Teaching with accent tags in the face-to-face classroom

In September I wrote about how I used accent tag videos to teach phonetic transcription in my online linguistics classes. Since I could not be there in person, the videos provided a stable reference that we could all refer to from our computers around the country. Having two pronunciations to compare drew the students’ attention to the differences between them – one of the major reasons phonetic transcription was invented – and the most natural level of detail to include in the answer.

In the Fall of 2015 I was back in the classroom teaching Introduction to Phonology, and I realized that those features – a stable reference and multiple pronunciations of the same word with small differences – were also valuable when we were all in the same room. I used accent tag clips in exercises on transcription and other skills, such as identifying phonetic traits like tongue height and frication.

One of my students, Alice Nkanga, pointed out a feature of YouTube that I wasn’t aware of before: you can adjust the speed of playback down to one-quarter speed, and it auto-corrects the pitch, which can help with transcription.

After reading my previous post another linguist, Jessi Grieser, said that she liked the idea, so I shared some of my clips with her. She used them in her class, including a clip I made contrasting two African American women – one from Chicago and one from New York – saying the word “oil.”

Grieser reported, “this went excellently! It really helped hammer home the idea that there isn’t a ‘right’ way to transcribe a word based on its orthography–that what we’re really looking for is a transcription which captures what the speaker did. They really had fun with ‘oil’ since many of them are /AHL/ or /UHL/ speakers themselves. It was a really great discussion starter for our second day of transcription. This is a genius idea.”

It makes me really happy to know that other people find this technique useful in their classrooms, because I was so excited when I came up with it. I would make the clips available to the public, even at no charge, but I’m not sure about the rights because I did not make the original accent tag videos. I hope you’ll all make your own, though – it’s not that hard!

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.

African American English has accents too

Diversity is notoriously subjective and difficult to pin down. In particular, we tend be impressed if we know the names of a lot of categories for something. We might think there are more mammal species than insect species, but biologists tell us that there are hundreds of thousands of species of beetles alone. This is true in language as well: we think of the closely-related Romance and Germanic languages as separate, while missing the incredible diversity of “dialects” of Chinese or Arabic.

This is also true of English. As an undergraduate I was taught that there were four dialects in American English: New England, North Midland, South Midland and Coastal Southern. Oh yeah, and New York and Black English. The picture for all of those is more complicated than it sounds, and I went to Chicago I discovered that there are regional varieties of African American English.

In 2012 Annie Minoff, a blogger for Chicago public radio station WBEZ, took this oversimplification for truth: “AAE is remarkable for being consistent across urban areas; that is, Boston AAE sounds like New York AAE sounds like L.A. AAE, etc.” Fortunately a commenter, Amanda Hope, challenged her on that assertion. Minoff confirmed the pattern in an interview with variationist Walt Wolfram, and posted a correction in 2013.

In 2013 I was preparing to teach a unit on language variation and didn’t want to leave my students as misinformed as I – or Minoff – had been. Many of my students were African American, and I saw no reason to spend most of the unit on white varieties and leave African American English as a footnote. But the documentation is spotty: I know of no good undergraduate-level discussion of variation in African American English.

A few years before I had found a video that some guy took of a party in a parking lot on the West Side of Chicago. It wasn’t ideal, but it sort of gave you an idea. The link was dead, so I typed “Chicago West Side” into Google. The results were not promising, so on a whim I added “accent” and that’s how I found my first accent tag video.

Accent tag videos are an amazing thing, and I could write a whole series of posts about them. Here was a young black woman from Chicago’s West Side, not only talking about her accent but illustrating it, with words and phrases to highlight its differences from other dialects. She even talks (as many people do in these videos) about how other African Americans hear her accent in other places, like North Carolina. You can compare it (as I did in class) with a similar video made by a young black woman from Raleigh (or New York or California), and the differences are impossible to ignore.

In fact, when Amanda Hope challenged Minoff’s received wisdom on African American regional variation, she used accent tag videos to illustrate her point. These videos are amazing, particularly for teaching about language and linguistics, and from then on I made extensive use of them in my courses. There’s also a video made by two adorable young English women, one from London and one from Bolton near Manchester, where you can hear their accents contrasted in conversation. I like that I can go not just around the country but around the world (Nigeria, Trinidad, Jamaica) illustrating the diversity of English just among women of African descent, who often go unheard in these discussions. I’ll talk more about accent tag videos in future posts.

You can also find evidence of regional variation in African American English on Twitter. Taylor Jones has a great post about it that also goes into the history of African American varieties of English.