Making linguistics and language learning accessible

different language characters

How can we make linguistics and language learning accessible for visually impaired students?

I’ve just returned from a very fruitful and inspiring workshop, ‘Accessible Linguistics for Visually Impaired Students’ (ALVIS), organised by York St John university exploring just this. Students, academics, teachers and professionals from Brazil, Poland and across the UK gathered in the beautiful city of York last week to discuss and share information on how to make linguistics courses – including phonetics, grammar and other languages – more accessible to people who are blind and partially-sighted.

Linguistics courses, just like maths and music, make use of various standardised symbols and diagrammatic methods. Phonetics, for example, employs a wholly separate International Phonetics Alphabet (IPA) to record the pronunciation of sounds in a formulaic manner. Grammar, too, utilises quite complex diagram trees to represent how sentences are formed. And ‘Conversation Analysis’ uses very conventionalised ways of recording conversations (e.g. interruptions, breaths and pauses) which are difficult to render in alternative formats.

I am passionate about all things linguistics, so I was thrilled to be able to attend the event and give a short talk about this issue from a transcription service perspective. It was also great to step away from the Braille embosser and get to meet some of our clients and end-users, and find out transcribed materials were being used in the context of the classroom. It was quite a learning experience for me with many fascinating talks, particularly one from the York St. John student and teacher team in which we got to understand the difficulties a student encountered in the classroom when studying phonetics, and the various methods she and the team used to make the teaching more accessible.

The event ended with a round-table in which we agreed that it would be beneficial to create a resource for other teachers and students to use to make linguistics and language learning accessible. We are now working hard to compile an edited collection of papers, and a website which will collate information about the ALVIS project with sharable teaching and learning materials, links to research papers and other relevant online resources. Watch this space!

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  1. Hi Katy.
    I’m so glad that these issues are actively being discussed. I’ve just started a masters in teaching English as a second language at Swansea University and am already confronted with challenges as I am totally blind. Do you have any advice on tackling syntax trees? I think my prof was a bit reluctant for me to take the gtlrammar course because she doesn’t know how I will access or create my own diagrams, though I have suggested use of the bracketed notation system, she seems reluctant for this to be used with longer sentences, as I am not sure it is detailed enough. I would also be interested to hear how others are tackling IPA as I have not yet found a consistent method. Any help would be great. Awesome post, the workshop sounds great. So happy that there are people talking about this stuff.

    1. Hi Jasmine – thanks so much for taking the time to leave your comment and apologies for the terribly late reply. I hope the course is going well so far! Your question about syntax trees is very interesting. If it’s not too late, I’ll do some asking around and find out if anyone else has encountered this. I wonder if combining a bracketed notation system with a tactile diagram would work? Do you read Braille? We have produced IPA Braille before for a student… If OK, I’d like to get in touch with you by email? Best wishes, Katy.

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