If you have used all these demonstrations to good effect, you can be inducted into the hall of fame reserved for those who understand some of the advanced findings of phonetic science. For those who like summaries, there’s a little summary of RTS101: Unlearning below.
Before we get there, a word of warning
Though we have fast-tracked you to these important insights, you really are only at the beginning. Remember the intention of this first module is not to teach you facts about speech but to help you unlearn some crucial false beliefs of common knowledge. To clear the decks so we can start building up a better understanding of what speech is like and how it works.
Please don’t feel you have learned a set of facts and go rushing off to apply your new-found knowledge. There are so many ways that can go wrong.
Rather, recognise that understanding the nature of speech and speech perception involves not just building on ‘basic common knowledge’ but overturning some foundational assumptions embodied in that common knowledge – and then grappling with the complex technical and conceptual issues that arise.
That’s a bigger project than can be encapsulated in a few humble introductory learning modules – but we hope to have at least shown you there are some issues to consider, and perhaps whetted your appetite to follow them up, whether with Rethink Speech or elsewhere.
Where to from here?
If all this module has achieved is to give you a healthy scepticism regarding ‘common knowledge’ about speech, we are delighted.
However, if the unlearning module has additionally piqued your interest about how speech really works, then we are double-delighted.
Check the modules overview for inspiration on what to do next!
Done it all? Let us know when you are ready to join us for Rethink Speech 201!
In the meantime, many thanks for engaging with all this difficult material. It’s been great to have you along, and hope to see you again soon!
Now – on to that summary …
Some key findings of phonetic science
1. Speech in itself is not a sequence of units (the ‘segmentation problem’)
None of the units we are aware of in perception are able to be identified in speech purely from their physical characteristics. That doesn’t mean they ‘don’t exist’ or suggest we should never refer to them. Of course the units of speech exist, and of course awareness of them is a crucial part of being able to use speech as means of linguistic communication.
What it does do is set up one of the fundamental paradoxes at the heart of phonetic scholarship, called the segmentation problem.
Speech is both a sequence of units and a continuous stream of sound. What is the relationship between these two realities? How can we understand their relationship?
2. Words, phrases or phonemes that sound ‘the same’ are physically ‘different’ (the ‘invariance problem’)
No two naturally occurring units of speech are ever physically identical. Of course that doesn’t mean it is wrong to think of these different bits of sound as the same word or the same phoneme. Being able to hear different sounds as the same is crucial to our ability to use speech as language.
What it does is set up one of the fundamental questions of phonetic science, called the invariance problem: what is the relationship between the variable sounds and the invariant units.
3. Our perception of sounds is affected by the words and phrases we hear at least as much as our perception of sounds affects the words and phrases we hear (the ‘top-down:bottom-up problem’)
Of course that doesn’t mean we should ignore sounds and concentrate only on words and phrases.
What it does is set up another fundamental question of phonetic science, called the top-down:bottom-up problem: what is the relationship between words and sounds.
Each of these problems can be approached in a wide range of ways, and each has been addressed over many decades with a wide range of theories. We’ll be discussing some of those theoretical approaches, and putting forward our own for your delectation and scrutiny, in other modules.
But for now, the important thing is that all theories of phonetics (and related topics) share the fundamental observation that ‘common knowledge’ is wrong in the ways outlined in this module.
It seems there is a case for getting our society to rethink its ‘common knowledge’ in appropriate ways – don’t you agree?