities

In case you hadn't heard  (this became a recurrent joke), SCEP turned 100. Apart from the now traditional picture at the main UCL building portico, there were a couple of key activities to commemorate the centenary.
The traditional picture (sorry about the quality!)

But first, let me mention the goodie bag. Everything was properly branded with the SCEP 100 logo: a mirror-magnet, a pen, a poster with the history of SCEP, and of course, the tote bag.

One of the most enjoyable moments was the Centenary Bus Tour, the geekiest English pronunciation tour you'll ever see! Imagine a red double-decker bus, songs from My Fair Lady, Samuel Johnson's house, Mary Le-Bow bells and Cockney rhyming slang, and yes, Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle! (Check SCEP's Facebook page for proper coverage of the tour!)

The Centenary Guest Lecture was as fantastic as one could expect: the one and only David Crystal talking about paralinguistics, with no powerpoint -who needs slides when you're David Crystal, right!?-, but as engaging as ever!. The lecture started with an anecdotal but really informative account of the interest around paralinguistics in the last fifty years, particularly in terms of what phonetic effects were described more systematically and which were left out of descriptions and models. It felt as if this lecture had been written for me, as Crystal enumerated all the fascinating phenomena that one could study -laryngeal and supralaryngeal settings, laughter, sung quotations - and the challenges of transcription and representation -e.g., how to represent speaking with your mouth full, or the speech boxers wearing their gum shields?. As an interactional linguist -yes, CA did get a mention in the lecture, by the way!-, it felt really reassuring to hear Crystal discussing the kinds of things we've been studying for quite a while, quite systematically. I also share with him the view, however, that more trained phoneticians should engage in this kind of work, and that these phenomena should not be studied away from the pragmatics of it all. (This is my best shot at summarising what went on, but it does not in any way represent the wealth and breadth of Crystal's fabulous lecture. I was clearly too starstruck to make sense of all that was going on!)

We members of staff had a lovely dinner in the main UCL building, which was yet another chance to celebrate the magic and history of SCEP...and for me to talk to David Crystal, by far the most starstruck moment of my life (...only comparable to the time I met my PhD supervisors for the first time, and also, I have to confess, John Local, and Betty Couper-Kuhlen.).

The Lectures

The lectures are always a lot of fun, and I love to see how parts of them change year after year. The great thing is that participants get a handbook with the key content of the lectures, presented in a reallly clear and learner-friendly format, so if you want a copy...you'll have to come to SCEP! I cannot do any justice to all the wealth of content and skill of delivery you can find in the lectures, but I thought I'd mention some of my own personal highlights this year (hope none of my colleagues gets offended!).

I personally enjoyed Joanna's lecture on "how vowels behave", and one of the reasons is that we got to hear Jones, Firth, and Armstrong reading out a dialogue. Oh, the vowels!

I also really liked Shanti's lecture. Some of the participants may have found it cryptic at the beginning, but it was a beautiful illustration of a phonemic inventory task (we do tons of these at York, and I kind of like them, even though I'm not strictly a phonologist!). It was really a nice way to introduce phonemes and allophones without forcing an early definition, a way to get people to reflect on sounds and variants before they actually realise it was all leading towards an understanding of what constitute an allophonic variant, and what is a contrastive segment in the language.

John Harris' lecture is one of my favourites -apart from the fact that I love his accent (well...to be fair, I love all accents, but after a few days of lectures with familiar voices, it is nice to shake up our auditory comfort zone a bit). It was so great to see and hear so many changes in vowels and consonants, going as far as Chaucer's time, and all the way to present day Englishes, including, for example, MLE varieties.

Mark Huckvale's lecture was as good as last year's. I really admire the clarity with which he explains complex things like resonance, formant frequencies, and harmonics, for instance. It is all really neatly illustrated with the always fabulous and super useful suite of RT (real-time) visualisation software , which shows participants who have not done speech research before what can be "seen", and measured, and how the information the software throws at us may bear a relation (however complex) with articulatory processes. This year's surprise was the application of speech recognition to language learning in one particular app: SpeechAce. I was really impressed by the mini-demonstration of the workings of the app's pronunciation error recognition!

Question time was particularly good this year. There were lots of super interesting questions, including the role and nature of RP today, issues around pronunciation teaching goals and models, the always fascinating articulatory settings and voice quality topics, among others. I really enjoyed the fact that the panel members really had the opportunity to answer at length, which I think was really nice!. 

The Tutorials

I think that one of the very best things of SCEP is the magic of the tutorials. The tutorials are spaces where we build communities of participants who have been grouped according to prior experience and knowledge, background, and interests (or at least, the organisers' best guess as to what those could be based on application forms!). Tutors then propose pronunciation and intonation activities according to participants' needs, which means that each group will receive some tailor-made tuition. 

I don't know if all participants can appreciate this, but I think that the fact that each tutor has their own style and their own baggage of teaching experience and research expertise makes for the richness of SCEP. This year's tutors, for instance, included researchers of sign languages, typological issues in phonology, pragmatics, or interactional phonetics, as well as accent coaches, pronunciation lexicographers, experienced EFL teachers, and all of us have been involved in pronunciation and phonetics teaching for a considerable amount of time. Each of us has a unique angle to things, and an experience-informed view of how to approach pronunciation and intonation work. We also have the challenge to tune-in to a number of different languages and voices in a really short period of time, and to cater for the varied needs of each of our group members, which we try to address in creative ways.

I always find it challenging to plan for SCEP because I often don't know what my students' prior level of knowledge will be -we do have a rough idea, of course, of how advanced they could be in their expertise-, and even though I do research on my group members' first languages, I cannot predict what they will need until I get to hear them on the first day. From a tutor's perspective, the first day is adrenaline-inducing, as we listen to 8-10 different voices in less than an hour and we try to assess which of the teaching paths we'd planned in advance would work for the group. And we re-adjust our goals and planning every day, so it's really a demanding job!

Because I think the uniqueness of SCEP lies on the tutorials (I shall never forget the tutorials I had with Jack Windsor Lewis and Jane Setter as a student, and I knew they were different from what other groups were doing) I just thought I'd think about what I have done in my groups, which I know is different from what other tutors have offered in response to their own groups' needs. 

For the segments group, my top priority is always vowels. I know I can safely choose material to work on based on the transition from my students' L1 vowels into some SSBE target, and then I strategically select practice tasks that will inevitably introduce consonants and/or allophonic variants: for example, the FLEECE-KIT texts always lead on to work on pre-fortis clipping and full length; the material for DRESS-NURSE invites work on dentalisation, and so on, until glottalisation, forms of plosive release, elision, assimilation, difficult clusters, have all been introduced and practised. I also propose a transition that goes from work on isolated words that illustrate phonesthesia (sound symbolism), into minimal pair practice, and then into short texts, and ideally into role plays -but at times we don't get to do the last bit (if I'm invited to be a tutor again, I'll be tweaking things a little bit in this respect). By the end of the two weeks, I was happy to have gone over quite a lot of sounds, and to have offered quite a lot of feedback in small doses. Some students have asked for an end-of-course "prescription", so if I'm at SCEP next year, I'll do that a bit more systematically (after all, I have the feedback/prescription templates that I used in Buenos Aires for so many years, it's only a matter of bringing them along!).
Having fun with my Segments group. We had Praated our own aspirated plosives and were making sure there was enough frication noise to separate those plosives from the vowels. Then we turned analog and did an aspiration race (an adapted version of a game by one of my Buenos Aires students in 2009 > my most sincere apologies I don't remember your name, whoever you are, creative former student!)
Image credits: Masaki Taniguchi (Thanks!)

Intonation tasks are always my favourite thing to design, but I remember getting overenthusiastic last year, and totally overplanning for just 9 tutorials. This year I decided to take it easy and follow the "less is more" motto, particularly because in my experience, intonation happens to be the area most participants have been less systematically exposed to before coming to SCEP, and at times, getting a couple of key things right is better than trying to go on a tour around a whole syllabus. My first two days are always an overview of everything involved when it comes to suprasegmentals, with short discovery tasks that introduce rhythm and weak forms, contrastive focus, stress shift, basic fall vs rise distinctions, tonicity changes leading to changes of meaning. The next sessions generally have a balance between some practice on tones and pre-nuclear patterns, and the application of tonicity and tone patterns on carefully-designed contexts. I like to supplement the lectures in this respect, so I generally do work on, for example, the fall-rise and its role in contexts where people do concession, anticipate contrasts, do preparatory work, create implications. I have realised that the extent of what I get to cover in the intonation tutorials is generally less predictable, and it seems to always end up setting up priorities around rhythm, high falls, and fall-rises, as well as on the deaccentuation of given information.

Me, my digital pen and tablet, my extravagant gestures, and my trying to explain, if I remember correctly, how stranded prepositions take the strong form but are not necessarily accented....

I have heard students and tutors from other groups talk about the super cool things they do in their own tutorials, so no matter what group you end up in, you can most certainly guarantee that you will get some quality feedback -constrained by the time we have and the need to keep the whole group engaged, of course-, the answers to your questions, oral practice, maybe some transcription practice, some homework, and really rich theoretical discussions.

I am really deeply grateful for the groups I got this year as well, and I learned so much from their first languages, their questions, and suggestions, and we had so much fun working together. I also want to especially thank them for trusting my teaching expertise and my knowledge of phonetics, as I know that it's clear when I open my mouth (or overgesticulate!) that I am not a native speaker of English, and I know some people might want to get their pounds' worth listening to native speakers do the talking instead...though I'll give myself credit for my vast experience doing this kind of work, and teaching phonetics in Argentina and in the UK (which, hey, got me a Vice-Chancellor's Teaching Award in York, after all), and to the work I've done on my accent (which of course has traces of Spanish and of Yorkshire....proudly!). So thank you all for being so great, so open, and so active!

Come to SCEP, it's great!

I am not saying it because I'm involved, and I don't get any extra money for saying this, so believe me, if you are a teacher of English, a lecturer in Practical Phonetics, an MA student of TESOL, a professional in any area of linguistics, or a professional who is not a linguist at all, SCEP is for you. You will get the basic theory and practical skills for the study and teaching of pronunciation and intonation, you will get feedback on your production, you will feel at home with fellow phon-geeks, and you will be around people all around the world who share an interest in teaching and learning phonetics. And yes, you'll get access to teaching on "contemporary" SSBE accents (get Geoff Lindsey's English After RP book to learn more on what this means).

In a time in which Phonetics is really super popular, in a time which instruments are allowing us to visualise speech in multiple ways and are helping us understand so much, but also in a time when Phonetics at times seems to be overwhelmingly dominated or defined by R-stats and Praat scripts, it is really refreshing to see people wanting to learn to use their ears and fine-tune their perception skills, learn to hear by producing crazy noises, by comparing, by reading further, by watching the mouth do the trick, and feeling the larynx move, or the resonances in the head... Those of us who have taught English for so long know that we need our ears to work and tune in to different voices in a matter of seconds to do our work right, those of us who study phonetics as one of the multiple resources in interaction know so well that we don't go around praating people's speech and still naturally orient to each other's phonetic detail in so many ways, those of us who work alongside people who do different kinds of applied phonetics in so many varied ways know that there should not be a single way of doing or defining what phonetics is or how it should be done. And SCEP is a really nice place to remember how this whole phonetic enterprise started, and to understand why Practical Phonetics should not be replaced nor effaced, but rather, be there as an indispensable foundation for all the professional and/or scientific work we will then, of course, instrumentally validate in a number of ways.