Thursday, 8 September 2011

iGE

It’s not actually phonetics, but my colleague Bas Aarts asks me to tell you about iGE, the interactive Grammar of English that the Survey of English Usage at UCL has developed.

It is an app for the iPhone, iPod, and iPad. (Since my mobile is an Android phone and I have no Apple products, I haven’t been able to try it out myself.)

As you can see, it offers a “complete” grammar of English, incorporating an extensive glossary, a guided course of instruction, and interactive exercises and puzzles. There’s a cut-down version that is free and a full version that costs a modest £4.99/$6.99/€5.49.

There was a report in Tuesday’s Evening Standard.
So — who’s going to be the first to fill the gap in the market for something similar dealing with English phonetics? Currently there are various monolingual and bilingual dictionaries available for your mobile/cellphone/handy, some with spoken versions of the headwords, but no specialist pronunciation dictionary.

28 comments:

  1. I own neither an IPhone nor an Android, so I can't check this, but http://www.howjsay.com/ has options for IPhone and Android (see underneath the title and on the right).

    This does not use IPA though. The author gives his reasons why. He seems to include the bad-lad split in his description of "educated English".

    If you look up "either" or "scone", there are two pronunciations separated by an "or".
    If you look up "almond" or "Castleford", there is a main pronunciation given and then an "also".

    My interpretation is that the "also" is supposed to introduce a form within educated speech that is clearly in the minority, whereas the "or" is used for cases of almost even splits.

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  2. P.S. Point 8 here is what I should've used for the link in the word "why" above.

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  3. I tried the free version on my iPad and it looks brilliant. Can't say I love the color scheme, but the app is very nice to use and the information provided really is comprehensive. Apps like these are the best thing about the new mobile platforms.
    As for the market gap, the only problem is the data, both in terms of copyright and structure. Once that is out of the way, creating a dictionary app for whichever platform is a breeze.

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  4. Speaking of pronunciation, I noticed the iPhone app of American Heritage Dictionary gives horrible IPA transcriptions. AHD uses its own transcription method, but it also offers an IPA conversion which is quite confusing and strange. To quote a few words:
    pronunciation /pɹə-nʌnsi-ˈeʃən/
    arabesque /æɹə-bɛsˈk/
    something /sʌˈmθɪŋ/
    person /pˈɜ˞sən/
    The stress mark is especially confusing.

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  5. It wouldn't be hard to turn your LPD into an app for iPhone and/or Android – perhaps it's something you should raise with Longman?

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  6. The ad says it'll be useful for British schoolchildren, but will it really? It's all about passing exams, school. And that's all about knowing the requirements of your exam board (there are various UK exam boards and they can change their syllabuses from year to year, so good luck working out what they want from you!). Giving the right answer in a way the examiner wasn't expecting can be just as bad as giving the wrong answer. The markers are only human, and who knows anything about English grammar in this day and age? Certainly not English teachers!

    The trick is to go to a good school with good teachers who keep up to date with the curriculum. And then have mummy and daddy pay for private lessons with such a teacher from a neighbouring school.

    I don't want to be harsh on a product that I haven't had a good look at, but it's possibly a bit naive to think that this kind of knowledge of grammar will lead to success at school.

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  7. So according to your logic, Paul, we shouldn't teach anything that examiners might not know...

    As an English teacher and examiner (and yeah, someone who works at the SEU too!) I disagree.

    You're right that school in the UK these days is all about passing exams (sadly), but grammar, spelling and punctuation are starting to be assessed again, and grammar has made a big comeback in A level English Language and is poking its head above the parapet in GCSE via the spoken language study and the older KAL elements.

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  8. Forvo has an iPhone app. I presume it needs an internet connexion though, in order to access the sound files.

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  9. @ Dan

    So put together a product that does grammar in the school exam framework. You'll make a mint!

    It's good to hear that English language is making a comeback in those classes vaguely called 'English' at school. In my day it wasn't mentioned why we were doing two exams for GCSE English and getting two certificates. The exams didn't seem to differ much either. The Lit exam was 'what do you think of this book?' and the Lang exam was 'what do you think of this article?'. Ah! Happy days!

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  10. @Paul - well, funny you should say that...

    The Teaching English Grammar in Schools project (also based at the SEU) is developing web-based resources for doing just that, and an app is probably a good plan too.

    Yes, "proper" English Language has started to make a bit of a comeback, but as you say in your earlier comment, there is definitely a problem with a generation of teachers not having a background in language study/grammar knowledge. We have a fair bit of work to do to persuade teachers that grammar is useful (engaging and fun, even) and not all about steam blowing out of Simon Heffer's ears.

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  11. I don't have a mobile web-linked device, but I did explore this version, which works on a desktop.

    The interactivity is pretty perfunctory, and there's not much depth of instruction. Still, it's a clear and consistent description and a clear and consistent outline of terminology — some of it unfamiliar to all but the most clued up and up to date, but this is inevitable.

    Yes, it's a tad annoying to take on a relatively new use of complement and a really new (to me) use of adjunct. But now I know, so I've learned something.

    Pedagogically, the grammar is of limited use, but it looks like a very promising basis for programs that teach and develop skills of applying the framework.

    As a reference tool, I don't see it. It's fine for the analysis of phrases composed of single tokens of basic elements. But a reference grammar ought to be of help when there are multiple components — to take a simple example the big bad wolf with two adjectives. Not to mention John and I and other conjoined minefields.

    I think this may be a warning for anyone developing a phonetic/phonology app. It's easy enough when every syllable consists of an initial consonant , a vowel and a final consonant, but what about strɛŋθs?

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  12. Dan

    there is definitely a problem with a generation of teachers not having a background in language study/grammar knowledge.

    The problem lies with previous generations who taught outmoded dogma that pupils rightly perceived to be a pack of lies. (Well, some of it had to be true but the shibboleths they concentrated on were baseless.)

    Fifty years ago, I was fortunate to be taught by teachers who knew that traditional prescriptive grammar was rubbish. Others were less fortunate — including the next generation of English teachers who avoided rubbish grammar by avoiding all grammar of any kind. The words baby and bath-water spring to mind.

    The best of English grammar teaching in schools today is probably the best that has ever been.

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  13. "my mobile is an Android phone and I have no Apple products"

    And here I thought I couldn't like you more.

    Do you have cats as well?

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  14. «The words baby and bath-water spring to mind.»

    Oh David, I can't bear it! That you should be so formulaic. That is green-ink language.

    You were indeed fortunate to be taught by teachers who knew that traditional prescriptive grammar was rubbish, but did they make it so obvious? I think with mine it was more nudge nudge wink wink.

    The pack of lies was that it was a pack of lies. And it was the second-order pack of lies that led to the next generation, or two, or three, of English teachers avoiding all grammar of any kind.

    I do hope you're right in your last remark, though your earlier post fills me with foreboding.

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  15. Mallamb

    If the baby/bath-water figure doesn't apply to the demise of all school English grammar teaching then it applies to nothing. Nor is there any better way to characterise what happened at the end of last century.

    The guy who taught us GCE English (Language as wells Literature) once gave a clear statement of the will/shall dogma in terms of 'This is how they say it is' — not 'This is how it is'. I don't think he could have been clearer.

    It was a pack of lies in the sense that a bunch of shibboleths was allowed to obscure the sensible stuff. This didn't matter as long as school pupils kept their heads down, their mouths shut and their brains disengaged from actual evidence. But fifty years ago we saw through the lies and assumed that the other stuff was equally worthless.

    There was a bigger myth: that knowledge of grammar — as defined by the dogma — led to a superior command of language in general and English prose style in particular. This claim did not stand up to statistical examination. You and I would probably agree that the fault lay in what was taught as grammar and how it was taught. But there was no valid body of knowledge available to the new generation of teachers; traditional prescriptive grammar had parted company with science some centuries back. And all the pedagogical wizardry in the world couldn't make a discredited body of knowledge relevant to enhancing the language ability of young people.

    A friend of mine was in a different form in our first year, under an amiable old buffer of a teacher who taught 'tick tock analysis' — classic Clause Analysis — as a jolly game. My pal was plunged into exasperation, desperation, bewilderment and fury. And yet he went on to be the finest prose stylist of our year — by a mile.

    What I admire in current English teaching is that the descriptions of standards in writing and formal speech are entirely objective. No claim is made for these standards beyond the fact that they are appropriate in certain extremely important situations, however irrelevant they may be at other times. Above all, the aim (which I hope is realised) is to sensitise young people to recognise the situations that call for these formal standards.

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  16. David Crosbie: "Above all, the aim (which I hope is realised) is to sensitise young people to recognise the situations that call for these formal standards."

    Formal standards that in many respects are being challenged in an internet age. The next 100 years shall/will be interesting.

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  17. Sorry, David, this time I seem to have really provoked you. But you have got me completely wrong. I'm mortified that you should think it was the baby/bath-water figure I was objecting to. How could I call that green-ink language? And not only do I approve the figure: I absolutely agree with the sentiment. It most certainly does apply to the demise of all school English grammar teaching, and I have been using it myself of this demise for longer than I care to remember.

    What I was dismayed to see you have caught from the green-inkers was what I was calling the formulaic expression of it: the formula"The words x and y spring to mind". Other implementations of this that one sees everywhere would be "The words pot and kettle spring to mind" and "The words glass houses and stones spring to mind". See what I mean?

    «The guy who taught us GCE English (Language as wells Literature) once gave a clear statement of the will/shall dogma in terms of 'This is how they say it is' — not 'This is how it is'. I don't think he could have been clearer.»

    Don't worry. My question "did they make it so obvious?" was rhetorical, but a helluva lot of teachers could indeed have been clearer, and that is our common complaint.

    But it was not a pack of lies in the sense that it was not all lies by a long chalk: you say yourself some of it had to be true, and again here that there was sensible stuff in there. But when people "saw through the lies and assumed that the other stuff was equally worthless" that assumption was a pack of lies: the second order one of which I ranted.

    And then, as you so rightly say, all the pedagogical wizardry (a bit of an oxymoron – I wish you'd said 'teaching wizardry') in the world couldn't make that whole discredited body of knowledge relevant to enhancing the language ability of young people.

    Whereas, as you also so rightly say, what we have to hope for is greater objectivity and some sort of framework for the explicitation of your standards, whatever they may be or become, such that the aim of sensitizing young people to recognise the situations that call for them may be a realistic one.

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  18. Mallamb

    At the heart of traditional prescriptive grammar is the lie that the descriptive framework and terminology of classical latin grammarians is adequate for the study of English. This is not like school physics, where the Newtonian framework is adequate as far as it goes. Students are not obliged no need to repudiate it when they go on to Einstein and quantum mechanics.

    Much more serious than the actual terminology of traditional grammar is the dogma that it is a branch of logic in that the parts of speech are defined by semantics. And if logic says that something is so, to Hell with the evidence.

    When traditional grammar said something that was true, it did so by false reasoning.

    Moreover the descriptive truths were contaminated by undifferentiated mixing with socially-based pronouncements of shibboleths — generally much louder than the statements that — by chance rather than reason —happened to be true.

    It's all too easy to describe what is 'correct' with no regard to evidence when 'correct' is the norms of the in-group. Counter evidence can be dismissed as the 'incorrect' usage of the excluded.

    What I've been describing is the underlying cause of disaffection with explicit grammar teaching. The immediate cause was annoyance with terminology. And herein lies the danger to the IGE (Internet Grammar of English). It relies completely on terminology, much of it unfamiliar and some of it very unfamiliar. The terminology is a huge improvement on the traditional, but that's just the easy part. They still have to persuade hyper-sceptic public that there's anything to be gained by learning the terms — that they allow for better and clearer analysis, and that the analysis can be applied to recognised everyday problems.

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  19. David, you still seem to think I disagree with you in some way, but I'm in total agreement with everything you’ve just said, and have been railing against it myself for as long as I can remember. I never believed the rubbish about not splitting infinitives and not having prepositions at the end of sentences etc. It was against all reason and practice. I couldn't imagine why such rubbish was taught, but once I had done a bit of Latin, it soon dawned on me that it was because of the Latinate grammarianship of which you speak. I'd never heard of semantics, though I suppose things like "naming words" and "doing words" were meant to be semantic categories, but as far as I was concerned, the parts of speech were based on speech. Am I delusional in thinking this was my earliest understanding of them?

    And once grammar itself was discredited, ironically often enough by such persistent advocacy of old-fashioned parsing in emperor's new clothes as TG, it didn't mean I didn't still have to fight the Latinate grammarianship and shibboleths all my life. That persisted well into the reign of incoherence that superseded it, among examiners as well as examinees. I just had to fight both.

    But we also agree that there was after all a baby in that bathwater, and I think it was by studying that baby's antics that we acquired our first rudimentary understanding of logic, or at any rate the avoidance of illogic and the pursuit of coherence, and that sense of logic was far more use to us than semantic categories, in spite of what you say about it.

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  20. Mallamb

    But we also agree that there was after all a baby in that bathwater

    Perhaps that's where the metaphor breaks down for me. I suppose what I believe is that English teachers threw out the bath with the bath-water. The baby was collateral damage.

    I actually quite approve of parsing — provided that it's a means to some more worthwhile end.

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  21. Glen Gordon

    The next 100 years shall/will be interesting.

    Only to those who can recognise the changes by calling on a descriptive/analytical apparatus. Without a sense of formal grammar, we can only play scattered, unconnected games of word-spotting.

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  22. «English teachers threw out the bath with the bath-water. The baby was collateral damage.»

    I wish I'd said that! But I'm fairly sure I have before now. And I don't seem to be getting appropriate google hits for any version of it, so I guess it's a spur-of-the-moment thing. But it's so spectacularly appropriate to this case. The bath was the whole idea of a theoretical framework for description, the baby was the descriptive models that did have some life in them, and the bathwater was the primordial descriptive soup which didn't.

    And I too actually quite approve of parsing — by "old-fashioned parsing" I didn't mean to exclude the interpretation "good old-fashioned parsing". TG was just bad old-fashioned parsing in the transparent new outfit that consisted of fancy new farthingale scaffolding with would-be obscurantist labels stuck over it.

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  23. Mallamb

    TG was just bad old-fashioned parsing in the transparent new outfit that consisted of fancy new farthingale scaffolding with would-be obscurantist labels stuck over it.

    You might say that of Phrase Structure — the bit of TG that was deemed easy to teach — but TG as a whole did offer some insight into how grammar worked. As I understand it, the T part — transformations in 'deep structure' -- has long been abandoned in favour of models that more closely resemble something more relevant to the Board: Generative Phonology.

    The insights of TG and its successors were incorporated into a succession of grammars from Quirk and associates to this new iGE — a tradition which makes selective use of traditional terms (carefully defined or re-defined) and new 'labels' which are not 'obscurantist' but unavoidably obscure until you get used to them.

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  24. This is very likely beyond my skills, but I have done some app programming in the past and if you have a txt database for your LPD, I would be willing to give it a try.

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