Fun with Phonetics on a Saturday: Bringing Linguistics Up to Date with the Other Sciences

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Charles Chang, Linguistics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009

Students often enroll in Linguistics 110, the introductory phonetics course for linguistics majors, with the idea that it will just be more of the same basic transcription and articulatory description they learned in their first linguistics class. They are usually (unpleasantly) surprised at the highly technical nature of the course, which for many students makes it the most difficult course they will take in the major: in fifteen weeks, students are led through a whirlwind of topics in biology, chemistry, physics, and math which form the building blocks of the science of speech. Linguistics 110 is the only course required of both undergraduate and graduate students in linguistics, as well as the only undergraduate requirement that involves an independent research project — a from-scratch phonetic description of an unfamiliar language based upon first-hand elicitation of data from a native speaker consultant.

Another way in which Linguistics 110 is unique among linguistics classes is that it demands a level of facility with computers that goes beyond the basic word processing requirements of most other classes. To type up assignments in the International Phonetic Alphabet, students need to use special fonts; moreover, the course research project, in addition to much of the actual course material, calls for knowledge of speech analysis programs that the vast majority of students have never even heard of, much less used before. These demands on students create a problem for GSIs, because with so much course material to review in section, we are left with little time to get students comfortable with doing the technical things they need to be able to do to fully engage with the course material and write up a thorough analysis of the language they choose for their research project.

Last semester, it became clear that although Linguistics 110 was similar in content to classes in the natural sciences, it was lacking the sort of hands-on, laboratory practicum that is historically an integral component of these classes. Thus, the solution that my co-GSI and I devised to address the shortchanging of technical matters in lecture and section was to hold a series of optional supplementary labs for students. In these labs, we would go through the nuts and bolts of using speech analysis programs as tools for the collection of acoustic data upon which to base conclusions about a language. We would also show students how to make high-quality recordings for their research projects, how to read visual representations of speech, and how to extract these visual displays for use in their projects. It would be like a lab one takes in the natural sciences, and students would bring their laptops so that they could try everything we were doing themselves as we were talking about it. Students would also help create the “syllabus,” suggesting course topics they were struggling with as material we could help reinforce in a different way in the lab. Unfortunately, the only time we could find to hold these labs was on the weekend. So although it was a fine idea, we thought, the only question was: would students actually give up Saturday time to do phonetics? We prepared ourselves with other things to in case no one showed up.

The enthusiastic response from students was astounding. Far from being empty, the first lab was full, and the second was even fuller, with students spilling out into the hallway! So many students came that we decided to split into two rooms covering different topics so that students could better tailor their experience to what they felt they needed help on. The majority of attendees stayed for the whole four hours of the lab, even though they were free to come and go as they pleased. Moreover, student feedback on final course evaluations raved that the “extra labs were fantastic” and “great resources.” But perhaps the clearest indication that the labs were effective was that some students commented later that although they started off hating the acoustics part of the course because it was so technical, it became one of their favorite parts of the course as they practiced using acoustics in the labs. So in the end, students were offered the chance to come get their hands dirty with phonetics, and they came — even though it was on their own time, and even though it was on the weekend. Who woulda thunk?