Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Modeling, take two

I'm still bad at time management. I'll sit there in the conference room and just chat with the poor students.

S modeled a presentation today, and I will on Thursday. This next topic will be something in the presenter's field of study, and they'll have to ask FIVE interactive questions. We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


S & I have discussed some changes to ASE 1 Video / Feedback. One change this semester is that the students are being given assignments: the first presentation was how to do a process-- cake recipe, for example. Second was about a place they'd visited, and for the third they're telling a fairytale or folk tale from their home country. G & M haven't decided on the fourth yet.

There are some great ways to frame a folktale, and a lot of very fun and interesting storytelling devices that can be used. S & I don't think our students are taking advantage of this, and we're wondering whether the students would be better if one of us modeled a presentation.

If we're to do this, then next week I (or S) would start class by introducing the fourth round of presentations, both the topic and the emphases (next week's will be audience awareness, specifically asking & answering questions, as well as adapting the talk for a non-specialst/ specialist audience). Then I'd give a presentation, modeling the skills that I'd just discussed.

Of course this would be good. It would give the students a sample to work from, would hopefully give them some ideas about visual aids, transition techniques, ways of getting the audience involved, etc. And it would be good for me. I'd have T video me just like she videos the students, and so would have visual/ audio data of myself to be analyzed. But it would also be a hell of a lot of work.

I think it's worth it. But the schedule is pretty tight. Will talk with S again soon (tomorrow, maybe) and if she still thinks it's a good idea, we'll go for it. It'll make me a better teacher.


Met with H, and I still don't have a clear feel for the direction we're going with the English hour. It seems mostly to be spot-checking: I notice an error and work with her on it, or she brings issues to my attention and we deal with them. This is okay, but I want to think that a more driven, goal-oriented approach is possible.

And in the course of the Korean hour, have clarified my purpose somewhat. My homework this week is to learn to complain. "I don't know! I don't understand! This is difficult! I'm tired!" It's easy to get bogged down in grammar; it's easy to get bogged down in phonology. But I'd like to have some prefabricated chunks of language under my belt, so that when we dive back into grammar & phonology, there's a reference point.

Why am I studying Korean? Mostly, because it's there. H wanted help with English but couldn't afford to pay me, so we're doing an exchange. That's the ad hoc reason, sure, but in order to direct my language acquisition I need something sturdier.

And let's face it, pure theory bores me. I don't want to sit my native speaker down and examine syntactic oddities for the sake of a thesis. I want to be able to communicate fluently. Because it's useful, just in principle.

"Because it's useful, just in principle" is a vague motivation. Motivations that have worked: 1) got to pass the class! 2) will sink & drown without it! "Because it's interesting" just ain't strong enough. So if I'm going to make this hour of Korean effective and useful, I need to invest more into it.

More on that later. I'm not sure how.


This week I've started tutoring S, an Egyptian who's been fluent in English for nearly a decade. She has a marked but unobtrusive accent-- a little like a brogue, honestly. Wants to eliminate her accent, or at least develop the ability to switch it on and off, because she's going into pharmacology and some of the older more ornery patients have a hard time understanding her.

Her worries are mostly strict pronunciation: the th/s distinction, and the ability to accurately say drug names. And with the exception of a few simple pronunciation errors (saying 'iron' /airon/ instead of /aiern/ [where 'e' is a schwa], for example) , s/th is the only consistent pronunciation problem.

But there is more, and after just one hour working with her here's how I'll describe it: her prosody isn't native. It's like she's mapping English pronunciation onto an inflexible pattern of stress and intonation. So sounds that shouldn't be emphasized will be emphasized, and important sounds will be de-emphasized. Makes for lovely, lilting speech, but not native-sounding American English. We subordinate prosodic features to semantic meaning: important sounds are louder, last longer, and have higher/lower pitch than less important sounds. Our speech can sound choppy and erratic because we're not mapping sounds onto a prosodic pattern: rather we're mapping a meaning-based prosodic pattern onto our sounds.

I have two 60-second sound files of S speaking-- one of her reading aloud from a technical article, and one of her chatting naturally. I need to spend some time analyzing these, see how well I can figure out exactly what she's doing re. stress & intonation. This is going to be a really tough nut to crack, and I've no idea to what extent I can actually help her. I want to say, "don't worry about it! Your English is fluent, your accent is gorgeous, and everybody loves you!" But for her job she does need to be able to switch off that pretty Coptic lilt at will.

At this point, though, I have no idea how to help her.

Raising Awareness

Y, the Japanese girl I tutor, has a linguistics exam coming up and wanted to work, more or less, on IPA transcription. Frankly, I never prepare well enough for this session, am never sure in advance what to work on, don't have a clear syllabus in mind you might say. We just work on issues as they crop up.

But last week I identified a vowel shift between the /i/ in 'see' and in 'she.' After the /sh/, she was pulling her tongue back, turning /i/ into a central vowel [wish blogger could do IPA]. After working a little bit on that, I recorded her saying 'see, she, see, she, see...' emailed the recording to her, and gave her homework to record herself making these alternations and listen to note whether there's a vowel shift-- and if so, how the vowel is shifting. That worked really, really well. Today she came in with a very clear understanding that after /sh/ she has a tendency to centralize /i/. We practiced consciously pushing the tongue forward after /sh/, and Y was able to make a clean /i/ every time.

I'm a technophobe, but excited by this idea of using recording equipment to raise awareness of how one is pronouncing. It's one thing to make an utterance and analyze it while it's being made-- that breaks down pretty quickly, because you don't speak the same when you're listening carefully to yourself. But with recording equipment, you can make the utterances first, and reflect accurately on them afterwards.

And today we ended up working mostly on transcription. Frankly I never took an undergrad linguistics course and haven't been trained in IPA transcription, am pretty bad at it. I admitted that right off the bat, and then we went right in to some vowel issues.

I'm fascinated that she can pronounce some vowels quite accurately, but evidently isn't aware that they are/ aren't distinct vowels-- exactly what a native speaker would do. Said the words 'love' and 'raw' perfectly, then was hard pressed to tell me whether their vowels are the same or different. I got her to look at the IPA transcriptions-- the two vowels have all the same features except that the 'love' vowel is unrounded and the 'raw' vowel is rounded. I said all the words and had her watch my lips; she distinguished the rounded/ unrounded vowels perfectly. Then I had her say the words and watch her own lips; despite flawless pronunciation she was unable to distinguish between rounded and unrounded vowels. So I made her exaggerate: 'pucker up and say "love." Can you do it? Now grin widely and say "love." Does that work?" And when she puckered up she could hear the vowel shift and the word sound unnatural.

Y picked up on this very quickly, and just a third of the way into the list of ten words was able to distinguish rounded from unrounded each time.

So I didn't teach her to make any sounds she was previously unable to make, but was able to raise her awareness of what happens, re. the mouth's mechanics, when a vowel is rounded or unrounded. That's a tiny, tiny step. It will definitely aid her in the exam; will this kind of thing help her to pronounce English more accurately?

In a strict sense, no. She could already make the sounds accurately; we were just thinking about how to describe them.

But in a general sense, yes. She's more aware of her mouth's mechanics, more able to accurately reflect "so what did my tongue/ lips just do there? what would happen if I made them do this instead?" This heightened awareness of her own vocal apparatus should definitely help her observe and reproduce native speech.

Second shoot

Shot my Bangladeshi electrical engineer for the second time yesterday. This time I walked away from the shoot with four pages of notes. How? Brought an ASE assistant along to do the taping for me; I listened in the earpiece and concentrated on observing. I'll still have to watch the tape at least once, and will probably do a bit of transcription. Have been on my toes ever since the shoot and haven't had a chance to reflect on it. Ideally, after a shoot I'll sit down for twenty minutes and write about it, but don't foresee that happening any time soon. Will definitely bring T with me as often as she's willing to come.

R has a command of the material and his pronunciation ain't awful. There are a few issues we'll work on. As is typical of international TAs, he has very high expectations of his students. They should have paid attention during the lecture; they should have done the pre-lab; they should know what's going on. When he introduced the lab he said multiple times, "it's very simple."

Well, simple it ain't. Not to this former English major, at any rate. And the students should be able to do the lab on their own without his help-- but he's paid to be there when they can't do what they ought. I've seen him get frustrated and basically do the work for the students: "No, the wire goes here" as he puts the wire where it goes. The trick, of course, the thing they're paying me to help him find, is to 1) identify the problems. 2) get the student to figure out the answer. Monitor, supervise, guide, but don't get impatient and do the work for the kid. That won't help her a bit.


I'm doing language-exchange; teach English for an hour, get Korean help for an hour. The problem is that I'm not doing my homework-- nor do I have clearly defined homework. It's in my control; H is my test subject. Ideally, this is where I work my skills as a budding linguist, where I theorize and hypothesize for hours and then sit her down with a microphone and make her produce speech.

Or, where I break down and buy myself a textbook, spend five to six hours a day going through it, and then in the hour with H check up on the more difficult or ornery problems; get feedback. She's not a trained language teacher, and Koreans are notoriously bad at reflecting on their own language. But she's a native speaker, and that's a valuable asset.

Textbook seems the wisest course of action. It's not the best way to learn a language, but at least it's a map. Follow it and you'll get somewhere. Textbook, flashcards, the deal. Time-consuming, but I do have time if will only order it better. I need to schedule an hour of Korean per day right there into the desktop calendar, and stick to it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

ASE 2 feedback

Last week I had two shoots, and this week I'm reviewing the tapes and conferencing with the two students.

This is very, very time-consuming. I've had to view each shoot more than once (and that's 40 minutes of tape!) in order to get a sense of the session, and in order to pinpoint specific interactions for analysis. I'd say I've spent between three and four hours on each one, not counting the time it takes to do the shoot, nor the time it takes to conference.

It shouldn't take me this long. Problems?

1. Lack of preparation. Taking twenty to thirty minutes to prepare beforehand should save me hours later. If I show up early to the shoot, I can take my time setting up and chat with the instructor about what he expects from the session. By coming in late, I miss parts of the pre-lab lecture (most important part!) and don't have a clear understanding of what's going on and why.

2. Attentive viewing. I'd been running the video in the background while writing emails or reading. The excuse, of course, is that the video is long and boring. It is. But if I spent forty minutes paying close attention, taking lots of notes, and occasionally rewinding to re-view a specific interation, I might not have to do more than one viewing.

3. Bringing an assistant. Next week, an ASE assistant will accompany me on my shoots, so that I can take notes while she runs the camera. That should save me a considerable amount of time & energy.

4. Equipment check. Before going, I need to be certain to double-check that I have working earphones, so that I can hear the interactions as they occur. That was one of the problems with the first shoot-- the audio recorded fine, but I couldn't hear it while it was happening, so watching the video was really my first time to observe the teacher's interactions.

5. Transcription? For both of these sessions, I've prepared for conferencing by pinpointing about five minutes of interaction and transcribing them word-for-word. This is good for me because it forces me to focus very intensively on just a few moments, and it's good for the instructor because he can look over the transcript with me-- it's harder to discuss video, as it's happening in real-time. But it takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to transcribe five minutes of dialogue-- time-consuming! I'm not prepared to abandon transcription at this point, but eventually I need to come up with a more efficient way of analyzing video.

6. Practice! Let's face it, the more shoots I go on, the more times I analyze tape, the more times I conference, the easier it will be. I'll have a better sense, before-hand, of what I should be looking for.