Going aesthetic: sound art and the development of oracy

 

Pronunciation has been dubbed “the poor relation” and “the Cinderella of language teaching” (Underhill) [1] and, indeed, little attention appears to be given to practical phonetics and phonology in the average post-elementary level EFL classroom. The factors that have led to this underprivileged status are manifold: Underhill, for instance, emphasises the “need for physicality” and the “need for a mental map”; many English teachers will cite the lack of a globally accepted standard; and most will agree that teaching pronunciation is a time-consuming undertaking which requires extensive individual feedback.

 

While these factors are, for the most part, learner- and teacher-related, we should not ignore societal change: in the second decade of the millennium we are being confronted with increasingly utilitarian societies which have long since started questioning the value of (any)language beyond its function as a vehicle for selling or buying a few thousand gallons of industrial adhesive. As a consequence, intelligibility is often considered the only criterion for pronunciation, aesthetic functions being largely neglected. 

 

On the other hand, globalisation and technology offer opportunities unknown to language learners and teachers in the past, especially with respect to pronunciation. Whereas in the late twentieth century learners were still dependent on the quality of their English teachers’ pronunciation and a handful of tapes or CDs, today’s students can tap into a multitude of authentic resources at any time just by switching on their mobile phones. These resources, if applied systematically, can prove highly beneficial to the process of “pronunciation modelling”, as they place learners in command of it and provide both learners and teachers with a literally inexhaustible supply of examples.

 

Apart from providing these learning and teaching resources, electronic media have changed our aesthetic perception in terms of the physiological processes involved as well as accessibility and aesthetic appreciation of both “traditional” art and the new art forms emerging from this change of perception. Simultaneously, Web 2.0 has “democratised” publishing and exhibiting in such a way that internet access is virtually the only remaining requirement for participation in a global community of artists.

 

It is in these developments that we find opportunities to (re)integrate aesthetic dimensions of language into learning and acquisition processes – both as an educational goal in its own right and as a motivational factor. One way of doing this is to work with sound art or sound sculptures. Sarah Washington’s Tate project Hearing In Tongues (2008) [2] and Susan Philipsz’s Turner Prize winning sound sculpture Lowlands Away (2010) [3] may serve as starting points for “close encounters” with aesthetic functions of spoken language.

The rationale underlying this approach can be summarised in three basic assumptions:

 

  • that an aesthetic encounter with spoken language can initiate creative processes with language serving as the raw material for learners’ own artistic endeavours;
  • that both the aesthetic encounter and the creative processes thus initiated will raise learner’s awareness and hone their phonetic skills;
  • that identification with their own work will enhance learners’ sense of ownership of the language and motivate them to record their best English accent.

 

It is obvious that the development of perceptual skills is fundamental to this aesthetic approach to spoken language. Thus, we should also direct our students’ attention to sensory and sensual dimensions other than purely auditory ones; these can be kinaesthetic (“mouthfeel”), spatial (awareness of position and movement), or visual (visual representation in a spectrogram; graphic representation as in phonetic symbols), and may include examples of synaesthesia (colours, smells, tastes).

 

The haptic dimension reflected in the term sound sculpture, though certainly the most elusive sensory/sensual dimension, may indeed be the most challenging and rewarding aspect of the creative process. Hapticity as it is understood here does not necessarily require any technical equipment beyond a laptop (such as the public address systems used by Susan Philipsz to enhance spatial perception), but may be achieved with the help of the “conventional” tools provided by free audio editing software.  

 

The following activities may be used to enhance students’ sense of hapticity:

 

  • Write the phonetic symbols of a few English sounds on the board and ask students what haptic experience they associate with each sound (What does the sound feel like?), e.g. smooth, velvety, furry, rough, sharp etc. Then ask them to pronounce the sounds in such a way that their fellow students can “feel” their haptic qualities.
  • Have students drawing a map of a physical area they like. This may be a piece of countryside or an urban landscape. Ask them what sounds might represent  the (three-dimensional) places and objects on their map (e.g. a grove, a hillock, a factory chimney, a dockyard etc.)
  • Ask students to choose a sound and record it with a digital audio editor. Give them four pictures which show different physical areas (e.g. a forest, an industrial landscape, a futuristic city skyline, a coral reef). Then ask students to work with their sounds so as to make them fit into the different environments. Encourage them to use the editing functions of their sound editing software (phaser, wahwah, etc.) to manipulate the “spatial” qualities of their sounds.

 

Exploiting the phonetic resources of many different languages, the apparent babel of Sarah Washington’s Hearing in Tongues provides an ideal environment for first encounters with sound art. As most students will only be able to understand snippets, the emphasis can be shifted to phonetic aspects. Additionally, students’ attention can be drawn to the mechanics of the radio art episodes, i.e. the fragmentation, isolation and rearrangement of sounds. The fact that the function of English is virtually reduced to that of a metalanguage – the language of the presenter/announcer, adds another motivational aspect, as there is no “model solution” included in Washington’s Tongues and English as a (sound) artist’s “material” yet remains to be explored and exploited.

 

After this introduction of sound art as an art form, students should be encouraged to do their own sound sculpture projects. Here are a few suggestions for a “kick-off” lesson:

 

  • Tell students that English is the coolest language in the world (if you haven’t told them yet). Alternatively, ask them why English is the coolest language in the world (of course this could be said about any language, but that is not the point here).
  • Ask students about their favourite English sounds and words. Ask them why they like these sounds and words, and collect descriptions (e. g. I like θ because it sounds like a breeze in the forest). Elicit (or introduce) a number of useful words, such as aesthetic, phonetic, acoustic, auditory, haptic, listener/hearer, perceive, perception, etc.
  • Explain that they are going to

a)     make a sound sculpture of their own that celebrates the sound of the English language and

b)     record an additional sound file in which they explain, or comment on, their sound sculptures. 

 

Tell them that both sound files should be no longer than five minutes in total.

 

  • Explain that they are going to publish their sound files on an Internet platform. Remind them that they are only allowed to use their own voice and that they must not use any copyrighted material in their sound sculptures. They may, however, record their own performance of an uncopyrighted piece of music or tape any other sounds they may find useful (such as water gushing from a well, factory noise etc.).
  • Play the video of Susan Philipsz commenting on her own sound sculpture Lowlands Away. Ask students to jot down any words or phrases they find useful for describing art projects.
  • Play the video again. Ask students to identify and note down features of spoken English; these should include phonological (e.g. linking, assimilation), lexical (e.g. discourse markers) and grammatical/syntactic aspects (e.g. false starts, self-correction).

 

Additionally, teachers should provide further suggestions for preparatory activities outside the classroom:

 

  • Encourage students to browse the Internet for their own individual “pronunciation models” (such as interviews with their favourite celebrities). Suggest that they isolate words and even individual sounds from their pronunciation models’ speech and that they imitate their pronunciation of these sounds and words.  
  • Suggest that students take the part of their pronunciation models in the interviews. Encourage them to record their answers.
  • Suggest that students write down some notes before recording the commentary on their own sound sculpture project. Tell them to use bullet points rather than write full sentences.
  • Advise students to record their commentary without looking at their notes. Encourage them to use discourse markers, fillers, sounds of hesitation etc. in their recording.

 

Of course, the activities suggested in this article represent only a small selection from a much wider range of opportunities provided by an aesthetic approach, which also includes more extended classroom projects such as life-size sound installations, podcasts on the aesthetic qualities of the English language, or projects that explore the interface between sound art and the performing arts. Working with the aesthetic dimensions of written language has had a long and unquestioned tradition in the development of target language literacy. Thus, going aesthetic on oracy may well be worth a try.

 

Bernd Engelhart, University of Koblenz-Landau

 

[1] Adrian Underhill, „Pronunciation – thepoor relation?http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/articles/pronunciation-poor-relation

 

[2] Sarah Washington, Hearing in Tongues. http://www2.tate.org.uk/intermediaart/podcasts/infrequency.xml

 

[3] Susan Philipsz, Lowlands Away.

http://channel.tate.org.uk/media/644495466001