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.

comparing transcription

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.

Levels of phonetic description

When I first studied phonetic transcription I learned about broad and narrow transcription, where narrow transcription contains much more detail, like the presence of aspiration on consonants and fine distinctions of tongue height. Of course it makes sense that you wouldn’t always want to go into such detail, but at the time I didn’t think about what detail was excluded from broad transcription and why.

Wikipedia's invaluable IPA Vowel Chart with Audio

Wikipedia’s invaluable IPA Vowel Chart with Audio

In phonology we learned about phonemes, and how phoneme categories glossed over many of those same details that were excluded from broad transcription. For reasons I never quite grasped, though, we were told that phonemic transcription was a very different thing from broad transcription, and we were not to confuse them. Okay.

I got a better explanation from my first phonetics professor, Jacques Filliolet, who used three levels of analysis: niveau généralisant, niveau pertinent and niveau particularisant. We can translate them as general, specific and detailed levels.

When I started teaching phonology, I realized that the broad vs. narrow distinction did not reflect what I read in books and papers and saw at conferences. When people are actually using phonetic transcription there is no consistent set of features that they leave out or include.

What people do instead is include the relevant features and leave out the irrelevant ones. Which features are relevant depends on the topic of discussion. If it’s a paper about aspiration, or a paper about variation where aspiration may or may not be relevant, they will include aspiration. If it isn’t, they won’t.

I realized that sometimes linguists need to go into more detail than phonetic transcription can easily handle, so they use even finer-grained representations like formant frequencies, gestural scores and voice onset times.

Recently I realized that this just means phonetic transcription is a form of communication. In all forms of communication we adjust the level of detail we provide to convey the relevant information to our audience and leave out the irrelevant parts.

Phonemes are another, more organic way that we do this. This explains why phonemic transcription is not the same as broad transcription: we often want to talk about what sounds go into a phoneme without adding other details. For example, we may want to talk about how English /t/ typically includes both aspirated and unaspirated stops, without talking about fundamental frequency or lip closure.

Another possible translation of Filliolet’s niveau pertinent is “the appropriate level.” This is really what we’re all aiming for: the level of detail that is most appropriate for the circumstances.

Finding the right level of detail for phonetic transcription is actually not hard for students to learn; they do it all the time in regular language. The simplest way to teach it is to give the students assignments that require a particular level of detail.

Students are sometimes frustrated that there is not a single way to transcribe a given utterance. In addition to these differences of level of description, there are stylistic differences: do you write [r] instead of [ɹ] for an English bunched /r/?

Of course the International Phonetic Alphabet was sold as just such a consistent system: one symbol for one sound, in contrast with the messy reality of writing systems. To me this feels very Modernist and Utopian, and it is no accident that it was invented at the same time as other big modernist projects like Esperanto, Principia Mathematica, and International Style architecture.

The IPA falls short of the ideal consistent representation that was sold to people, but has largely succeeded in providing enough consistency, and keeping enough of the mess at bay, for specific purposes like documenting language variation and language acquisition.

Teaching phonetic transcription in the digital age

When I first taught phonetic transcription, almost seven years ago, I taught it almost the same way I had learned it twenty-five years ago. Today, the way I teach it is radically different. The story of the change is actually two stories intertwined. One is a story of how I’ve adopted my teaching to the radical changes in technology that occurred in the previous eighteen years. The other is a story of the more subtle evolution of my understanding of phonetics, phonology, phonological variation and the phonetic transcription that allows us to talk about them.

When I took Introduction to Linguistics in 1990 all the materials we had were pencil, paper, two textbooks and the ability of the professor to produce unusual sounds. In 2007 and even today, the textbooks have the same exercises: Read this phonetic transcription, figure out which English words were involved, and write the words in regular orthography. Read these words in English orthography and transcribe the way you pronounce them. Transcribe in broad and narrow transcription.

The first challenge was moving the homework online. I already assigned all the homework and posted all the grades online, and required my students to submit most of the assignments online; that had drastically reduced the amount of paper I had to collect and distribute in class and schlep back and forth. For this I had the advantage that tuition at Saint John’s pays for a laptop for every student. I knew that all of my students had the computing power to access the Blackboard site.

Thanks to the magic of Unicode and Richard Ishida’s IPA Picker, my students were able to submit their homework in the International Phonetic Alphabet without having to fuss with fonts and keyboard layouts. Now, with apps like the Multiling Keyboard, students can even write in the IPA on phones and tablets.

The next problem was that instead of transcribing, some students would look up the English spellings on dictionary sites, copy the standard pronunciation guides, and paste them into the submission box. Other students would give unusual transcriptions, but I couldn’t always tell whether these transcriptions reflected the students’ own pronunciations or just errors.

At first, as my professors had done, I made up for these homework shortcomings with lots of in-class exercises and drills, but they still all relied on the same principle: reading English words and transcribing them. Both in small groups and in full-class exercises, we were able to check the transcriptions and correct each other because everyone involved was listening to the same sounds. It wasn’t until I taught the course exclusively online that I realized there was another way to do it.

When I tell some people that I teach online courses, they imagine students from around the world tuning in to me lecturing at a video camera. This is not the way Saint John’s does online courses. I do create a few videos every semester, but the vast majority of the teaching I do is through social media, primarily the discussion forums on the Blackboard site connected with the course. I realized that I couldn’t teach phonetics without a way to verify that we were listening to the same sounds, and without that classroom contact I no longer had a way.

I also realized that with high-speed internet connections everywhere in the US, I had a new way to verify that we were listening to the same sounds: use a recording. When I took the graduate Introduction to Phonetics in 1993, we had to go to the lab and practice with the cassette tapes from William Smalley’s Manual of Articulatory Phonetics, but if I’m remembering right we didn’t actually do any transcription of the sounds; we just practiced listening to them and producing them. Some of us were better at that than others.

In 2015 we are floating in rivers of linguistic data. Human settlements have always been filled with the spontaneous creation of language, but we used to have to pore over their writings or rely on our untrustworthy memories. In the twentieth century we had records and tape, film and video, but so much of what was on that was scripted and rehearsed. If we could get recordings of the unscripted language it was hard to store, copy and distribute them.

Now people create language in forms that we can grab and hold: online news articles, streaming video, tweets, blog posts, YouTube videos, Facebook comments, podcasts, text messages, voice mails. A good proportion of these are even in nonstandard varieties of the language. We can read them and watch them and listen to them – and then we can reread and rewatch and relisten, we can cut and splice in seconds what would have taken hours – and then analyze them, and compare our analyses.

Instead of telling my students to read English spelling and transcribe in IPA, now I give them a link to a video. This way we’re working from the exact same sequence of sounds, a sequence that we can replay over and over again. I specifically choose pronunciations that don’t match what they find on the dictionary websites. This is precisely what the IPA is for.

Going the other way, I give my students IPA transcriptions and ask them to record themselves pronouncing the transcriptions and post it to Blackboard. Sure, my professor could have assigned us something like this in 1990, but then he would have had to take home a stack of cassettes and spend time rewinding them over and over. Now all my students have smartphones with built-in audio recording apps, and I could probably listen to all of their recordings on my own smartphone if I didn’t have my laptop handy.

So that’s the story about technology and phonetic transcription. Stay tuned for the other story, about the purpose of phonetic transcription.

Choose your Own Speech Role Model

In a couple of recent posts I talked about the idea of speech role models for language learning, specifically on fluent, clear non-native speakers providing more accessible models for students learning after the teenage years. I ended with a caution against “cloning” a single non-native speaker, raising the specter of a class of students who all come out speaking English like Javier Bardem. I believe this can be avoided by giving students a greater range of options for role models, and a greater role in choosing them.

Yao Ming. Photo: Jeff Balke / Flickr.

Yao Ming. Photo: Jeff Balke / Flickr.

Again, I can speak from personal experience in this area. As a second-language learner of French and later Portuguese I chose a variety of speech role models. No one has ever said I sound like Jacques Dutronc or Karl Zéro when speaking French, but I was motivated to reach for those goals because I believed I could sound kind of like them.

Thinking back on my speech role models for French, and even for my native English, it was clear that my unique voice is a result of having a diversity of speech role models, and my comfort with my voice was due to the fact that I had chosen all those role models. I sound like me because I sound like a combination of several people that I have admired over the years.

As language teachers, we owe it to our students not to turn them into Javier Bardem clones, or to discourage those who feel like they could never be Bardem. John Murphy’s study of reactions to Bardem is valuable because it establishes that a non-native speaker can be an acceptable role model, but we can’t stop at him, or even at the other fourteen that Murphy lists in his Appendix A.

With sites like YouTube at their fingertips, students have access to millions of non-native English speakers. We need to give them the opportunity to choose several non-native speakers, and be prepared to evaluate those speakers as potential role models, so that they can sound like their unique selves, but speaking clear, fluent English (or French or Hmong or whatever).