International strategies in phonetics education

Valerie Hazan
Dept of Phonetics and Linguistics
University College London
4, Stephenson Way
London NW1 2HE

Wim van Dommelen
Department of Linguistics
N-7055 Dragvoll

On behalf of the Phonetics Working Group of the Socrates Thematic Network in Speech Communication Sciences

Phonetics is concerned with the study of the production, transmission and perception of speech. This relatively young discipline has quite special characteristics. First, it is multidisciplinary as phonetics education incorporates the study of disciplines as diverse as linguistics, anatomy, statistics, signal processing, psychology and acoustics. Phonetics can be applied to areas such as language learning, speech and language therapy, speech technology and linguistics. It may therefore be taught as a degreecourse in its own right or be a component of these different specialisations. As a result, although phonetics was traditionally considered as belonging to the humanities, it has now strong connections with sciences and engineering. Another characteristic of the field of phonetics education is that its status differs widely across European countries. In some countries, phonetics is taught in dedicated institutes and has a long tradition of research and education; in others, it is a relatively new discipline taught with few dedicated resources. Finally, another special feature of the discipline is that the use of sound and images is central to phonetics research and education. Computer-assisted learning is therefore tailor-made for such a field, and the use of multimedia is essential rather than a luxury.

Until recently, the field of phonetics education was rather fragmented as there were few links across specialisations. The Thematic Network in Speech Communication Sciences was set up to bring together for the very first time European institutes teaching phonetics as a dedicated degree or in the context of linguistics, philology, engineering and speech and language therapy. The aim of the phonetics working group within this network has been to survey the field of phonetics education in Europe with the view of determining the needs for further development of computer-based teaching material and best practice. This work was made possible thanks to the existence of a ´human network´- resulting from the linking of around 100 institutes via the Socrates Network  -  and of electronic networks as communication  within the working group was mainly via the internet.

The first phase of our work consisted of a comprehensive survey of the field. First, a web-based questionnaire was used to gather information from 89 institutes in 25 countries across Europe. Detailed descriptions of individual  institutes (profile, curriculum, courses offered, quantitative data) was made freely accessible via the web. Information was also gathered from 40 institutes about textbooks and equipment used in phonetics education. As a result of the survey, draft recommendations have been prepared about the elements of phonetics study that seem necessary for students acquiring phonetic knowledge in the context of five different specialisations: phonetics, linguistics, speech technology, philology and speech and language therapy. The aim of this initiative is not to establish standardised curricula but to provide guidelines that could be of use both to academic staff revising or developing courses and to postgraduate students involved in independent study. These proposals have been widely distributed within the phonetics community worldwide as a discussion document.

Another outcome of the survey has been to highlight areas of phonetics knowledge in which educational material is needed. This may be because of the lack of a good textbook covering the area or because it requires expertise which may not be available in a small institute. The most efficient and innovative format for making such material easily accessible to all members of the network and beyond is via web-based tutorials. A further advantage of such a format is that it permits the inclusion of audio and video demonstrations. One area of phonetics education in which the need for further teaching material was often expressed is that of speech perception. As a result, a tutorial on models of speech perception is currently being developed by members of our working group.

In conclusion, our experience has shown the advantage of networking and international collaboration in the development of phonetics education. The work of our network has contributed to the integration of phonetics education in Europe and to the development of best practice in phonetics teaching.

This work is supported via a grant from the European Commission through the SOCRATES/ERASMUS programme for Thematic Networks.