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General Description | Evaluation | Summary | Producer Details | Reviewer Information

 

CALICO Software Review

CALICO Journal, Volume 17 Number 3, pp. 564-579

Accent Coach
English Pronunciation Trainer

Richard Paul Taylor - Nagoya City University

 

 

Product At A Glance
Product type: Tutorial
Language: ESL
Level: Intermediate to upper intermediate adults
Activity: Practice for Japanese speakers to learn American English pronunciation and intonation
Media format:1 CD-ROM
Computer Platform: Windows 95; Windows NT (Japanese or English)

Hardware requirements:
PC: Pentium 90MHz
RAM: 16MB
40MB hard drive space
4X CD-ROM drive
16-bit hi-color video card, 16-bit sound card connected to speakers or headset, microphone.

Price:
Individual copy: $139.95
A network version of Accent Coach is also available for 5-user and 20-user licenses; the producer should be consulted for further details.

 

General description
Accent Coach is an interactive CD-ROM aimed at Japanese who want to learn and practice American English pronunciation and intonation. It contains 19 lessons (Vowel lessons 1-13, Consonant lessons 14-17, one Alphabet lesson, and one Intonation lesson). Most of the lessons focus on pairs of contrasting English sounds that frequently cause problems for Japanese speakers. The CD-ROM is accompanied by a printed manual in Japanese and it offers on-line help through instruction screens and active links to step by step instruction and information displays in Japanese.

The developers draw attention to the following main features:
1. Continuous Speech Recognition using IBM ViaVoice technology: It assesses the student's pronunciation and gives prompt feedback, while permitting a natural speaking style.

2. Record and Playback: It allows the user to record his/her own pronunciation and then compare it with that of an American speaker.

3. Video Cross-Section: A video display showing a model's lips and jaws with animated tongue in order to illustrate correct pronunciation of English sounds.

4. Interactive Vowel Chart: This chart responds to a user's spoken vowels by highlighting visual targets.

5. Intonation Display: A visual display of intonation patterns that helps the user compare his/her intonation patterns with that of an American speaker.

6. Speaking Challenge Video: It tests speaking and listening skills as an American speaker pronounces difficult English words.

The Main Menu (see Figure 1) includes a Product Introduction giving information in Japanese about the English vowels and consonants, the lessons included on the CD-ROM, and the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols.


Figure 1. Main Menu


The Section on English Vowels comprises three parts: a Vowel Study, Vowel Lessons, and a Vowel Speaking Review. The Vowel Study screen (see Figure 2) displays the Japanese vowel chart with the sounds written in kana, and the English vowel chart with the sounds in IPA. Both charts are interactive, i.e. by clicking on a particular sound on the chart you can listen to the sound and watch a video cross-section showing the position of the jaws, tongue and lips in the native pronunciations of the Japanese and English vowels. You can play each sound over and over again and each time watch the video of the model pronunciation. You can also pause the video at any point or change the Side View to Front View at any time (the speaker's head will turn to face forward providing a better view of the mouth). For each sound on the English chart there are three words that contain the particular vowel and you can listen to any of them pronounced by a male or a female speaker. Also, for each sound there is a pronunciation tip that contrasts each sound with its Japanese counterpart and gives tips about the position of the lips and tongue in order to pronounce the particular sound. Finally you can record yourself pronouncing the vowel or one of the displayed words, and then playback your pronunciation and compare it to a native speaker's. The Vowel Study screen also contains links to information screens about the displayed Vowel Charts, the IPA symbols, the Vowels, instructions to help practice pronunciation and instructions for using the record and playback function.


 

Figure 2. Vowel Study

The Vowel Lessons open with an introductory screen similar to the one in the Vowel Study, but this time there is only the English vowel chart. Each lesson deals with a pair of vowels. You can click on the interactive chart and listen to the sounds, watch the video cross-section for each sound or compare the tongue positions for the two sounds on the video display. You can listen and practice each sound and the example words on the bottom screen as many times as desired, and also use the record and playback function. Links take you to information screens about the Vowel Chart, the IPA symbols, the Characteristics of the paired English sounds (e.g. [I] and [i]), instructions for pronunciation practice, instructions for the record and playback function and for choosing an exercise level.

 

Each lesson contains 4 exercise levels. Level 1 is called Same or Different. You listen to two words (usually minimal pairs) and then you have to decide whether they are identical or not. You can listen to the words as often as desired. After you choose Same or Different, the two words are displayed and you can even choose to see their Japanese translation. Once you are ready you can move to the next pair of words. Level 2 is called Which One Is It? You hear a word and then you have to select the word you hear from the two words appearing on the screen. You can listen to each of the words individually as many times as you want by clicking on them. Level 3 is Hear and Say! In this section you can see lists of words (minimal pairs). You can select each of the words, listen to them and then when the microphone icon on the screen glows you can say the word. The Speech Recognition program checks for any extra vowels in your recording and then checks the target sounds. For every recording, a written diagnostic feedback appears on the screen in Japanese to give you feedback about your pronunciation. You can compare your recording to the model's as many times as you want. You can also practice with the microphone off. For the last 4 lessons (10-13) the Speech Recognition function is not available, only the record and playback function. Finally, level 4 is See and Say! A word appears on the screen and you have to say the word into the microphone. The Speech Recognition program checks for any extra vowels in your recording and then checks the target sounds giving you feedback on your performance. At the end of the section you can view the results. There are two columns: the words you pronounced correctly and those you mispronounced. For each word you can review your pronunciation and the model's pronunciation or you can continue practicing each of the words using the record and playback functions.

The vowel section of the CD-ROM also contains a Vowel Speaking Review (see Figure 3). The screen displays an interactive vowel chart. First you have to select your voice type (male or female), then click on the microphone icon and start practicing the target vowel sounds. A ball which changes shape and color moves around the chart showing which sound you are producing and turns into green to indicate that you have correctly pronounced the target vowel sound. To listen to the model's pronunciation of each of the vowels, you can click on each of the phonetic symbols on the screen. A demo button gives instructions in Japanese about the use of the Vowel Speaking Review section.


Figure 3. Speaking Review


The Consonant section comprises a Consonant Study (see Figure 4) and 4 Consonant Lessons. The Consonant Study opens with a screen that displays a chart of 8 English consonants that frequently cause problems to Japanese speakers. There are links to information about IPA symbols, English consonants, instructions for pronunciation practice and the use of the record and playback function. You can click on each of the consonant sounds, listen to the model's pronunciation, watch the video for the position of the tongue, jaws and lips, listen to example words for each of the consonant sounds spoken by a male or a female model, read a pronunciation tip for each of the sounds, and finally use the record and playback function to practice and compare your pronunciation to an American speaker's. Each of the four consonant lessons deals with a pair of consonants (e.g. [r] and [l]). There are links to information screens about the characteristics of the paired sounds, the IPA symbols, the Consonant Chart, instructions for pronunciation practice, instructions for the use of the record and playback function and about selecting an exercise level. You can listen to each of the sounds, watch the video, compare the tongue positions for the two sounds and see how they differ, listen to example words containing the sounds spoken by a male or a female model, and use the record and playback function for each of the sounds. The exercises for practicing the English consonants are similar to the exercises for practicing the vowels (Level 1: Same or Different, Level 2: Which One Is It?, Level 3: Hear and Say!, Level 4: See and Say!).

 


Figure 4. Consonant Study

The Alphabet lesson (see Figure 5) helps you practice the American English names of the letters of the alphabet. It opens up with a screen displaying the English alphabet (each letter is a button), and various hot links (reading about the Alphabet lesson, comparing English and Japanese sounds, how to use the record and playback function and how to select an exercise level). For each letter of the alphabet there is a pronunciation tip displayed, and you can listen to the model pronunciation by clicking on each of the buttons. You can listen to the pronunciation in normal speed or slow speed and you can use the record and playback function to compare your pronunciation with the model's. You can also listen to a typical Japanese pronunciation of each letter of the English alphabet by clicking on a small button displayed at the corner of each alphabet button. There are 2 exercise levels. Level 1 is Choose it!. You hear the pronunciation of a word (proper nouns - American names of people and places) followed by its spelling while there are 3 words displayed on the screen. You have to choose the word that is spelled correctly. You can also listen to the word at a slow speed and you can listen to it as many times as you want. Level 2 is called Type It!. In this exercise you hear the pronunciation of a word followed by its spelling and then you have to type the word by clicking in a keyboard displayed on the screen or by using your own keyboard. When you have finished, you can click enter on the screen or press enter on your keyboard. At the end of the exercise you can see the results: the words you spelled correctly and the words you misspelled as well as any other of your attempts. You can also click on each of the words and listen to its pronunciation. You can then choose to return to the exercise or the main menu.
.

Figure 5. Alphabet Lesson

The last lesson on the CD-ROM is the Intonation lesson. The Introduction screen has links to screens giving information about English intonation, instructions on practicing English intonation, using the record and playback function and choosing an exercise level. For practicing intonation, there are three questions on the screen and they all have the same answer, but each answer is spoken with a different intonation and stress depending on the question. You can listen to the questions or the answers by clicking on them and you can see the intonation diagram on the screen for each of the answers. You can also choose to see the Japanese translation of the sentences. Finally you can use the record and playback function to compare your intonation to the model's. There are several example sentences to practice and you can choose one of three levels of exercises. Level 1 is What's the Answer? You hear one question and three sentences giving the same answer but each is spoken with a different intonation pattern. You have to select the correct sentence that answers the question. All the sentences (the question and the three answers) are displayed on the screen and you can listen to them repeatedly by clicking on each of them. You can also see a Japanese translation of them if you want. Level 2 is What's the Question? This time you see and hear one sentence and three questions. You can listen to each of the sentences by clicking on them and then you have to choose the correct question. Again you can choose to see the Japanese translation of each of the sentences. Finally, Level 3 is Answer the Question! (see Figure 6) First you have to choose your voice type (male or female), then, when you click on Start, a question and an answer appear on the screen and you hear the question. When the microphone icon glows you can repeat the answer with the correct intonation pattern. You can hear the model pronunciation and you can look at the Intonation Contour as a diagram on the screen. When you get the intonation right you can compare your intonation pattern with the model's or listen to each of them as many times as you want. You can also choose to see the Japanese translation of each of the sentences.


Figure 6. Intonation Lesson, Level 3


Apart from the lessons, there are four more features available: Listening Review, the Speaking Challenge, the Glossary, and the Tongue Twister. In the Listening Review you can review all the vowel and consonant sounds learned in the individual lessons. There are instructions on the opening screen and when you click on Start you hear a sentence and you can see the sentence but the target word has is replaced by a blank. Then you listen to the word that belongs in the blank selecting from two choices. You can listen to the sentence and choices as needed. You can use the record and playback function to practice and compare your pronunciation of each of the answers. When you have finished with the exercise, you get a results screen with your score, the sentences in the exercise, the list of correct answers, the list of incorrect answers and an indication of whether you got each of the sentences right or wrong. From this point you can get back to the exercise and practice more or return to the main menu.

In the Speaking Challenge (see Figure 7) you are presented with daily English terms that are difficult for Japanese speakers to pronounce. When you click on Start, a native speaker appears in a video and says a word. After you listen to the native speaker's pronunciation you can repeat what is said and speak the word when the microphone icon glows. The native speaker will evaluate your pronunciation by giving you feedback. You can choose to see a picture illustrating the word, its spelling, and you can choose to listen to it as many times as you want.

 


Figure 7. Speaking Challenge

The Glossary lists all the words used in each section, and for each word or phrase you can listen to its model pronunciation (spoken by both a male model and a female model) by clicking on it, you can use the record and playback function to practice and compare your pronunciation to the model's.

Finally, a Tongue Twister is always present in the main menu screen (each time you access the main menu there is a different tongue twister). You can listen to the tongue twister by clicking on it, you can see its Japanese translation, and you can use the record and playback function to practice its pronunciation and compare your pronunciation to a native speaker's. According to the developers, the tongue twisters are there for you to warm up your mouth and tongue or just for fun between lessons.

When you do the exercises you receive feedback. Feedback is given in various forms: sometimes it's spoken (e.g. Good!, Great!, Excellent!, Sorry that's not correct!, etc.), and sometimes it's given graphically through an animation (there are several different animations included in the CD-ROM).

An important feature of the Accent Coach is the Options. By clicking on the Options button available in every lesson and exercise you can vary the length of the words you practice (words with 7 or fewer letters or words with 8 or more letters), the number of questions in each exercise (5, 10 or 15), choose the Mode of Play, i.e. advancing to the next questions (Manual or Automatic), set a time limit for each Exercise Level (No time limit, 20 seconds, 15 seconds, and 10 seconds), and select whether you want animation feedback or not.

Evaluation
Technological features
Accent Coach is very reliable, plays at a good speed and it is easy to install. It is very easy to use with on-line instructions for every section, links and demos. The icons and links are very easy to understand and use. At first, some screens may look a bit cluttered because of all the different buttons, links and icons, but you soon learn to navigate the program. The animations, the videos and pictures are of very good quality, of high resolution, they play at a good speed and are fun to watch.

The various sections, the lessons and exercises are not sequential and you can choose what you want to practice at any time. You can exit each section at any time and return to the main menu. Switching between exercises and sections is fast and easy. Although I found that all the features in the program are useful, easy to use and fun to practice, at times I felt frustrated because I couldn't get the accent right! I am an Australian and there were items in the exercises that I couldn't get right no matter how much I tried! The Speech Recognition is indeed very sensitive to variability and different accents and it is strictly for practicing an American accent. Although this is definitely a good point for a program that aims to help you develop an American accent, it can get a bit discouraging especially for students with poor pronunciation skills. As the level of the exercises goes up so does the level of difficulty and some sections could be very challenging for the user. I let some of my intermediate students who have been to America and did not have a strong Japanese accent try the activities, and the results showed that they did pretty well with the Level 1 exercises, their accuracy dropped to about 50% with the level 2 exercises and when they reached the Level 3 exercises it was almost impossible for them to get any correct answers. Perhaps with more practice and over time my students could improve, but during the testing session they got so discouraged and frustrated they did not feel like going back to practice.

Also, the Speech Recognition and the Written Diagnostic feedback seem to be very sensitive to external noise such as typing on a keyboard and other usual sounds of a computer lab. The manual suggests that the CD-ROM is best used in a quiet environment. I also found that if I had a mirror with me it would help me better use the cross-section video information on the position of the tongue, jaws and lips. One thing that could confuse the user is this: during the sound practice screens, where you can listen to the pronunciation and at the same time watch the video, and then use the record and playback function to compare your pronunciation to a pre-recorded model pronunciation, the model voice on the video uses a different intonation from the model voice in the record and playback function. So you find yourself practicing a sound one way and then comparing it with a model pronunciation that is different from the one you've been practicing. That can be confusing, especially since some of the sounds you are practicing differ only slightly from others. I found the Interactive Vowel Chart very useful and fun to use. It gives you visual feedback for the sounds you produce and can offer endless practice sessions for any student. The Intonation diagrams are also very useful and would help Japanese students of ESL improve their intonation.

Teacher fit (Approach)
The program follows an audio-lingual method with primary emphasis on drilling (listening to sounds, practicing the sounds, comparing the sounds). The contents of the CD-ROM are based on a contrastive theory of second language acquisition focusing on sounds that are different between English and Japanese and, as such, problematic for Japanese learners of English. It gives plenty of feedback in various forms, thus encouraging the user to keep on practicing without getting bored.

Learner fit (Design)
Accent Coach can be used in the ESL classroom to supplement a pronunciation/phonetics course, or it can be used for individual practice outside the classroom. Students would have no problem using the program on their own. The level of difficulty is intermediate and it gets quite high as the level of the exercises increases. There is a lot of linguistic background on the different sounds, the differences between the Japanese and the English sound systems that could be helpful to the user. The words, phrases and sentences included in the program were selected from the point of view of the sounds they contain rather than for their sociocultural information, but they do cover everyday vocabulary that would be useful to the learners.

Finally, the program is flexible in selecting the lessons, sounds, exercises you want to work on, entering and exiting the various sections, choosing the amount of questions to practice, the type of feedback to receive, the time limit per exercise, and the length of words to practice with. However, the program is not modifiable, that is, the contents cannot be altered in any way.

Summary
Accent Coach is an interactive multimedia course for practicing American pronunciation. It is for adult Japanese students of intermediate or upper intermediate level. The program contains many useful features such as speech recognition, record and playback and animated video cross-sections. Accent Coach offers a variety of activities of different difficulty levels and Japanese speakers can practice sounds as well as the English intonation patterns that are problematic for them. It is suitable both for classroom use and individual use. It is easy and fun to use and very reliable.

Scaled Rating (1 low - 5 high)
Pedagogical Features: 4
Socio-linguistic accuracy: 4
Use of computer capabilities: 5
Technical Performance: 3
Ease of Use: 4
Documentation: 5
Value for money: 3+
Overall: 4

Producer Details
Syracuse Language
5790 Widewaters Parkway
Syracuse, NY 13214-2845
USA

Phone: 315-449-4500 ext. 4408
Fax: 315-449-4585
Email: ezorn@syrlang.com

Reviewer Information
Richard Paul Taylor is a lecturer of English and CALL at the Nagoya City University, in Nagoya, Japan. He holds an MA from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia and he teaches courses in English Communication Skills, Computer Media Skills, and English Through the Internet. His main research interests are in the area of Second Language Acquisition and Computer Assisted Language Learning.

Reviewer contact:
Nagoya City University
1 Yamanohata,
Mizuho-cho,
Nagoya 465-0802
Japan

Phone: +81 52 872-5815
Email: taylor@hum.nagoya-cu.ac.jp