Spotlight on Faculty: Synchronous Transcription Online, Getting it “Write”

Graham Thurgood teaches linguistics at CSU, Chico

by Dr. Graham Thurgood

Play on words intended. One obstacle I have faced with online, or distance teaching, involves English transcription. The task involves basic transcription of English sounds (what a linguist would call phonemics) not a finely-tuned analysis (what a linguist would call phonetics).

However, this semester my class and I worked out a system that seems to get the job done. The students originally had a PDF crib sheet, downloaded and printed out, consisting of symbols for the basic consonants and vowels, along with carefully chosen words containing the various sounds and using appropriate symbols. So far, so good.

The problem occurs when we attempt to transcribe words in class. Purely oral approaches didn’t work: When we attempted to describe the sounds orally, that is, by talking back and forth on WebCT Vista or with the Wimba Classroom, it becomes obvious that majority of the students did not command the technical vocabulary to describe the sounds accurately. Even the occasional correct description was wasted, because most of the students couldn’t follow the oral description.

The solution was surprisingly simple. In order to be able to use the Wimba text chat box (where the students type in questions or answers), we needed a slightly different, additional type-able symbol set. We took the crib sheet, and, we added a type-able equivalent: Thus, for the vowel in ‘man’, the symbols ae were used—the IPA symbol traditionally used is essentially a character which combined these two into one. For the vowels in ‘beat’ and ‘bit’, /iy/ and /I/ were used respectively. Other linguists might use different symbols, of course; the idea is the same and, I would certainly guess, for most cases, we would choose much the same set. The type-able set was trivial to set up; it didn’t take long for me to set up and the students figured out what to do with the symbols immediately.

The unexpected bonus was the enthusiastic student interaction. It is quite common, at least in my classes online, for me to ask a question and for students to type in short answers and send them to me. This process typically results in a couple of answers from several students. However, with the transcription, I would ask, for example, how do you transcribe ‘eased’? and I would get as many as a dozen answers, e.g.,

Carol /iyst/,
Paula /eyzd/,
Robert /eyst/,
Debra /iyzd/
Marilyn /iyzd/,
Maria /ayzd/, >
and so on.

Given this list, I was able to respond with, “Marilyn’s and Debra’s are right.” If the right answer had not been present, I could have said that the answer was not present yet. Sometimes, I would pick out a mistranscribed word and tell them how that particular set of symbols would sound. The students liked the feedback and the approach; they responded quickly to the combination of written forms from them and spoken forms from me. Two of them emailed me that this activity was “cool”, a description not usually associated with transcription.

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