I is for Intelligibility

28 05 2017

man on phoneI phoned my Spanish internet provider the other day and tried to explain a problem I was experiencing. Clearly, I was unintelligible because the operator immediately switched me to an English-speaking operator. Even then, I had trouble getting my message across, because I didn’t know how to say ‘tráfico de datos’ in English. Was I again being unintelligible, or simply incomprehensible?

This reminded me that, in a session on my MA TESOL course last summer, during a discussion on the goals of pronunciation teaching, one student mentioned the fact that she’d heard that there was a distinction between intelligibility and comprehensibility, and she asked me to explain the difference.

I volunteered an off-the-cuff explanation (as one does!), suggesting that intelligibility is a function of speakers (and particularly of their pronunciation), while comprehensibility (invoking Krashen) is a function of texts. Or, put another way, output is (to a greater or lesser extent) intelligible, while input is (to a greater or lesser extent) comprehensible.

Even as I said this, I could see there were problems. Communication is by definition reciprocal, so is it possible to gauge either intelligibility or comprehensibility without reference to interlocutors – either listeners or readers? Moreover, whether listening to a speaker or reading a text, your degree of understanding is going to be experienced in a similar way: ‘I understand it a bit, a lot, or not at all.’

Since that awkward day (sorry, Autumn, my bad!), I’ve had a chance to research the difference.  For example, Munro, Derwing  and Morton (2006, p. 112), referencing earlier work by the first two authors, define intelligibility ‘as the extent to which a speaker’s utterance is actually understood’, whereas comprehensibility ‘refers to the listener’s estimation of difficulty in understanding an utterance’. (So I wasn’t entirely wrong, perhaps). They further distinguish both from accentedness, i.e. the degree to which the pronunciation of an utterance sounds different from an expected production pattern.’ And they add: ‘Although comprehensibility and accentedness are related to intelligibility, they are partially independent dimensions of L2 speech.  An utterance that is rated by a listener as “heavily accented,” for instance, might still be understood perfectly by the same listener.  Furthermore, two utterances that are fully intelligible might entail perceptibly distinct degrees of processing difficulty, such that they are rated differently for comprehensibility.’

On the other hand, and markedly differently, Nelson (2011), referencing papers by Smith (1992) and Smith and Nelson (1985), defines intelligibility as ‘word and/or utterance recognition, involving the sound system’, and comprehensibility as ‘word/utterance meaning, or locutionary force’. To further complicate matters, they introduce the term interpretability, i.e. ‘the meaning behind the word/utterance, or illocutionary force’.

MacKay (2002, p. 52) helpfully (?) unpacks these distinctions with an example:

If a listener recognises that the word salt is an English word rather than a Spanish word, English is then intelligible to him or her. If the listener in addition knows the meaning of the word, it is comprehensible, and if he or she understands that the phrase, ‘Do you have any salt?’, is intended to be a request for salt, then he or she is said to be able to interpret the language.

Put another way, if you’re having trouble understanding someone, it may be a case of not recognizing what they’re saying (likely their fault), or not knowing what they mean (probably your fault), or not knowing what their intention is (could be anyone’s fault). Going back to my exchange on the phone, I can sort of apply these distinctions, but I’m also wondering if accentedness was the reason why I was switched to the English-speaking operator, since the first operator made no attempt even to negotiate some sort of understanding. (Mercifully, in a subsequent conversation with yet another operator, I was actually congratulated on my Spanish – probably because, although heavily accented, I was intelligible. Or do I mean  comprehensible?)

cómo es carlosThis raises another issue related to intelligibility: that it is highly subjective. As Rajagopolan (2010, p. 467) argues, ‘No matter how one tries to define intelligibility from a neutral standpoint, the question that cries out for an answer is: “intelligible for who?”’ Why was I intelligible to one of my interlocutors but not to another? Was it, indeed, nothing to do with accent at all, but more to do with attitude? After all, it is not accents that are intelligible, it is people.  I never tire of quoting Bamgbose (1998) on the subject: ‘Preoccupation with intelligibility has often taken an abstract form characterized by decontextualised comparison of varieties. The point is often missed that it is people, not language codes, that understand one another” (quoted in Jenkins,  2007, p. 84). Thus, intelligibility may have as much to do with our overall impression of a speaker as it has to do with the intrusiveness of their accent (or lack thereof) – not dissimilar to the notion of ‘comfortable intelligibility’ (Kenworthy 1987) or ‘perceived fluency’ (Lennon 2000, cited in Götz 2013).

Either way, this doesn’t provide a lot of solace to those who have to assess a learner’s pronunciation, as in the kinds of oral tests favoured by many public exams nowadays, using descriptors such as these:

  • is easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimal effect on intelligibility
  • can generally be understood throughout, though mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times

What are the chances that any two raters will agree?

References

Götz, S. (2013) Fluency in native and nonnative English speech. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Jenkins, J.  (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kenworthy J (1987) Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow:  Longman.

McKay, S. (2002) Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Munro, M.J., Derwing, T.M., & Morton, S.L. (2006) ‘The mutual intelligibility of L2 speech.’ Studies in Second language Acquisition, 28.

Nelson, C. L. (2011). Intelligibility in World Englishes: Theory and Application. New York: Routledge.

Rajagopolan, K. (2010) ‘The soft ideological underbelly of the notion of intelligibility in discussions about “World Englishes”.’ Applied Linguistics, 31/3.

Smith, L. E. (1992). Spread of English and issues of intelligibility. In B. B. Kachru (ed.) The Other Tongue: English across Cultures (Second Edition). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Smith, L. E. and Nelson, C. L. (1985). ‘International intelligibility of English: Directions and resources.’ World Englishes, 4(3).

Illustrations by Quentin Blake from Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.





A is for Accommodation

6 01 2013

You may well have seen this YouTube clip a month or so ago: British footballer Joey Barton is interviewed in France not long after having debuted for the Marseille football club.  Much commented upon – and mocked – was his thick French accent, despite his being a native speaker of English and speaking little or no French. The Daily Mail, for example, described it as ‘an embarrassing display’ and ‘a comedy French accent’. Judge for yourself…

What Barton of course was doing (although neither he nor the Daily Mail named it as such) was accommodating his accent to that of his audience. Accommodation, as Robin Walker (2010: 97) reminds us, is ‘the ability to adjust your speech and aspects of spoken communication so that they become more (or less) like that of your interlocutors’.  David Crystal (2003: 6) adds that, ‘among the reasons why people converge towards the speech pattern of their listener are the desires to identify more closely with the listener, to win social approval, or simply to increase the communicative efficiency of the interaction’.

Winning social approval may well have motivated Barton, a newcomer to the region, to assume a French accent. But more important still was the need to be intelligible: in his defence he had said that ‘it is very difficult to do a press conference in Scouse for a room full of French journalists. The alternative is to speak like a ‘Allo Allo!’ character’.

Whatever the reason, Barton’s much-publicized accommodation is a good, if extreme, example of what most of us tend to do naturally and instinctively, and not just at the level of accent.  Jenny Jenkins (2000: 169) identifies a wide range of linguistic and prosodic features that are subject to convergence between speakers, ‘such as speech rate, pauses, utterance length, pronunciation and… non-vocal features such as smiling and gaze’.

Basic English 1 two figures01And, as Richardson et al., (2008: 75) note, ‘conversational partners do not limit their behavioural coordination to speech. They spontaneously move in synchrony with each other’s speech rhythms’, a finding which is likened to the ‘synchrony, swing, and coordination’ displayed by members of a jazz band. The researchers tracked the posture and gaze position of conversants to show that this coordination is not simply a byproduct of the interaction, but the physical embodiment of the speakers’ cognitive alignment – ‘an intimate temporal coupling between conversants’ (p. 88) or, (in T.S.Eliot’s words) ‘the whole consort dancing together’.

Arguably, accommodation occurs not only at the paralinguistic level, but at the linguistic one too. As we speak, for example, we are continuously monitoring our interlocutor’s degree of understanding, and adjusting our message accordingly. This is especially obvious in the way we talk to children and non-native speakers, forms of talk called  ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’, respectively. Both varieties are characterized by considerable simplification, although there are significant differences. Caretaker talk is often pitched higher and is slower than talk used with adults, but, while simpler, is nearly always grammatically well-formed. Foreigner talk, on the other hand, tolerates greater use of non-grammatical, pidgin-like forms, as in ‘me wait you here’, or ‘you like drink much, no?’

Various theories have been proposed as to how speakers modify their talk like this. One is that they ‘regress’ to an early stage in their own language development. Another is that they negotiate a mutually-intelligible degree of communication. A third (and this is really a form of accommodation) is that they simply match their language to that of their interlocutor, imitating its simplifications, including its lack of grammatical accuracy. Rod Ellis (1994: 265), however, thinks that this explanation is unlikely, as ‘it is probably asking too much of learners’ interlocutors to measure simultaneously the learners’ phonology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse with sufficient accuracy to adjust their own language output’.

However, this was written before the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, and their key role in enabling imitative behavior.  As Iacoboni (2008: 91-92) observes, ‘the fact that the major language area of the human brain is also a critical area for imitation and contains mirror neurons offers a new view of language and cognition in general’.  According to Iacobini, it is because of these mirror neurons that ‘during conversations we imitate each other’s expressions, even each other’s syntactic constructions… If one person engaged in a dialogue uses the word “sofa” rather than the word “couch,” the other person engaged in the dialogue will do the same’ (op. cit. 97-98).

It seems, then, that as humans we are hard-wired to imitate one another.

Basic English 1 two figures02So, what are the implications for language teaching? In the interests both of intelligibility and establishing ‘comity’, Joey Barton’s adaptive accent strategy may be the way to go. For learners of English, whose interlocutors may not themselves be native speakers, this may mean learning to adapt to other non-native speaker accents. As Jenkins (2007: 238) argues, ‘in international communication, the ability to accommodate  to interlocutors with other first languages than one’s own… is a far more important skill than the ability to imitate the English of a native speaker.’

So, in the interests of mutual intelligibility, rather than teaching pronunciation per se, maybe we should be teaching accommodation skills. The question, of course, is how?

References:

Crystal, D. (2003) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition) Oxford: Blackwell.

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Iacoboni, M. (2008) Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Basic English 1 two figures03Richardson, D.C., Dale, R., & Shockley, K., (2008) ‘Synchrony and swaying in conversation: coordination, temporal dynamics, and communication,’ in Wachsmuth, I., Lenzen, M., & Knoblich, G. (eds) Embodied Communication in Humans and Machines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Ogden, C.K. (ed.) (n.d.) The Basic Way to English, London: Evans Brothers.





P is for Phonemic Chart

8 08 2010

(That’s phonEMIC, not phonETIC, by the way. There’s a big difference!)

Ever since I’ve been teaching in the US I’ve been challenged by the need to devise a chart of the phonemes of American English (General American or GA) that can be used in the same way as the original British English (RP) chart, both as a training and a teaching tool. (Incidentally, it’s an often overlooked fact that the layout of the original RP chart – along with lots of ways of exploiting it in class – is due to the work of Adrian Underhill).

Adrian Underhill's 'Sound Foundations' Chart (Macmillan)

In fact, the search for a GA equivalent goes back even earlier, to 1995, when I was assessing a CELTA course here in New York and was surprised to find that the language analysis trainer was trying to knock the round peg of GA sounds into the square hole of the RP chart. Fifteen years later I discover that not much has changed: another large training organisation here is using an “Americanized” version of the original RP chart, but one which not only includes five more vowel sounds than GA is normally credited with having, but adds two diphthongs ( /ʌɪ/ and /ɔʊ/) that, as far as I know, belong to no known variety of English!

Of course, the problem of devising a GA chart is complicated by the fact that – unlike the case of RP – there is no single, agreed upon, system of transcribing American vowels. (Compare any two American learners’ dictionaries, for instance). This is probably due to the fact that, while there is less accent variation across North America than there is within the British Isles, there is no single variety that can (or is allowed to) claim the prestigious status that RP enjoys.

In 2007, while teaching at SIT in Brattleboro, Vermont, I came up with a chart that was based closely on the description in Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) – see inset below (click to expand).

GA chart (after Celce-Murcia et. al., 1996)

The layout of the chart attempts to reflect the elegance of Adrian’s RP chart, with the consonants ranged from front-of-mouth to back-of-mouth obstruction, and the vowels roughly mapped on to the classic (Daniel Jones?) vowel quadrant. In terms of the symbols, the consonants were not a problem: the only change involved changing the symbol /j/ for a /y/. The vowels were another story.

First of all the layout had to be reconfigured to accommodate the fewer vowel sounds of GA (16 vs 20 in RP). While the three ‘heterogenous’ diphthongs are separated out and colour-coded, no attempt was made to distinguish the simple vowels from the vowels with an adjacent glide (/iy/, /ey/, /ow/) since the latter, technically, are not diphthongs.  Nor were combinations with /r/ (such as /ır/ and /or/) included, since, technically, these are not individual phonemes but are attempts to represent the way certain vowel sounds are “colored” by the consonants that follow them (which may be /r/, /l/ or /rl/). The only exception I made was the case of /ɜr/ which, as Celce-Murcia et al. point out, is used “to capture a significant difference in quality between the /ʌ/ in bud and the /ɜr/ in bird” (p. 105) and which they include as their “15th phoneme” of North American English (the 16th being the schwa).  Finally, an optional superscript /r/ was added to the schwa, because the combination of schwa and post-vocalic /r/ is often distinguished from schwa, phonetically, by being transcribed with a different symbol (ɚ). This represents the (phonemic) difference in GA between the final vowels in cheeta and cheater, for example. Note also that both /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ are represented in the chart, in deference to those varieties of GA that do distinguish between caught and cot.

This chart has served OK over the years, but I’ve not been entirely happy with it – not least because of the use of the consonant symbols /y/ and /w/ to flag lengthening and lip rounding, as well as the clumsy superscript [r]s. So I revisted the literature, and came up with a new one, based on the description in Roca and Johnson (1999). The consonants remain as they were. The main differences to the vowels is that I’ve abandoned the /y/ and /w/ add-ons, susbtituting symbols that more accurately realise the phonetic qualities of the homogeneous (adjacent glide) and heterogeneous (non-adjacent glide) diphthongs, colour-coding these respectively, as well as substituting the symbol ɚ for the r-coloured schwa alternative, and /ɝ/ for the r-coloured vowel in bird. I’ve also re-positioned /ʌ/ so that its central and back quality is more accurately represented, and turned the division between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ into a dotted line to flag that, in some varieties, these two sounds are not distinguished. You can view a pdf version of the revised chart here: AmE phonemic chart v.5

All comments will be gratefully received and acknowledged.

References:

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M., and Goodwin, J.M. (1996) Teaching Pronunciation. Cambridge University Press.

Roca, I., and Johnson, W. (1999) A Course in Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Appendix:

Click here ( US phonemic chart ) to see a pdf version of Adrian Underhill’s GA Chart – mentioned in his comments below. (Thanks, Adrian!)