sábado, 28 de diciembre de 2019

Prosody and rock and roll again!

Hi, there, readers! Sorry I've been a stranger, but life over here is hectic, and I have fully and unashamedly embraced the fact that it's really okay if I don't blog often (or at all!).

This is a bit of a rambling reflective post I started writing almost 10 months ago, and which I finally got myself to (kind of) finish. Today's short blog is about a fabulous gift I was trusted with last year, and for a while, this current year: the chance to convene on the Prosody of English module in my Department, teaching finalists (3rd year students). It's been really a really big thing for me, particularly because of two reasons:

a) I lectured in prosody for 8 years in Buenos Aires, but always to L2 speakers of English training to become EFL teachers, so I was not sure what to expect when it comes to teaching a prosody module for people whose first language is English and who were doing Language and Linguistics or Foreign Language degrees. Luckily, I'd audited the module in 2016/17 so I had an idea as to what challenges lay ahead.

b) I would teach about prosody in interaction, in York, of all places, one of the most influential places when it comes to the study of Phonetics in interaction, and I would get the chance to use my own data to do so! And, spoiler alert: this has really been the peak of my time in York as far as my teaching career is concerned, and I don't think I can aspire to more after this!

So today I just wanted to reflect on a few lessons I learned last year teaching this module. Forgive the lack of references and the stream of consciousness, but as someone who has just finished a first draft of her PhD thesis (yay, can you believe it!?), I needed a break from formal structured starchy academic writing.

Prosody and "meaning"

Even though teaching Phonetics 2 in Buenos Aires (also Lab 3, and 4) was by far my most challenging and yet favourite experience during my pre-UK times, and most certainly the one I learned the most from, and the one that enabled me to play around with theories and hypotheses and models, it was an experience that for many reasons imprisoned me. It's not easy to teach prosody, and making it teachable for me meant kind of buying into a few half-truths that I felt I had to reproduce - though less and less so as I got more experienced.

It meant choosing some theories over others, and finding the best way to teach them. I have always felt guilty about it, which is why from 2013 I started collecting corpora to put to the test some of my ramblings and make an evidence/corpus-based set of teachable generalisations that I shared with my students. During those 8 years, I got sound evidence that the best way to make sense of prosody is through the serious study of discourse genres and conversation, and that, yes, involves going beyond phonetics, something that not everyone is ready to do.

Now that I have embraced the study of interaction fully, I am sure the actual locus of everyday uses of prosody is in interaction and I have evidence that we as speakers orient to the whole package of verbal and non-verbal resources, and that prosody is not a solitary meaning-making thing, nor is it a single speaker's phenomenon. I know now that prosodic choices are rooted and negotiated in the local context and that as such not every prosodic system (I'm looking at you, system of Tone -in the Hallidayan sense, not talking about lexical tone) does not so easily or straightforwardly fit into the whole form-meaning mapping business (something I know a lot of experimental prosodists will probably disagree with).

Now, here's the "rub": describing what people do in spontaneous talk (or at least, naturalistic interaction, given that the camera's mediating) and turning that into a teachable model for L2 speakers of English is always a challenge. I don't think I yet have a satisfactory answer to that. And probably to be able to provide an answer, I'd like to see interdisciplinary studies of corpora of everyday interaction coupled with perhaps some experimental studies. Whatever the case, I just know that having embraced Systemic Functional Linguistics and Discourse Intonation at the time to come up with a framework for intonation teaching, and testing my impressionistic observations against corpora, and staying away from solely-grammatical and attitudinal approaches was totally the right starting point.

Different contexts, different goals, same challenges?

At York, I've had the wonderful experience of teaching Prosody to mostly L1 speakers of English, and with an approach aimed at helping students research prosody, rather than train students to teach intonation to other L2 speakers or to apply "rules" to their own speech. This makes a huge difference to how you approach the whole thing.

And if you allow me, I'd like to get into a short rant here. I hear at times academics in my home country say that the work that is done in the Phonetics modules there is outdated, or it's not what is done in the rest of the world. And leaving the whole accent training thing aside (!), and having been here 3+ years and seen a lot of the phonetics done around the world, and having taught people who trained as teachers in other countries, I can only say that I'm very proud of what was being done at Profesorados in Buenos Aires, at least when I was around. Tutoring people to actually hear things and to reflect on pronunciation and intonation in different types of speech genres, to learn in so much detail about spelling patterns, allophonic variants, and word stress rules, that is totally unusual in other countries. Practical Phonetics may not be as popular as it used to be in Linguistics degrees aorund the world these days, but in Teacher Training it still is, in my very humble but informed opinion, a must. Not to mention ear-training and transcription, essential exercises and skills for anyone who wants to go into Phonetics in general. [End of rant].

Anyway. Here are some interesting points about my experience at York:

The module in York was an introduction to prosody, and the content and skills centered around the description and analysis of conversational data. The module was already fully designed, but I needed to make the lectures "mine", so I decided to rewrite 90% of them from scratch. I really don't regret the hours (12?18?20?) it took me to make each and every power point. I was totally indulging in the possibility of actually having slides (my lectures in Buenos Aires were all written on the whiteboard as I talked!), of using my own data, of learning further about things I'd never taught before, and of feeling that I was wrapping up 8 years of experience into a nice package that was all mine. It felt really special.

So basically, I had the chance to teach phonatory and articulatory, acoustic, and perceptual aspects around prosodic phenomena; I introduced the British (London) school, interactional approaches, and also ToBI notation. I lectured on the Three Ts, on grammatical, and on information structure accounts of intonation (using, for example, the great "To Be or Not To Be" sketch); I showed different ways in which participants in interaction can prosodically design their lists, parenthetical inserts, or increments; and during the second term we discussed sociophonetic issues, and the fascinating ways in which participants in conversation orient to each other's prosody. One of my favourite parts of the module was to show tonality differences in more monologic and more interactional genres, and it was a bit of a treat to do so using my own data, as it felt like a bridge between my past and my present prosody teaching work.

My Prosody syllabus in Buenos Aires was more about the discovery, transcription  and application of patterns and rules. Students were expected to learn about the components of English intonation (yes, I am aware of the problem of calling it thus!) to be able to describe what L1 speakers do, what L2 speakers would do because of interlanguage processes, and also to apply some L1 generalisations to their own speech. We would discuss tonality and its close association (mostly in mostly monologic texts, though) with thematic structure and logico-semantic relations across phrases and clauses (from a SFL perspective); we would deal with tonicity and information status, as well as to exceptions to the "last lexical item" rule, and then focus on textual and interpersonal approaches to tone (=pitch countours) and key and termination (=pitch height). Even after 8 years teaching the module I was still deeply unhappy about the interactional side of my module, especially since I had realised how straightforward in comparison it was to teach more monologic genres, such as lectures, TV documentaries, tourist guide speeches, etc and how I would feel really dissatisfied with my discussion of tone in questions, for example.  I'm sure that if I had had access to the kind of corpus like the one I could collect during my PhD, I would have done a far better job in my teaching in Buenos Aires for the last two teaching units on intonation and the interpersonal metafunction of my module. 

Now. Anyone who's embarked on the fascinating journey of studying prosody will know that it's not an easy landscape to navigate. Lots of views, beliefs, approaches, low inter-transcriber reliability scores for different transcription systems, and the sad truth some of us have learned very early in our process: the system you were taught/trained in may influence the way you "hear" prosodic phenomena.

Doing ear-training was perhaps the most challenging thing to do in the first 8 weeks of the module (and to be fair, the module requested that students start transcribing prosodic detail in real data by the fourth week!). Because the module was first devised with an interactional approach in mind, a lot of the transcription work follows what is done in conversation analysis and interactional linguistics, which means that many of the insights around contours are those traceable to the British (London) school. This was perhaps very convenient for me as it is what I had been trained on, but I acknowledge this is not what most prosodists out there do these days. [And yes, we could engage in a conversation around transcription approaches and contours vs levels and what is closest to perception, and what is more useful for typological work, etc, but I won't. Not today, at least!]

Some of my students had learned some ToBI in a prior module, and found it difficult to hear whole tunes, upsteps were interpreted as rises or rise-falls, downsteps as part of fall-rises. Those who learned the British School first found it hard to perceive fall-rises and rise-falls when there were long tails. And yes, many of these things are actually model-dependent, so how you represent certain contours and whether you identify those as nuclear or pre-nuclear (e.g. falling heads) may perhaps be a matter of what perspective you are actually following.  Identifying focal accents/nuclei was at first a challenge for many students, and the picture is always more complex when it comes to using real interactional data, and the truth is that following a strict model clearly does not work to represent what we do in talk. Overall, in terms of the perception difficulties encountered by my students, my experience in Buenos Aires and in the UK was pretty much the same, but in Argentina a great part of the introductory material I used for ear-training was pedagogic. Still, I believe a lot of work needs to be done when it comes to ear-training and I don't think I'm done playing around with ideas yet! For the first sessions this year I have a few tricks up my sleeve that I hope will help with the perception of contours (I'll report on them if they work!)

I would say that the "liberating" thing about my experience at York is that we used transcription  as a form of representation and registering of what we could hear, and that allowed for some variation in representation, and made room for the recognition that many of my students' versions, albeit different from mine, were "reasonable hearings" (to use Richard Cauldwell's term). 

Perhaps one of the things I learned the most from in York was from my lab sessions. In Buenos Aires I was only but starting to scratch the surface of f0 visualisation with my students, and we would sometimes use the web version of WASP, as I would normally use my phone or tablet when teaching my classes (and use my mobile data, due to, ehem, lack of wifi!). Those who attended Lab lessons in the computer lab were perhaps better equipped to do this kind of work, and I know at least one of my colleagues was doing perception and production experiments with her Lab class. I never took my Praat work from my MA into the classroom, but I always wanted to add it to my lectures (but given that there were two or three projectors available in the whole college, it would not have been possible to demonstrate. I really really hope they have projectors and wifi at state colleges in Buenos Aires now, but I may still be asking for too much, sadly). Even though I always had in mind that I was training EFL teachers, I believe that I would have loved to be able to teach some instrumental data analysis if I had had the equipment and time.

During the practical sessions in York, I trained students to use Praat, to estimate a speaker's pitch range, to inspect the pitch trace for microprosodic errors and correct them, to make nice publishable figures. I also led ear-training sessions starting from words all the way to full bits of real conversational data. This was mostly all based on the wonderful worksheets designed by Richard Ogden and the additions by Sam Hellmuth, and I made my own twist to it and developed a step-by-step focal accent and pitch contour identification tasks. Later in the module, as I would teach the module in PC rooms, I decided I wanted to make sure that the results of data analysis done in groups were shared using Google Docs, which made it possible for me to give advice and see how students approached their transcription and analysis in real time (I discussed my experience doing this in the latest Learning and Teaching magazine at York). You may think this really isn't an extraordinary thing, but it was indeed very useful for myself and my students to see their process and progress evolve on the shared document, and I had lots of fun proudly watching my students provide visual evidence of their measurements of isochronous stretches of speech, or to produce f0 traces of intonation in lists.

Some final reflections

I often wonder how I would teach my modules in Buenos Aires if I had the chance to teach them again after my PhD. It is really clear to me that the world I left has changed in many ways, and not just because I have had the privilege to experience a different world, but because due to economic and political reasons my previous teaching context has really changed these last almost three and a half years.

I remember the anxiety I felt during my first year in York as I audited modules or had supervision meetings, as I felt it was all a test of my prior knowledge and of my beliefs around Phonetics and Phonetics teaching. Whenever I was exposed to a topic I had taught in Buenos Aires, I remember sighing with relief when I heard the lecturers agree with me, or getting all red in the face with shame when I saw that perhaps my approach to some things wasn't the most appropriate one. Either way, I've learned tons in York, though not enough.

The truth is, I don't know what I would do if I had to teach my Profesorado modules again. I know for a fact that I wasn't too far off in my approach, and that my being asked to teach at York and UCL confirms that however small and impostor I sometimes feel here about playing in what some people in Argentina would call the "big leagues", I humbly think I have not really done a bad job at all. On the other hand, I feel deeply aware of all the things I don't yet know, and I also know that I would now perhaps be less categorical on a number of things and use more real-life data if I was teaching those modules again. However, I cannot lose sight of the fact that here I'm teaching in Linguistics degrees, and my previous posts were in ELT. However linguistic-heavy Argentinian ELT programmes are, and beyond the fact that I believe pre- and in-service teachers need to be trained in research, I cannot ignore the fact that during the last ten years I've been teaching two very different student profiles and that my teaching approach has attempted to reflect that difference.

I am aware my posts lately may lack all sense of cohesion, and are possibly a reflection of my messy PhD thoughts, of the tumbling reality that I'm currently juggling my teaching and researcher selves who are sometimes in fusion, and sometimes in deep conflict. Troubling as this may sound, I think it's actually quite good, as it keeps me reflective, creative, and curious. And as a teacher and researcher, those are actually good qualities to keep alive.

I wonder if/when I'll blog again, as I may go on another break from teaching, but I wanted to wish you all a happy 2020. Hope we can start building a less divisive world, one where love and kindness prevail and where we all feel compelled to do the right thing even when no one's watching.

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