Theoretical vs applied phonetics: Why bringing phonetics to the world means bringing the world to phonetics


Rethink Speech takes the view that there’s nothing so practical as a good theory (or so impractical as a bad one!) – and nothing so theoretical as figuring out the best way to approach a complex, real-world, practical endeavour.

So that gives us a particular view of the relationship of theoretical and applied phonetics – shared by some but implemented by few.

As we have seen, theoretical phonetics is a wide-ranging interdisciplinary science which tackles an enormous number of different questions in a curiosity-driven manner.

Applied phonetics seeks effective ways to achieve practical endeavours that involve speech, such as language and literacy teaching, evaluation of forensic speech evidence, and many others.

One big problem is an attitude that theoretical phonetics does the real work, and applied phonetics just ‘applies’ theoretical findings in practical situations. While this is gradually improving, until recently there has been a split between theory and application, with theory generally given more status than practical applications.

That’s not good for (at least) two reasons

First, it means people learning phonetics specifically for a practical reason often get a reduced and ‘simplified’ version of phonetics that doesn’t always help them achieve the practical tasks as well as expected by the theoreticians (who may never actually have undertaken the ‘applied’ task themselves).

Second, when you try to do practical things with phonetic theory – for example, teach pronunciation to a class of second-language learners, or identify the voice of a criminal in a recording, you often find that the theory doesn’t cover everything that arises in the practical situation.

If the theoreticians aren’t in the practical situations, they might not discover that. That’s bad for the applications – but it’s also bad for the theory.

After all, surely the best test of a theory is how useful it is in practical endeavours.


Unfortunately due to the split between theory and application, those with theoretical knowledge typically have little experience of practical situations (like classrooms and police stations), while those with practical experience generally have limited theoretical knowledge.

That’s why Rethink Speech aims not just to bring phonetics to the world, but also to bring the world to phonetics, right into the labs and lecture theatres of the ivory tower.

It is so important for theoretical phoneticians to get up close and personal with the complexities, frustrations and paradoxes created by trying to do things with speech in the real-world contexts where, for better or worse, things are actually done. As you’ll know well by now, Rethink Speech focuses on two such contexts: forensic; and intercultural speaking and listening. There’s heaps more.