Why study Phonetics?

Authors: Janice Johnson and Maria Kozikowska


This paper was written by two students about the exciting and informative experience of studying phonetics at university.

This article was added to our website on 14/12/09 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Although we come from two very different linguistic backgrounds (Janice being a native speaker of English and educated in the UK, and Maria a native speaker of Polish, originally educated in Poland), we both enjoyed studying phonetics from the start, learning about the underlying principles of speech sounds and becoming aware of its many applications in everyday life. Weekly ear-training exercises and production practice helped us identify and reproduce the specific sounds used in different languages. Practical training also helped us learn how we use the various articulators – lips, tongue, soft palate – to form the individual sounds and how we combine sounds to make words and sentences. We also learnt about the relation between speech sounds and phonemes, exploring the links between phonetics and phonology.

From a native English speaker’s perspective, it was great to finally understand how the word train is pronounced in French - five years of studying the language at school had never made it clear! All Janice had worked out at age15 was that you had to do something at the back of the mouth – phonetics clarified that to pronounce train as a French word you have to lower the soft palate (velum) to allow air through the nasal passages. Janice says "I had figured out that the n isn’t actually pronounced; now I know that the letter indicates the nasalization of the preceding vowel in much the same way as the final e in the spelling of many English words tells you how to pronounce the earlier vowel – consider the word pairs: mad/made, win/wine, cod/code".

In terms of firsthand experience, Janice was also surprised to discover that the first sound of her name – Janice – is actually two sounds said in very quick succession, called an affricate. And we were both intrigued to identify differences in the sounds of the initial in like compared to the final in kill..

Learning the symbols used to represent each speech sound, both specifically for English and on a wider scale using the full range of the International Phonetic Alphabet, meant that not only could we learn to transcribe speech sounds of different accents and languages, but that we could use the symbols included in dictionaries to help our own pronunciation of new or foreign words. In practical terms, this had an immediate impact for both of us when using foreign languages on holiday, for example, giving us increased confidence in being able to recognise those small but crucial differences between sounds of different languages and then also being able to more accurately match native pronunciation. The ability to use the alphabet of the International Phonetic Association, employed by publishers in dictionaries and foreign language course books, definitely enables the student to read the transcriptions provided and helps them to avoid confusions with similar sounds from their first language as well as helping them to produce the new and different sounds of the target language; this in turn boosts their confidence while trying to speak an additional language.

Our course also provided opportunity for some students to look at applications of phonetics in the workplace. Janice was lucky enough to study with a Forensic Phonetician for an afternoon. He explained that there are three main areas of work for a Forensic Phonetician: speaker identification, speech decoding and tape authentication. The first involves listening to speech recordings of a particular individual to see whether they match the speech in another recording. Although every utterance of a word is different - whether by the same person or a different one - each person has a more usual pronunciation of each speech sound or combination of sounds which comprise their own personal accent and style of speaking and enables listeners to identify the speaker. The second is determining what was actually said – often problematic with noisy recordings or heavily accented speech. The third is a complex task since the advent of digital recordings – manipulation of actual tape-recordings being much easier to spot.

Janice observed work on a case of alleged mistaken identity, and joined in with listening to the recordings to see if she could identify similarities or differences between the two speech patterns. The two recordings had already been analyzed many times and a few interesting features had been discovered – mainly by means of auditory analysis, but also with the assistance of technology such as spectrographic analysis and speech waveforms. With much cross-checking and repeated listening to the precise pattern of sounds, we determined that it was unlikely that the individual now in custody was the same person as the one on the earlier recording.

For many non-native English speakers, many different English vowels tend to sound the same – the qualities in 'bit' and 'beat, 'bid' and 'bead', and groups like 'bad', 'bud' and 'barred' are notoriously problematic for foreign learners of the language. Phonetics facilitates the ability to understand, hear and reproduce different vowel qualities. Maria's experience was that this is both enlightening and satisfying, and is why phonetics is such an important tool in learning and teaching foreign languages. Unfortunately, the pronunciation aspect of foreign language learning and teaching is very often overlooked, leaving the students almost deaf to the sounds from their additional, non-native language(s)

Apart from pronunciation of the speech sounds themselves, another important aspect of phonetics that is often neglected in foreign language learning and teaching is intonation. Both learners and teachers often forget that intonation carries meaning, and expresses speakers’ emotions and attitudes. When learning a foreign language, students tend to transfer the intonation habits from their native language into the second language, forgetting that when used inappropriately, intonation can lead to misunderstanding and even complete communication breakdown between speakers coming from two different linguistic backgrounds. This is when phonetics comes in handy. Phonetics also describes intonation and helps students to recognize, understand and practice intonation patterns. The ability to ‘read’ intonation proves to be extremely useful in many fields. Once an phonetically trained student (one who has undergone ear-training and production practice, developing a full range of practical skills) understands how intonation works, they can use this knowledge not only in fields such as language teaching and learning, but also in voice and accent coaching,  

In higher education, phonetics does not merely exist on its own as a subject, but is an important discipline employed by a variety of linguistic fields and the knowledge and understanding of phonetics comes in useful – as we said earlier – on courses such as literary linguistics, for example, when exploring varieties of poetic metre and rhythm and exploring sound patterns in poetry. Phonetic transcriptions also constitute useful data for exploration and reflection in psycholinguistics, pragmatics and rhetoric and communication analysis, to name a but a few.

What is more, phonetics provides data for phonology. These two disciplines are very closely related to each other and understanding phonology without a good knowledge of phonetics is almost impossible as phonetics ‘feeds’ phonology with data, which is then used in exploring sound patterns of a language.

For those who plan to continue their education at post-graduate level, a good grasp of phonetics is a bonus and gateway to MA programmes in fields such as Linguistics, Phonology, Phonetics, Speech and Language Therapy, and Speech and Hearing Sciences. Finally, as to the career prospects, knowledge of phonetics is a requirement for those who want to work in disciplines such as speech therapy, audiology, forensic phonetics or voice and accent coaching.