When I was teaching introductory linguistics, I had a problem with the phonetic transcription exercises in the textbooks I was using: they asked students to transcribe “the pronunciation” of individual words – implying that there is a single correct pronunciation with a single correct transcription. I worked around it in face-to-face classes by hearing the students’ accents and asking them to pronounce any words if their transcriptions differed from what I expected. I was also able to illustrate the pronunciation of various IPA symbols by pronouncing the sounds in class.
In the summer of 2013 I taught linguistics online for the first time, and it was much more difficult to give students a sense of the sounds I expected them to produce, and to get a sense of the sounds they associated with particular symbols. On top of that I discovered I had another challenge: I couldn’t trust these students to do the work if the answers were available anywhere online. Some of them would google the questions, find the answers, copy and paste. Homework done!
Summer courses move so fast that I wasn’t able to change the exercises until it was too late. In the fall of 2014 I taught the course again, and created several new exercises. I realized that there was now a huge wealth of speech data available online, in the form of streaming and downloadable audio, created for entertainment, education and archives. I chose a podcast episode that seemed relatively interesting and asked my students to transcribe specific words and phrases.
It immediately became clear to me that instead of listening to the sounds and using Richard Ishida’s IPA Picker or another tool to transcribe what they heard, the students were listening to the words, looking them up one by one in the dictionary, and copying and pasting word transcriptions. In some cases Roman Mars’s pronunciations were different from the dictionary transcriptions, but they were close enough that my low grades felt like quibbling to them.
I tried a different strategy: I noticed that another reporter on the podcast, Joel Werner, spoke with an Australian accent, so I asked the students to transcribe his speech. They began to understand: “Professor, do we still have to transcribe the entire word even though a letter from the word may not be pronounced due to an accent?” asked one student. Others noticed that the long vowels were shifted relative to American pronunciations.
For tests and quizzes, I found that I could make excerpts of sound and video files using editing software like Audacity and Microsoft Movie Maker. That allowed me to isolate particular words or groups of words so that the students didn’t waste time locating content in a three-minute video, or a twenty-minute podcast.
This still left a problem: how much detail were the students expected to include, and how could I specify that for them in the instructions? Back in 2013, in a unit on language variation, I had used accent tag videos to replace the hierarchy implied in most discussions of accents with a more explicit, less judgmental contrast between “sounds like me” and “sounds different.” I realized that the accent tags were also good for transcription practice, because they contained multiple pronunciations of words that differed in socially meaningful ways – in fact, the very purpose that phonetic transcription was invented for. Phonetic transcription is a tool for talking about differences in pronunciation.
The following semester, Spring 2015, I created a “Comparing Accents” assignment, where I gave the students links to excerpts of two accent tag videos, containing the word list segment of the accent tag task. I then asked them to find pairs of words that the two speakers pronounced differently and transcribe them in ways that highlighted the differences. To give them practice reading IPA notation, I gave them transcriptions and asked them to upload recordings of themselves pronouncing the transcriptions.
I was pleased to find that I actually could teach phonetic transcription online, and even write tests that assessed the students’ abilities to transcribe, thanks to accent tag videos and the principle that transcription is about communicating differences.