Thursday, 19 December 2013

Syllable structure matters

You know, I can't remember who I was talking to about this recently or why we got on to the topic, but I have always done my best to educate language teachers (and learners, for that matter) about the importance of syllable structure and phonotactics in learning how to pronounce a new language.

I am, of course, usually coming at it from the angle of someone pronouncing English.

As you doubtless know, accents such as Standard Southern British English (SSBE) have up to three consonants at the start of a syllable (onset consonants) and four consonants at the end (coda consonants), and a syllable usually has a vowel as its peak. The structure of the basic SSBE syllable can therefore be described as follows:


I'd recommend reading Roach (2009) chapter 8 or Cruttenden (2008) section 5.5 for a full description of what clusters are possible in syllable onsets and codas in SSBE. There's also a nice description on the Macquarie Linguistics pages. The main point I want to make here is that not all languages have syllables which are as complex as English (and English does not have the monopoly on complexity), and this is what can lead to problems with pronunciation as much as not being able to produce a sound.

The thing which always surprises me - and perhaps it shouldn't - is that teachers of English from other language backgrounds often know nothing about the phonology of their own language, and so do not understand that a learner's problem with pronouncing a sound in a particular position in the syllable is unlikely to be about not being able to produce the sound per se but that the learner's language does not permit certain sounds in certain positions in the syllable. If, for example, a learner is from a Chinese language background and that language only permits a zero-coda (i.e., no consonants at the end of syllables) or only a nasal of some description in the coda, pronouncing any other consonant at the end of a syllable may be difficult, and pronouncing clusters is going to be an extreme challenge.

In addition, learners have different strategies for dealing with clusters. Some learners (e.g., Japanese) will insert vowels between consonants in a cluster - this process is known as vowel epenthesis - in order to preserve as many consonants as possible. By comparison, Chinese speakers will often elide consonants in order to be more similar to Chinese syllable structure and number. Here's a favourite comparison of mine: In Japan, MacDonald's, which is /məkˈdɒnəldz/ in SSBE, is known as "ma-ku-do-na-ru-do", but in Hong Kong it is known as "mak-do-nau", with a strongly glottalised and unreleased [k] in the first syllable. Japanese tends to preserve the consonants but Cantonese preserves the number of syllables.

In World Englishes, we often see patterns of syllable structure influenced by a speaker's L1 or the indigenous language(s) of the region in which English has been adopted. This may be why speakers of many varieties of English around the world drop third-person singular "-s"; the meaning of it is retrievable from the context, and it's a rather superfluous inflection which is likely to be dropped anyway in complex codas in many L2 Englishes. 

Does it matter that clusters are simplified? Yes, it does, if intelligibility and therefore meaning is compromised. One is unlikely to be misunderstood if leaving off third-person singular "-s", but it becomes more of a problem in other contexts; my understanding of a Hong Kong English pronunciation of MacDonald's (I'd asked what the student's favourite things were) was that the speaker had said Madonna, thanks largely to the lack of consonants at the end of the word.

What can teachers do about this? First, one needs to be aware of the syllable constraints of the L1 of the learners you are going to be teaching, so you have an idea of whether they are used to complex syllable onsets and codas to start with. If not, chances are learners will be able to produce singleton consonants and some clusters in onset position with little difficulty, but codas are always more problematic.

One strategy, if coda consonants are a problem, is to try to "slide" the coda consonants into the next word; this doesn't always work, but it can also help learners with listening if they can understand that speech is a stream rather than a string of discrete words, and so it may well sound like coda consonants belong to the next word. For example, in a phrase such as "MacDonald's is my favourite", one could slide the final /z/ of MacDonald's into the start of the word "is" and it would then be a little more straightforward for the listener to retrieve.


Cruttenden, A. (ed). (2008). Gimson's Pronunciation of English (7th ed.). London: Hodder Education.

Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology (4th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Flipping phonetics

I am so sorry I've not posted for a while; it's been a hectic term!

One of the reasons it's been hectic is because I've been trying a different method of delivering some of my English phonetics and phonology classes and that - as always - entails preparation which takes TIME ... but time well spent which has been worth it.

I first heard about the flipped classroom from my friend and colleague Dr Patricia Ashby who is now an Emeritus Fellow of the University of Westminster. You may know Patricia from her excellent books Speech Sounds and Understanding Phonetics. She presented "Flipping Phonetics" at the Phonetics Teaching and Learning Conference at UCL in 2011; you can read the paper by clicking HERE, and will notice that the results for the topics Patricia "flipped" were very impressive.

The flipped classroom basically involves presenting what would normally be lecture content via vodcasts which the students watch ahead of the class, thus allowing more time in the actual class itself for practical work. This approach works well in the sciences where a lot of practical work is needed for students to progress, and Patricia had noticed how it was also suitable for phonetics, which also requires a lot of rehearsal of skills and time for class discussion of issues.

I had wanted to try this for a while as I have been becoming increasingly concerned that the growing number of students I have in my class meant that I had less time to spend with each of them and that it was difficult to support individual student needs. Thanks to a small grant from the University of Reading's "Partnerships in Learning and Teaching" (PLanT) pilot scheme, I was able to buy some software to do video capture of my desktop which enables me to record video and audio of me narrating my way through my lecture slides. I then post these on our virtual learning environment, Blackboard, for the students to view ahead of class.

The PLanT scheme also enabled me to work with students to produce materials for the post-exams period at Reading to scaffold first year students' learning in preparation for the English phonetics and phonology module in Year 2. You can read about this HERE and HERE (see p. 79).

One set of the vodcasts is on YouTube and I've posted them below if you'd like to take a look.  We follow Peter Roach's English Phonetics and Phonology on this course, and this class presents material from chapters 15-17. In it you will see some embedded YouTube clips and also the excellent programme RT pitch which is available for download from UCL's wonderful phonetics and speech resources.

I would value feedback on these videos (aside from the fact that I say "so" a lot!) either at the end of this message or on the YouTube pages themselves via my channel (be warned: also contains some videos of one of my bands, Crimson Sky).

Students' responses so far have been very positive. They mention how appreciative they are to have more time in the class to work on practical skills. They also indicate how presenting material this way aids independent learning and allows students to take notes at their own pace, and they can of course return to these videos when it comes to exam revision; our exams are in May/June so there is a lot of time to forget the content. One student has written a blog post of her own about this (lots of other good stuff on there!), and another comments: "Your delivery and humour makes them very interesting and engaging." They have asked for other tutors to adopt this method and I hope some of my staff will consider it.

Last year I was disappointed to see that the average overall marks among undergraduates for the dictation test we do at the end of term had dropped by around 11 percentage points. I usually expect the average to be in the mid-to-low 60s; the previous year's average had been around 66%.  I'm just about to mark the transcription tests this year and will report back on whether they have improved with an update to this post.

UPDATE #1: I've marked 20 out of 59 scripts and can report that the current average is **over 15 percentage points higher***. Watch this space ...

UPDATE #2: Having finished the marking, I can confirm that the average is up over 10 percentage points on last year's dictation test scores. Although not quite as impressive as 15%, it's still pretty darned good!