Wednesday, February 15, 2006

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.


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