Roll off the tongue

Sep 17th, 2015

Courtenay Alcock

Roll off the tongue

Dr. Anne Thareau, head of the department of French and Spanish at Memorial University, recalls a time when she taught French phonetics using cassette tapes and, later, computer-assisted learning devices and DVDs. Now, with Internet and online tools readily available, she has ventured into more novel territory.

The online offering of French 2300 (Phonetics), taught by Dr. Thareau, was a collaborative development of the Department of French and Spanish, with the Department of Linguistics and with DELTS. Intended to help students understand and master oral French, the course includes carefully designed multimedia to provide an interactive means for students to study the workings of the speech organs.

“In the past, cards were used to show the position of the tongue and lips when pronouncing French sounds,” said Dr. Thareau, “but I always thought that it would be great if students could actually see a video instead of a picture.”

Dr. Thareau did better than that. Collaborating with DELTS, as well as Dr. Maureen Scheidnes, departments of French and Spanish, and Linguistics, and Dr. Yvan Rose, Department of Linguistics, the team used an ultrasound to create videos that provide an internal view of how French words and phrases are pronounced.

“Following the motto that an image is worth a thousand words, we adapted methods developed for linguistic research based on ultrasound visualization,” explained Dr. Thareau. “This unique approach allows you to see the positioning of speech organs when pronouncing sounds in French. Students can play back the videos as they mimic the movement of the speech organs, in their own efforts to master pronunciation.”

To produce the videos, the team used an ultrasound device and recorded both the lip movements (using video) and the tongue movements (using ultrasound) of a French-speaking volunteer.

“The ultrasound recordings give students visual information about the tongue that one would otherwise not have access to,” explained Dr. Scheidnes. “Textbooks often present static drawings of tongue positions; however, these do not reflect the realities of spoken language in which the tongue position for one sound is influenced by neighbouring sounds. The ultrasound recordings allow students to visualize the movement and shape of the tongue during speech in which one sound follows another in very rapid succession.”

“Mastering the sound system of a second language requires making fine motor and perceptual adjustments,” added Dr. Thareau. “So by including these videos, we were able to provide students with visual cues to optimize their learning.”

In addition to the ultrasound videos, the course includes a French articulation tool that was designed specifically for the course. It features an interactive phonetic animation, showing the positioning of the mouth, tongue and voice box in pronouncing a given sound. It also includes video and audio recordings of each phonetic sound and a map indicating its linguistic position in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

“Once students master the course content, they are able to read the International Phonetic Alphabet and can, therefore, pronounce any written word they come across by checking the phonetic symbols in a dictionary,” explained Dr. Thareau.

Typically delivered face-to-face, the online offering of French 2300 required attention to design, and carefully considered integration of technology into the course. The primary goal of the course is to provide students with the necessary tools to master French pronunciation.

In developing any course for online delivery at Memorial, DELTS provides content authors like Dr. Thareau with the instructional design and technical support needed to create high quality, interactive and media-rich courses. The end result provides students with access to an online course that has engaging content to enhance the learning experience.