Flu. What is Thisby? A wandring knight? Quin. It is the Lady, that Pyramus must loue. Fl. Nay faith: let not me play a wom?: I haue a beard c?-(ming. Quin. Thats all one: you shall play it in a Maske: and you may speake as small as you will. Bott. And I may hide my face, let me play Thisby to: Ile speake in a monstrous little voice; Thisne, Thisne, ah Py-, ramus my louer deare, thy Thysby deare, & Lady deare. Qu. No, no: you must play Pyramus: & Flute, you Thysby.

The History of English through SparkNotes

Language change has been the focus of my research for over twenty years now, so when I taught second semester linguistics at Saint John’s University, I was very much looking forward to teaching a unit focused on change.  I had been working to replace constructed examples with real data, so I took a tip from my natural language processing colleague Dr. Wei Xu and turned to SparkNotes.

I first encountered SparkNotes when I was teaching French Language and Culture, and I assigned all of my students to write a book report on a work of French literature, or a book about French language or culture.  I don’t remember the details, but at times I had reason to suspect that one or another of my students was copying summary or commentary information about their chosen book from SparkNotes rather than writing their own.

When I was in high school, my classmates would make use of similar information for their book reports.  The rule was that you could consult the Cliffs Notes for help understanding the text, but you weren’t allowed to simply copy the Cliffs Notes.

Modern Text

FLUTE
Who’s Thisbe? A knight on a quest?

QUINCE
Thisbe is the lady Pyramus is in love with.

FLUTE
No, come on, don’t make me play a woman. I’m growing a beard.

QUINCE
That doesn’t matter. You’ll wear a mask, and you can make your voice as high as you want to.

BOTTOM
In that case, if I can wear a mask, let me play Thisbe too! I’ll be Pyramus first: “Thisne, Thisne!”—And then in falsetto: “Ah, Pyramus, my dear lover! I’m your dear Thisbe, your dear lady!”

QUINCE
No, no. Bottom, you’re Pyramus.—And Flute, you’re Thisbe.

When I discovered SparkNotes I noticed that for some older authors – Shakespeare, of course, but even Dickens – they not only offered summaries and commentary, but translations of the text into contemporary English.  It was this feature I drew on for the unit on language change.

While I was developing and teaching this second semester intro linguistics course at Saint John’s, I was also working as a linguistic annotator for an information extraction project in the NYU Computer Science Department.  I met a doctoral student, Wei Xu, who was studying a number of interesting corpora, including Twitter, hip-hop and SparkNotes. Wei graduated in 2014, and is now Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Ohio State.

Wei had realized that the modern translations on SparkNotes and eNotes, combined with the original Shakespearean text, formed a parallel corpus, a collection of texts in one language variety that are paired with translations in another language variety.  Parallel corpora, like the Canadian Hansard Corpus of French and English parliamentary debates, are used in translation studies, including for training machine translation software. Wei used the SparkNotes/eNotes parallel Shakespeare corpus to generate Shakespearean-style paraphrases of contemporary movie lines, among other things.

When it came time to teach the unit on language change at Saint John’s, I found a few small exercises that asked students to compare older literary excerpts with modern translations.  Given the constraints of this being one unit in a survey course, it made sense to focus on the language of instruction, English. The Language Files had one such exercise featuring a short Chaucer passage.  In general, when working with corpora I prefer to look at larger segments, ideally an entire text but at minimum a full page.

I realized that I could cover all the major areas of language change – phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic and pragmatic – with these texts.  Linguists have been able to identify phonological changes from changes in spelling, for example that Chaucer’s spelling of “when” as “whan” indicates that we typically put our tongues in a higher place in our mouths when pronouncing the vowel of that word than people did in the fourteenth century.

When teaching Shakespeare to college students it is common to use texts with standardized spelling, but we now have access to scans of Shakespeare’s work as it was first published in his lifetime or shortly after his death, with the spellings chosen by those printers.  This spelling modernization is even practiced with some nineteenth century authors, and similarly we have access to the first editions of most words through digitization projects like Google Books.

With this in mind, I created exercises to explore language change.  For a second semester intro course the students learned a lot from a simple scavenger hunt: compare a passage from the SparkNotes translation of Shakespeare with the Quarto, find five differences, and specify whether they are phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic or pragmatic.  In more advanced courses stufents could compare differences more systematically.

This comparison is the kind of thing that we always do when we read an old text: compare older spellings and wordings with the forms we would expect from a more modern text.  Wei Xu showed us that the translations and spelling changes in SparkNotes and eNotes can be used for a more explicit comparison, because they are written down based on the translators’ and editors’ understanding of what modern students will find difficult to read.

As I have detailed in my forthcoming book, Building a Representative Theater Corpus, we must be careful not to generalize universal statements, including statements about prevalence, to the language as a whole.  This is especially problematic when we are looking at authors who appealed to elite audiences, but it applies to Shakespeare and Dickens as well.  Existential observations, such as that Shakespeare used bare not (“let me not”) in one instance where SparkNotes used do-support (“don’t let me”) are much safer.

My students seemed to learn a lot from this technique.  I hope some of you find it useful in your classrooms!

Teaching sign linguistics in introductory classes

Language is not just spoken and written, and even though I’ve been working mostly on spoken languages for the past fifteen years, my understanding of language has been tremendously deepened by my study of sign languages. At the beginning of the semester I always asked my students what languages they had studied and what aspects of language they wanted to know more about, and they were always very interested in sign language. Since they had a professor with training and experience in sign linguistics it seemed natural to spend some time on it in class.

Our primary textbook, by George Yule,contains a decent brief overview of sign languages. The Language Files integrates sign language examples throughout and has a large section on sign phonetics. I added a lecture on the history of sign languages in Europe and North America, largely based on Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan’s Journey Into the Deaf-World (1996), and other information I had learned over the years.

I also felt it was important for my students to actually observe a sign language being used to communicate and to express feeling, so I found an online video of an MIT lecture by psychologist and master storyteller (and co-author of Journey Into the Deaf-World) Ben Bahan. Bahan’s talk does not focus exclusively on language, but demonstrates the use of American Sign Language well, and the English interpretation is well done.

Studying a video lecture is a prime candidate for “flipped classroom” techniques, but I never got around to trying that. We watched the video in class, but before starting the video I assigned my students a simple observation task: could they find examples of the four phonological subsystems of American Sign Language – lexical signs, fingerspelling, depicting signs and nonmanual gestures?

Some of the students were completely overwhelmed by the task at first, but I made it clear that this was not a graded assignment, only introductory exploration. Other students had had a semester or more of ASL coursework, and the students with less experience were able to learn from them. Bahan, being Ben Bahan, produces many witty, thought-provoking examples of all four subsystems over the course of the lecture.

The phonological subsystems are among the easiest sign language phenomena for a novice to distinguish, but as we watched the video I pointed out other common features of ASL and other sign languages, such as topic-comment structures and stance-shifting.

Later, when I started teaching Introduction to Phonology, we had the opportunity to get deeper into sign language phonology. I’ll cover that in a future post.

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 phonetic transcription online

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.

I also found these techniques to be useful for teaching other aspects of linguistics, such as language variation, and for teaching in face-to-face courses.

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.

Online learning and intellectual honesty

In January I wrote that I believe online learning is possible, but I have doubts about whether online courses are an adequate substitute for in-person college classes, let alone an improvement. One of those doubts concerns trust and intellectual honesty.

Any course is an exchange. The students pay money to the college, the instructor gets a cut, and the students get something of value in return. What that something is can be disputed. In theory, the teacher gives the students knowledge: information and skills.

In practice, some of the students actually expect to receive knowledge in exchange for their tuition. Some of them want knowledge but have gotten discouraged. Some wouldn’t mind a little knowledge, but that’s not what they’re there for. Others just have no time for actual learning.

If they’re not there for knowledge, why are they there? For credentials. They want a degree, and the things that go with a degree and make it more valuable for getting a good job: a major, a course list, good grades, letters of recommendation, connections.

If learning is not important, or if the credentials are urgent enough, it is tempting to skip the learning, just going through the motions. That means pretending to learn, or pretending that you learned more than you did. Most teachers have encountered this attitude at some point.

I have seen various manifestations of the impulse to cheat in every class I’ve taught over the years. Some people might be tempted to treat it like any other transaction. It is hard to make a living while being completely ethical. I fought it for several reasons.

First, I genuinely enjoy learning and I love studying languages, and I want to share that enjoyment and passion with my students. Second, many of my students have been speech pathology majors. I have experienced speech pathology that was not informed by linguistics, and I know that a person who doesn’t take linguistics seriously is not fit to be a speech pathologist.

If that wasn’t enough, I was simply not getting paid enough to tolerate cheating. At the wages of an adjunct professor, I wasn’t in it for the money. I was doing it to pass on my knowledge and gain experience, and looking the other way while students cheated was not the kind of experience I signed up for.

I’ve seen varying degrees of dishonesty in my years of teaching. In one French claws, a student tried to hand in an essay in Spanish; in his haste he had chosen the wrong option on the machine translation app. I developed strategies for deterring cheating, such as multiple drafts and a focus on proper citation. But I was not prepared for how much cheating I would find when I taught an online course.

The most effective deterrent was simply to get multiple examples of a student’s work: in class discussions, in small group work, in homeworks and on exams. That allowed me to spot inconsistent quality that might turn out to be plagiarism.

In these introductory linguistics courses, the homeworks themselves were minor exercises, mainly for the students to get feedback on whether they had understood the reading. If a student skipped a reading and plagiarized the homework assignment, it would usually be obvious to both of us when we went over the material in class. That would give the student feedback so that they could change their habits before the first exam.

The first term that I taught this course online, I noticed that some students were getting all the answers right on the homeworks. I was suspicious, but I gave the students the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they had taken linguistics in high school, or read some good books.

Then I noticed that the answers were all the same, and I began to notice quirks of language that didn’t fit my students. One day I saw that the answers were all in an unusual font. I googled one of the quirky phrases and immediately found a file of answers to the questions for that chapter.

I started searching around and found answers to every homework in the textbook. These students were simply googling the questions, copying the answers, and pasting them into Blackboard. They weren’t reading and they weren’t discussing the material. And it showed in their test results. But because this was a summer course, they didn’t have time to recover, and they all got bad grades.

I understood where they were coming from. They needed to knock out this requirement for their degree. They didn’t care about linguistics, or if they did, they didn’t have time for it. They wanted to get the work out of the way for this class and then go to their job or their internship or their other classes. Maybe they wanted to go drinking, but I knew these Speech Pathology students well enough to know that they weren’t typically party animals.

I’ve had jobs where I saw shady practices and just went along with it, but in this case I couldn’t do that, for the reasons I gave above. My compensation for this work wasn’t the meager adjunct pay that was deposited in my checking account every two weeks. It was the knowledge that I had passed on some ideas about language to these students. It was also the ability to say that I had taught linguistics, and even online.

The only solution I had to the problem was to write my own homework questions, ones that could be answered online, but where the appropriate answers couldn’t be found with a simple Google search.

The next term I taught the course online I had to deal with students sharing answers – not collaborating in the groups I had carefully constructed so that the student finishing her degree in another state could learn through peer discussion, but where one student simply copied the homework her friend had done. They did it on exams too, where they were supposed to be answering the questions alone. This meant that I also had to come up with questions where the answers were individual and couldn’t be copied.

I worked hard at it. My student evaluations for the online courses were pretty bad for that first summer, and for the next term, and the one after that. But the term after that they were almost as good as the ones for my in-person courses.

Unfortunately, that’s when I had to tell my coordinator that I couldn’t teach any more online courses. Because to teach them right required a lot of time – especially if every assignment has to be protected against students googling the answers or shouting them to each other across the room.

The good news is that in this whole process I learned a ton of interesting things about language and linguistics, and how to teach them. I’ve found that many of the strategies I developed for online teaching are helpful for in-person classes. I’m planning to post about some of them in the near future.

The Photo Roster, a web app for Columbia University faculty

Since July 2016 I have been working as Associate Application Systems in the Teaching and Learning Applications group at Columbia University. I have developed several apps, including this Photo Roster, an LTI plugin to the Canvas Learning Management System.

The back end of the Photo Roster is written in Python and Flask. The front end uses Javascript with jQuery to filter the student listings and photos, and to create a flash card app to help instructors learn their students’ names.

This is the third generation of the Photo Roster tool at Columbia. The first generation, for the Prometheus LMS, was famously scraped by Mark Zuckerberg when he extended Facebook to Columbia. To prevent future release of private student information, this version uses SAML and OAuth2 to authenticate users and securely retrieve student information from the Canvas API, and Oracle SQL to store and retrieve the photo authorizations.

It would be a release of private student information if I showed you the Roster live, so I created a demo class with famous Columbia alumni, and used a screen recorder to make this demo video. Enjoy!

Online learning: Definitely possible

There’s been a lot of talk over the past several years about online learning. Some people sing its praises without reservation. Others claim that it doesn’t work at all. I have successfully learned over the internet and I have successfully taught over the internet. It can work very well, but it requires a commitment on the part of the teacher and the learner that is not always present. In this series of posts I will discuss what has worked well and what hasn’t in my experience, specifically in teaching linguistics to undergraduate speech pathology majors.

Online learning is usually contrasted with an ideal classroom model where the students engage in two-way oral conversation, exercises and assessment with the instructor and each other, face to face in real time. In practice there are already deviations from this model: one-way lectures, independent and group exercises, asynchronous homeworks, take-home exams. The questions are really whether the synchronous or face-to-face aspects can be completely eliminated, and whether the internet can provide a suitable medium for instruction.

The first question was answered hundreds of years ago, when the first letter was exchanged between scholars. Since then people have learned a great deal from each other, via books and through the mail. My great-uncle Doc learned embalming through a correspondence course, and made a fortune as one of the few providers of Buddhist funerals in San Jose. So we know that people can learn without face-to-face, synchronous or two-way interaction with teachers.

What about the internet? People are learning a lot from each other over the internet. I’ve learned how to assemble a futon frame and play the cups over the internet. A lot of the core ideas about social science that inform my work today I learned in a single independent study course I took over email with Melissa Axelrod in 1999.

My most dramatic exposure to online learning was from 2003 through 2006. I read the book My Husband Betty, and discovered that the author, Helen Boyd, had an online message board for readers to discuss her book (set up by Betty herself). The message board would send me emails whenever someone posted, and I got drawn into a series of discussions with Helen and Betty, as well as Diane S. Frank, Caprice Bellefleur, Donna Levinsohn, Sarah Steiner and a number of other thoughtful, creative, knowledgeable people.

A lot of us knew a thing or two about gender and sexuality already, but Helen, having read widely and done lots of interviews on those topics, was our teacher, and would often start a discussion by posting a question or a link to an article. Sometimes the discussion would get heated, and eventually I was kicked off and banned. But during those three years I learned a ton, and I feel like I got a Master’s level education in gender politics. Of course, we didn’t pay Helen for this besides buying her books, so I’m glad she eventually got a full-time job teaching this stuff.

So yes, we can definitely learn things over the internet. But are official online courses an adequate substitute for – or even an improvement over – in-person college classes? I have serious doubts, and I’ll cover them in future posts.

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.

Describing differences in pronunciation

Last month I wrote that instead of only two levels of phonetic transcription, “broad” and “narrow,” what people do in practice is to adjust their level of detail according to the point they want to make. In this it is like any other form of communication: too much detail can be a distraction.

But how do we decide how much detail to put in a given transcription, and how can we teach this to our students? In my experience there is always some kind of comparison. Maybe we’re comparing two speakers from different times or different regions, ethnicities, first languages, social classes, anatomies. Maybe we’re comparing two utterances by the same person in different phonetic, semantic, social or emotional contexts.

Sometimes there is no overt comparison, but at those times there is almost always an implicit comparison. If we are presenting a particular pronunciation it is because we assume our readers will find it interesting, because it is pathological or nonstandard. This implies that there is a normal or standard pronunciation that we have in our heads to contrast it to.

The existence of this comparison tells us the right level of detail to include in our transcriptions: enough to show the contrasts that we are describing, maybe a little more, but not so much to distract from this contrast. And we want to focus on that contrast, so we will include details about tone, place of articulation or laryngeal timing, and leave out details about nasality, vowel tongue height or segment length.

This has implications for the way we teach transcription. For our students to learn the proper level of detail to include, they need practice comparing two pronunciations, transcribing both, and checking whether their transcriptions highlight the differences that they feel are most relevant to the current discussion.

I can illustrate this with a cautionary tale from my teaching just this past semester. I had found this approach of identifying differences to be useful, but students found the initial assignments overwhelming. Even as I was jotting down an early draft of this blog post, I just told my students to transcribe a single speech sample. I put off comparison assignments for later, and then put them off again.

As a result, I found myself focusing too much on some details while dismissing others. I could sense that my students were a bit frustrated, but I didn’t make the connection right away. I did ask them to compare two pronunciations on the final exam, and it went well, but not as well as it could have if they had been practicing it all semester. Overall the semester was a success, but it could have been better.

I’ll talk about how you can find comparable pronunciations in a future post.