Why rethink speech?

Photo credit: Brian Smithson

Phonetic science has made many important discoveries about the nature of speech and how it works.

The thing is, hardly anyone knows about them. Which is interesting — it’s not like scientists have been trying to keep them secret!

So here’s an important but often overlooked question:

Why do so few know the findings of phonetic science?

The reason is paradoxical: it’s because everyone already knows so much about speech.

How can that be?

Image from Pixabay

Well, speech is part of ‘common knowledge’. We all learn in primary school that c+a+t = cat. We then build on that foundation, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout our lives.

It’s easy to assume that phonetic science simply adds more bricks to that foundation of common knowledge.

But that’s not right at all.

Phonetic science has discovered that many of the most basic assumptions of ‘common knowledge’ are actually false beliefs. Even something as basic as c+a+t = cat has at best a partial kind of truth. And that’s just one example.

Phonetics doesn’t add to common knowledge. It undermines common knowledge.

That’s quite unsettling! It means that learning phonetics well requires unlearning ideas we’ve accepted as factual information since childhood.

Unlearning is interesting, but difficult

And the most important unlearning is the hardest of all. Phonetics courses generally reserve it for the most advanced students.

Since very few of us study phonetics to advanced levels, false beliefs about speech remain rife in our society.

That matters — in more ways than you might expect

It’s obvious that those who work with speech in practical ways will be affected by false beliefs about speech – and Rethink Speech pays attention to several of those practicalities (forensic phonetics, speaking and listening with less proficient speakers of English, and literacy).

Cartoon by Frank Morell, for The New Yorker.

But false beliefs about speech also affect areas that aren’t quite so obvious. Here’s two huge examples.

1. Speech comes into pretty much everything we do

Not just things that require talking to other people (though there’s that).

Most of what we call ‘thinking’ is really speaking silently to ourselves (well, ok, maybe not always so silently).

Speech is our most-used tool for thinking. And as you’ll know, to use a tool effectively, you need to have a good understanding of its nature, and the effect it has on what you are doing.

That means: if we have a wrong view of what speech is like and how it works, that’s going to have a major impact on our thinking about lots of other things – like the world, and ourselves, and other people.

2. Investigating speech creates major conceptual challenges

Drawing Hands, by MC Escher. Image from Wikipedia

If thinking about speech is really speaking about speech, it becomes a bit of a hall of mirrors. We’re using the tool to work on the tool!

So are we investigating speech – or are we investigating what we think about speech? Or how we speak about speech? How can we know? What difference does it make? What effect does it have?

That’s just a couple of small examples to show that getting to grips with the nature of speech requires engaging with some substantial philosophical puzzles in a deeply practical way.

In fact, it’s fair to say that speech is one of the most conceptually challenging topics you can find

If you can think well about speech, you can think well about anything. And the corollary is, if you can’t think well about speech, that compromises your ability to think well about all kinds of other things.

To be honest, quite a lot of high-level philosophical and scientific discussion rests on assumptions about the nature of speech and how it works that just aren’t true. Rethinking these false beliefs can make a world of difference.

Now you’re probably itching for more detail. And that will come. But you really need to have a little bit of Rethink Speech under your belt before we get to the philosophical stuff.

Don’t worry – Rethink Speech won’t make you feel like this! Image from Pixabay

This little intro is just to help you see beyond the unfortunate reputation of phonetics (the science of speech) as a worthy but dull topic. It’s true it can seem that way when it is taught as a collection of technical facts about speech.

But that’s not how Rethink Speech does things.

When you start observing the real nature of speech, and investigating how it actually works in real life, things get a lot more interesting, and a lot more relevant.

Even if you’ve found phonetics pretty ho-hum in the past, give Rethink Speech a go now. You have nothing to lose but some false beliefs.