Monday, 17 September 2012

Fresh prints ...

This isn't exactly a global Englishes-related post but I've explained this once or twice recently so I thought it might be worth blogging about.

One of my former students in HK asked me the following on Facebook:

"About the coda /ts/:
  • Why is there an italicised /t/ before /s/ in the transcriptions of words like 'dance', 'finance', 'answer' in some learner dictionaries? 
  • Is there now a systematic use of this /t/ in British English native speakers?"

My response:

"This means that, although there is no 't' in the spelling, it is sometimes pronounced by a speaker. This is called an epenthetic /t/.

"The reason it occurs is because there is a homorganic nasal + fricative (in this case, /ns/). For a nasal the velum is lowered but for an obstruent like /s/ the velum has to be raised.

"In the sequence of articulation, if the velum is raised while the tongue is still making a complete contact with the alveolar ridge and upper side molars before the tongue moves to a narrow approximation with the alveolar ridge, there may be plosion rather than a straightforward narrow/fricative release.

"Compare the two words 'mints' and 'mince', which can sound the same in e.g. RP."

After discussing /t/ epenthesis on the UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics this year, one of my class told me the following joke:

Q: How do you find Will Smith after a blizzard?
A: Go outside and look for the fresh prints in the snow.

Love it!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A skiing problem

Here's an interesting one.

One of my PhD students based in SE Asia, who teaches English language proficiency classes among other things, asked me what the correct response to this statement would be from the list of four options, because it appears on a test of English language proficiency.  She said the teachers had all been arguing about it.

I'll post the item here and then you can let me know what you think the answer is.

A: I'll never go skiing again.

B: (select one)
i.    Me too.
ii.   Me so.
iii.  Me neither.
iv.  Me either.

Your responses please!

Monday, 10 September 2012

The "cooperative rise" in Malay English

My PhD student Noor Fadhilah Mat Nayan, who successfully defended her thesis on my birthday earlier this year, has written on intonation in Malay English - as opposed to Malaysian English - and has found an interesting feature (well, it's all interesting as far as I'm concerned but this is one of the most interesting bits).  She calls this feature the "cooperative rise".

Unlike uptalk - also known as the high-rising terminal or HRT (see Wikipedia on this topic) - the pattern is not used in statements, which would commonly have a falling tone in my English but not that of my undergraduate students (I sometimes joke that I'm too young for one type of HRT and too old for the other!  Ahem).  The use of uptalk is common in American and Australian English and, in fact, its appearance in British English is sometimes blamed on the popularity since the 1980s of Australian soap operas, which usually feature younger speakers many of whom use uptalk.  From the point of view of discourse meaning, one suggestion is that using a high-rising terminal at the end of a phrase is an appeal to the listener to be more involved in the conversation, and another is that it shows the reader is seeking approval from the listener in a sort of "inclusion in the social group" kind of way.

In Malay English, however, the cooperative rise identified by Noor seems to be doing something slightly different.  Here's a transcript of an example, where the tones are indicated at the start of the tone unit as follows: R = rise, CR = cooperative rise, F = fall and L = level.

 / CR oK | CR we move forWARD | R STRAIGHT | F we going DOWN | F SOrry | CR we going DOWN | CR and THEN | CR move forWARD | CR go STRAIGHT | L and THEN | L we going to GO | CR we going to turn RIGHT | ... /

Stressed syllables here are marked with capitals.  You can see that Malay English does not necessarily stress the same syllables as e.g. British English, which would have initial stress on forward in this passage.  We found that the stress in polysyllabic words could be quite variable with e.g. monastery being stressed MONastery, monaSTERy and monaST'RY by the same speaker.

Noor's data is from map tasks and so the bulk of the interaction is spent giving directions.  The CR is found to be statistically significantly different in pitch range and duration from the "normal" rising tone and seems to be used by Malay speakers of English to slowly guide the interlocutor in an encouraging and highly cooperative way, as if to say "let's work this problem out this together".  There is no question that the listener is paying attention, as there might be with HRT, and no sense that the speaker is seeking social approval.  There's a definite soothing, laid back feel about the speech ... and I have to say it sounds very attractive when you listen to the recordings.

Anyone who is au fait with the English spoken by Malay speakers will no doubt have come across this feature but nobody had documented it until now.  We'll be writing some research papers on this soon so keep an eye out for them.

[Dear readers - I do apologise for not having posted anything in a while.  Life has not got any less hectic - I'm now Head of the Department of English Language & Applied Linguistics for one thing - but I'll try to visit and update this blog more often.]

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

ELF at university ..?

Wednesday 16th May 2012 saw the official launch of Southampton's Centre for Global Englishes, directed by Professor Jennifer Jenkins. I attended the event and it was truly superb.

Jenny also appeared in the Times Higher Education on Thursday talking about the Centre and about issues around the English of international students studying in the US and UK.  Apologies for the quote within a quote but: '"If you talk about internationalisation," the professor of global Englishes told Times Higher Education, "you have to extend that to the language people are using"' (see article).

Jenny is no stranger to controversy.  When the Lingua Franca Core (LFC*) came to attention in the late 90s and in Jenny's subsequent 2000 book, it shocked many in the English pronunciation teaching community and provoked a bit of a backlash (/understatement).  The first time I gave an overview of it at UCL's Summer Course in English Phonetics during my Teaching Pronunciation lecture, I could feel the disapproval rising from some members of the audience like steam rising from a simmering pot.

(In another episode, when asked to give a keynote talk on advancements in pronunciation teaching at a conference somewhere in Central Europe, I presented the LFC framework and how one might use it pedagogically.  At the end of the conference the organisers asked me - without warning - if I'd like to give the closing speech; when I asked what they'd like me to say, the response was: "It doesn't matter.  We just want to listen to your beautiful RP accent."  Well, I suppose there's room for both ... but I don't actually have RP.)

Anyway, back to the issue in hand: the English people are using - or, more specifically, the English overseas students whose L1 is not English are using - in academic contexts in e.g. the UK.  Are students marked down for writing or speaking if they make words like "information" plural or miss off third person singular present tense final -s?  Should they be if this does not impede intelligibility?

Having spent a term discussing issues such as this, I did actually question my own practice in the module English in the World when it came to marking assignments this year produced by L2 English speakers (this was before I attended the opening of the Centre) - but the thing is, would they thank me for not correcting their English?  And anyway, we're not supposed to know which student is which because all the marking has to take place using anonymised scripts (like that works in a small group when you've discussed assignment outlines with each of them); if I've got a group of international and home students, how do I know which ones to apply ELF-influenced marking-criteria to?  Do I just apply them to everyone?  And how will the home students feel if I don't pick them up on very obvious mistakes?

... although of course if they've made the obvious mistake in the first place they might not realise I'd intentionally not commented on it.

ELF (that's English as a Lingua Franca - sorry for not glossing it sooner) and the LFC do not seek to prohibit students learning Standard English of any kind if that is their wish.  In my experience - at least up to now - it very often IS their wish.  They've come to the UK and they want to know what it is they are doing which is not "correct".  I have no problem with this, but I will be discussing it with the MA and Erasmus groups in my English in the World class next year to see how they would like me to mark them when it comes to nearness to Standard English norms vs non-problematic ELF usage.  Expect a report on that.

The fact that L2 students can and do get marked down for "poor English" can also lead to another issue: that of proof reading.

We do actually recommend some students get their draft work proof read, particularly if previous examples of their work have been very difficult to follow and our efforts at academic writing support are not proving heavy-duty enough.  However, in more than one case over the years, the proof-reading has been so extreme that we are left questioning the provenance of the work.  Could this student, of whose writing we have other samples, possibly have produced this piece of work?  How much of it is the student's work in terms of ideas and how much of it comes from the proof-reader?  What do we do in these cases?  I won't go into detail here; you can see the sort of road an insistence on adherence to Standard English can sometimes take us down.

Well, as usual, I've raised lots of issues and have no immediate answers.  Over to you.

*For a light-touch summary of the LFC's contents, see this page provided by the British Council.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Thoughts following my Stockholm presentation

I'm just back from Stockholm where I'd been invited to speak by Prof Philip Shaw (thank you Philip!). I gave a presentation on speech rhythm and intonation in HKE and also a bit of an overview of some of my PhD student's work on intonation in Malay English, followed by discussion with the attendant staff members. One of the things we talked about was the difference between the World Englishes and the learner Englishes viewpoints.

When I went to give a presentation in HK publicising the book on HKE (Setter, Wong & Chan 2010), one of the most interesting things was the attitude of some of the scholars present to the notion that HKE was an emergent variety of English. Cathy (Wong) and I were trying to present in the World Englishes paradigm by looking at the features of HKE and showing that there were many stable patterns which could be indicative of the formation of a NVE. Pronunciation in HKE, for example, is actually fairly stable, and so one could claim that, owing to this stability across speakers, it has become an identifying feature of the variety. However, more than one of the audience members completely rejected this notion, saying that it was only possible to look at English in Hong Kong as some kind of bad learner language.

I was actually quite taken aback by this at the time. Personally, I find it quite exciting to think those of us working on HKE might be present at the emergence of a NVE; it seemed rather negative to just rubbish this whole notion as those HK scholars were doing. However, I originally came from an ELT background and, looking at it from that perspective - as most (?) in HK probably do - HKE could be viewed as a kind of group fossilisation in which learners of English in HK have got stuck at a particular (erroneous) point and are just unable or unmotivated to progress past this.

But is the situation with World Englishes any different from the home grown ones of e.g. the UK? There are linguists and phoneticians who objectively document the differences in UK varieties of English in terms of the linguistic systems which have developed in different regions of the country, but at school one has to learn to speak and write in standard English (not RP - that's merely a prestige variant) and people are constantly writing in to the media complaining about how awful some popular figure's English is or how our children can't spell and punctuate any more. I recently saw a news report on a scheme in primary schools in Essex which is providing elocution lessons as this improves children's spelling. So those educationalists in HK (and other countries) who claim that HKE is just "poor English" have something in common with many others around the world, including those from the UK. Who knows - maybe one day we will spell "thing" with an "f" and "they" with a "d" in standard varieties of English if speakers in such different contexts as Essex and HK pronounce them as such ... but right now that's not acceptable in English pronunciation if one is taking the non-World Englishes view.

Hmm ... this is a bit of a rant. But hey - what are blogs for if not for a bit of a rant now and then? My thoughts on this matter are not fully formed. Over to you.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Intelligibility and familiarity RULE! apparently ...

Today's class was looking at the legitimacy of varieties of English, among other things.

Whenever I do this class, the students looking at the different language/varietal examples always decide if something is legitimate based on two aspects: intelligibility and familiarity. Whether or not it is "pure" - whatever that means - doesn't seem to have a bearing. For example, they always decide that Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is not legitimate, as it does not fit the two criteria of intelligibility and familiarity.

I always feel rather good about the decision to base legitimacy on intelligibility; if a speaker of English is clearly spoken, or if written language expresses ideas clearly, then that's the important thing as far as I'm concerned, although this may not address the issues raised in the term "legitimate". The familiarity criterion is something of a problem, however.

In terms of whether a variety of English is accepted as a New Variety (NVE), of course it has to be shown that the code has regular, observable patterns which are used by a homogeneous group of people in a number of different settings. Having the variety as an L1 is also often given as an important criterion. However, this does not mean that the NVE is necessarily intelligible, and it is not always the case that it is going to be very familiar to all other speakers of English.

Here is the conflict - if you like - between the description and acceptance of NVEs / world Englishes and approaches such as the Lingua Franca Core; just because something is an established variety it does not mean it is intelligible (many accents of British English are not, for example) but, in order for people across the world to communicate in English, if it is to be THE international language, there has to be enough commonality in the code for people to be able to understand each other and - at least to some extent - for it not to be too unfamiliar.

So what we're talking about here is people being diglossic, i.e., having access to and being able to use both their own variety of English and to be able to switch to a code which is intelligible to as many (other) speakers of English as possible. This situation already exists in some countries such as Singapore, which has Standard Singapore English and also the more localised Singlish, often vilified as basilectal. This is a bit of a simplistic description but it will do for now.

Is this too much to ask? Well, I don't think so, but I'm fortunate enough to speak a variety or ideolect which, I'm told by a lot of people, is very clear - and I haven't got RP (which, in its most extreme form, is not always clear!). Where other native speakers of Old Varieties of English (OVEs) are concerned, this may be a hard sell; if you've been speaking English all your life and then someone tells you you'll need to change it so someone "foreign" can understand you, rather than the other way around, my sense is that there might well be resistance to this.

English, just as any language, grows and changes. What speakers of OVEs who are not intelligible have got to realise is that, to keep up, their English will need to grow and change, too. I really wouldn't want us to get left behind. We're fortunate enough as it is that English has emerged as the international lingua franca in the way it has; resting on our laurels is really not an option.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Native and non-native speaker teachers

In today's class we talked about some of the issues surrounding native and non-native speaker (NS and NNS) teachers. I told the students a bit about my history in English language teaching (ELT) as an example.

I went to Japan at the end of my first degree, which was in Language Studies and English - so, broadly, Linguistics. I'd spent the summers between the various years of my degree teaching English at schools which provided you with some training before you entered the classroom, and was recruited by a fairly well-known school of English when I graduated for the final summer before leaving for Japan. I also tried to learn a bit of Japanese before going.

I'd (naively) assumed that the school I went to work for in Japan would have recruited graduates with a similar background to me, i.e., those with relevant degrees who had some experience of teaching. Not so. My peers had degrees in unrelated areas (such as History) and most of them had no experience teaching prior to arriving in Japan, although this did change a bit with the recruits who came after I arrived.

Not having any training doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to be a poor teacher; a lot of it is about aptitude and personality, after all. But to turn up with little or no explicit knowledge about one's own language and be expected to teach English seems rather odd to me, particularly as this was a private school of English and not something like the JET or NET scheme, for which NS graduates are often recruited to take conversation classes or similar in state schools (so a bit more like a classroom assistant).

Anyway, as I was saying, this had come up in the context of the general issues around NS and NNS teachers and why the NS teacher still seems to be held up as the paragon when, in fact, NNS teachers - particularly if they are from the same background as their learners - bring with them a wealth of extremely valuable skills and relevant experience.

This discussion throws up all sorts of other issues to do with models and norms and difference vs. deficit.

Have I got a pronouncement to make on this topic? Well, I suppose it has to be this: that one's duty as a teacher is to provide a good model for your students, preferably one which is intelligible to the majority of speakers of English (not all NSs can claim that), and to have a good understanding of the language you are teaching and at mimimum a working understanding of the language(s) your students speak. I couldn't claim to be fluent in Japanese when I arrived but I was pretty good when I left (more than 20 years ago now!). I will hold my hand up and admit that I never got to grips with Cantonese, but I did know the phonology of it inside out from doing research on speech rhythm in HKE.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Research-led teaching / teaching-led research

I'm teaching my English in the World class this term and part of the assessment is that students take part in one of my research projects. I'm replicating one done by Andy Sewell at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, on Hongkongers' attitudes to (mostly) HKE accents and the aspects of the pronunciation of the speakers which affect intelligibility. My students are mostly British with little or no exposure to HKE. The students also have to do a sort of "blog-post" on the discussion board for the class, commenting on taking part in the research, difficulties they faced, what they liked, whether they'd set up the experiment differently, etc. I'll present the results towards the end of the term, and have recruited an RA from amongst the students to help collate the responses.

It's quite interesting to do this as it gives them the opportunity to interact (to some extent) with 1) a variety of world Englishes and 2) research. Some of them are doing dissertations at the moment (it's a mixed class of second and third years with some MA students in there too) so are already at the rock face when it comes to research design, but they still seem to appreciate the point of taking part in this and evaluating the experience. I'll be interested to see just how much the results differ from Andy's when we put them together.

Last year they acted as subjects in Peggy Mok, Low Ee Ling and my study on the perception and production of word juncture cues in British English (BE), Singapore English (SE) and HKE. We got a couple of conference papers out of that and I'm currently writing up the perception results now (when I'm not blogging / writing a chapter on world Englishes / dealing with day-to-day work issues / being a rock star).

I'm actually waiting to find out if I've won a bilateral research grant to investigate issues of intelligibility in more depth across European and South East Asian speakers of English. The result of the call is supposed to be out this month ... Wish me luck!

Students also do an analysis of a speaker of Jamaican English for the class. Last year it was an Indian English speaker and there was a bit of code-mixing in there, too, which some managed to decipher and others didn't. I'd like to think this is broadening the horizons of my students, but I sometimes wonder if they just look upon it as yet another task. I hope not.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Why does the world need another blog on Englishes?

Well, I guess it doesn't, really - but I've been asked to write a book chapter on World Englishes and I thought it would be nice to have somewhere to share my thoughts, observations and notes on some of the varieties I come into contact with and issues to do with English around the world.

My research in this area is primarily on Hong Kong English (HKE). This began because I was living in Hong Kong at the time and had to find something to write a PhD on. There is a lot of discussion about whether HKE is a variety or an emerging variety or (just) a learner language, and this is something which is faced by many Englishes around the world. At the time, I was coming from it as a teacher of English as a foreign language; the issues to do with the validity of HKE as a variety hadn't really occurred to me until I'd finished the thesis, which was on speech rhythm in HKE. One gets so tied up in these things it's sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees. Anyway, since then I've produced a book on HKE with colleagues in Hong Kong (Edinburgh University Press 2010) and have been teaching a class on World Englishes since 2004.

It's a fascinating area, not just because of the richness of different varieties around the world - including the UK - but also because of the socio-political and economic issues involved. I hope anyone reading this will be interested in what I've got to say as a member of Kachru's Inner Circle looking out, and that you'll be prepared to interact with me in order to discuss and inform.