Why studying phonetics can be dangerous


Phonetics is a conceptually challenging subject – arguably the most conceptually challenging subject there is.

Yet our current system requires lots of people to be taught a bit of phonetics, whether as part of a general linguistics degree, or as part of a career in literacy education, language teaching, speech therapy or, well the list goes on.

Trying to teach ‘a bit of phonetics’ to students whose main interests and needs lie elsewhere is extremely difficult – especially when the lecturers themselves might not be specialists in phonetics. Neither the lecturers nor the students want to go into complex conceptual puzzles.

The obvious solution is to ‘simplify’

There’s a big incentive to ignore the conceptual puzzles and present material that can be learned – and tested – in a short space of time.

Very commonly, that means focusing on a few technical aspects, such as symbols for phonemes, technical terms for places of articulation, and perhaps rules for when to use one phoneme versus another – and presenting them as a cut-and-dried system to be learned and be done with.

So why is that dangerous?

Partly because it seems too difficult and students get discouraged

In principle, learning symbols for phonemes seems as if it should be easy. And to be honest, sitting down and learning 40 or so symbols is not all that difficult – just a bit dull.

In practice, however, actually using the symbols is far more difficult than most people expect. Many students get discouraged and assume they are hopeless at phonetics – rather then realising that difficulty is one of the surprises about speech that is worth investigating. They put in the hours needed to pass exams and then leave phonetics behind with a sigh of relief.

Partly because it seems too easy and students get over-confident and bored

Learning symbols and technical terms can be done with very little challenge to the false beliefs embedded in common knowledge about speech. In fact, it can serve to entrench those false beliefs –  if students believe that now they know the symbols they ‘know phonetics’.

If studying phonetics is not conceptually challenging, you’re not doing it right!

At Rethink Speech we take the opposite approach

We are not trying to peddle a quick solution to exam woes (of students or teachers). We want to attract people interested in thinking and learning, who are a good fit for Rethink Speech.

Rather than simplifying by avoiding conceptual challenges, we take the conceptual challenges by the horns and go into them right from the start – in a non-technical way that makes phonetics fascinating and inspiring, not a topic to get over and done with as quickly as possible.

In fact, our first aim, in RTS101: Unlearning is not to teach you any theory about speech, but to help you realise you already have an elaborate theory of speech. We call it the c-a-t theory – and we’ll look at it briefly next.

But just before we go there – please don’t take the remarks above as any kind of criticism of those who have to teach ‘a bit of phonetics’. Often this is imposed on them by policy-makers who have very little idea about what is involved or how hard it can be for teachers and students alike.