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From technical to teachable: Phonetics and phonology

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Title: From technical to teachable: Phonetics and phonology
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: As linguists, we value our jargon and training since they allow us to make precise, explicit characterizations of linguistic phenomena. However, it is easy to recognize that this same jargon prevents non-linguists, community members and teachers in particular, from engaging with the literature in a useful way (see, e.g. Penfield & Tucker 2011). Based on workshops given at the Oklahoma Breath of Life (Author 2014) and the Annual Symposium on the American Indian (Author 2012), I discuss specific activities that can be used in the classroom/workshop to make linguistic knowledge from the highly technical sub-fields of phonetics and phonology more accessible to language teachers and language users.

This paper consists of three parts. First, since highlighting L1-L2 similarities can have a positive effect on L2 comprehension and production (Ringbom 1987, 1992, 2007), I provide a list of IPA sounds that can be illustrated in terms of English phonemes and allophones (which could be extended straightforwardly to other languages). For example, English does not have a palatal stop phoneme /c/, but [c] appears as an allophone at the beginning of words like key (Ladefoged & Johnson 2010), and having participants contrast that with the sound at the beginning of car can help them distinguish [c] from [k].

Second, I provide a technique for motivating language teachers, students, and language users to ‘buy in’ to the need for learning at least some phonetics jargon. The thumbnail version of the exercise is: give an explanation for a sound like [p] and then ask participants to describe a number of other sounds such as [t, k, b, g, m, n…]. Having participants think about how to describe a sound helps them see the value of some jargon – for example, agreeing on precise labels for different parts of the vocal tract.

Third, I provide an illustration for how to discuss and explain the phoneme vs. allophone distinction in phonology without ever using the terms phoneme or allophone. The guiding principle is that these concepts can be made accessible to non-specialists when recast in more common but less precise terms and illustrated repeatedly with concrete examples from languages they know or study.

In sum, by actively de-jargoning linguistic material and giving up a small amount of precision and technical detail, linguistic knowledge can be made much more usable in language learning environments, and this, in turn, can result in higher quality language instruction in the community.

Author. 2014. Phonetics II: More Sounds and how to read them. Presented at the 2014 Breath of Life Workshop and Documentation Project. Sam Noble Museum, Norman, Oklahoma. May 18-23rd.

Author. 2012. Teaching the unique sounds of your language. Presented at the 40th Annual Symposium on the American Indian. Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, OK. April 9-14th.

Ladefoged, P. & K. Johnson. 2010. A Course in Phonetics, 6th edition. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Penfield, S.D. & Tucker, B.V. 2011. From Documenting to Revitalizing an Endangered Language: Where do Applied Linguists Fit? Language and Education, 25: 291-305.

Ringbom, H. 1987. The role of the first language in foreign language learning. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Ringbom, H. 1992. On L1 transfer in L2 comprehension and L2 production. Language Learning 42: 85-112.

Ringbom, H. 2007. Cross-linguistic similarity in foreign language learning. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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