Teaching language variation with accent tag videos

Last January I wrote that the purpose of phonetic transcription is to talk about differences in pronunciation. Last December I introduced accent tags, a fascinating genre of self-produced YouTube videos of crowdsourced dialectology and a great source of data about language variation. I put these together when I was teaching a unit on language variation for the second-semester Survey of Linguistics course at Saint John’s University. When I learned about language variation as an undergraduate, it was exciting to see accents as a legitimate object of study, and it was gratifying to see my family’s accents taken seriously.

At the same time, the focus on a single dialect at a time contrasts with the absence of variation from the discussion of English pronunciation, grammar and lexis in other units, and in the rest of the way English is typically taught. This implies that there is a single standard that does not vary, despite evidence from perceptual dialectology (such as Dennis Preston’s work) that language norms are fragmentary, incomplete and contested. I saw the cumulative effects of this devaluation in class discussions, when students openly denigrated features of the New York accents spoken by their neighbors, their families and often the students themselves.

At first I just wanted to illustrate variation in African American accents, but then I realized that the accent tags allowed me to set up the exercises as an explicit contrast between two varieties. I asked my students to search YouTube to find an accent tag that “sounds like you,” and one that sounded different, and to find differences between the two in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. I followed up on this exercise with other ones asking students to compare two accent tags from the same place but with different ethnic, economic or gender backgrounds.

My students did a great job at finding videos that sounded like them. Most of them were from the New York area, and were able to find accent tags made by people from New York City, Long Island or northern New Jersey. Some students were African American or Latin American, and were able to find videos that demonstrated the accents, vocabulary and grammar common among those groups. The rest of the New York students did not have any features that we noticed as ethnic markers, and whether the students were Indian, Irish or Circassian, they were satisfied that the Italian or Jewish speakers in the videos sounded pretty much like them.

Some of the students were from other parts of the country, and found accent tags from California or Boston that illustrated features that the students shared. A student from Zimbabwe who is bilingual in English and Shona was not able to find any accent tags from her country, but she found a video made by a white South African and was able to identify features of English pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar that they shared.

As I wrote last year, the phonetic transcription exercises I had done in introductory linguistics and phonology courses were difficult because they implicitly referred to unspecified standard pronunciations, leading to confusion among the students about the “right” transcriptions. In the variation unit, when I framed the exercise as an explicit comparison between something that “sounds like you” and something different, I removed the implied value judgment and replaced it with a neutral investigation of difference.

I found that this exercise was easier for the students than the standard transcription problems, because it gave them two recordings to compare instead of asking them to compare one recording against their imagination of the “correct” or “neutral” pronunciation. I realized that this could be used for the regular phonetics units as well. I’ll talk about my experiences with that in a future post.