Phonetics? That’s like speech therapy, right?

Phonetics is all about articulation? it's time to turn that idea on its head!
Think phonetics is all about articulation? It’s time to turn that idea on its head!

When (or if) people think about phonetics, one common idea is that phonetics involves describing how the sounds of speech (or ‘phonemes’) are produced (or ‘articulated’) in the mouth. If you hold this idea, you might wonder why anyone would want to do that – and an obvious answer is to help people who have trouble in producing particular sounds, for example, people with a lisp, or people who say ‘rabbit’ as ‘wabbit’. That fits the common stereotype about what speech therapists do – making it just a short step to the idea that phonetics is like speech therapy.

Well there are some grains of truth in there, but they are mixed up with quite a lot of misunderstanding. Let’s see if we can separate them out.

First of all, while speech therapists (or speech-language pathologists, as they are generally known these days) do sometimes help people who consistently mispronounce individual phonemes, this is a relatively minor part of their work. Here’s a fact sheet sheet that gives a better impression of the wide range of debilitating conditions that qualified speech-language pathology professionals can assist with.

Second, while speech-language pathologists do study phonetics (to varying levels), they also study many other topics related to their clinical practice. Conversely, the phonetics they study is generally just a sub-set of the entire field. In particular, they tend to focus on the phonetics of the specific language in which they practice (i.e. in English-speaking countries, they focus on English). This is one reason that speech-language pathologists are not usually well-qualified to teach pronunciation to learners of English as a second language – unless they have undertaken study specifically in that topic.

By contrast, phoneticians (those who specialise in phonetics as such) take a broader, cross-linguistic, view, aiming to understand the nature and normal functioning of speech considered as a general human faculty – not just in one language. Conversely, they typically do not go into nearly so much detail on the medical side of things as speech pathologists do.

Phonetics is all about articulation? it's time to turn that idea on its head!
Phonetics is all about articulation? It’s time to turn that idea on its head!

So speech therapy and phonetics are related disciplines with an overlapping knowledge base. But they are really very different fields of study and specialisation.

Wondering about the weird pink diagram at the top?

If you’ve studied phonetics or speech pathology, you’ll know it’s an articulation diagram – often studied as part of introductory phonetics courses. It shows the inside of the vocal tract and gives technical terms for all its parts.

The articulation of speech is a fascinating topic – but best learned after you have overcome some of the false beliefs of ‘common knowledge’.