What is Cognitive Phonetics? Practical theory for success in speaking, listening and teaching

Phonetics is the scientific study of speech. Its key finding is the huge difference between what people think speech is like, and what speech is really like.

When we listen to one another talk, speech seems to be a sequence of distinct words, each made up of distinct sounds (phonemes). In reality, speech is a continuous stream of sound.

The discrete words and phonemes are not in speech, but are imposed upon speech by our minds. The question of exactly how our minds do this is a fascinating one, investigated by several different theories. Cognitive Phonetics is one of these.

What is cognitive phonetics useful for?

Some theories, following Noam Chomsky, suggest the mind is a kind of computer, operating below the level of conscious awareness, which converts continuous speech into discrete units. These theories are very interesting, and have taught us a great deal about speech and language. Unfortunately they are not very useful for 'applied' topics, such as teaching second language pronunciation. They explain learners' problems in a way theorists understand, not in a way learners themselves understand. That's what cognitive phonetics is really good at. By researching how people from different language backgrounds think about speech with their conscious minds, we develop explanations learners can act upon quickly and confidently to improve their pronunciation, and maintain the improvement.

Here's a short article that explains the theory of Cognitive Phonetics in a little more detail.

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About Dr Fraser

Helen studied phonetics and linguistics at Macquarie University and the University of Edinburgh, then lectured for many years at the University of New England (Australia).

She has researched the theory of cognitive phonetics since the 1980s, but from 1999, has become more and more concerned with its practical applications. She now focuses mainly on two specific applications: intercultural speaking and listening, and forensic transcription.



Second language pronunciationIt doesn't have to be so hard!

Pronunciation is surely the most important skill for second language learners to master – yet many struggle with barely intelligible speech even after years of lessons. Cognitive Phonetics can really help in these situations.

It's a different approach from speech pathology, elocution or traditional ESL classes. Rather than diagnosing problems, it focuses on finding what's working well, and extends from there to build learners' confidence in the real communicative situations they face each day.

By focusing on teaching and learning, and keeping its technical knowledge about speech in the background, cognitive phonetics helps people learn how to learn .
Skill and confidence increase every week, long after the lessons are finished.

Cognitive Phonetics for teachers

Cognitive phonetics can also help teachers. By taking the focus off the technicalities of phoneme symbols and articulation, and offering a clear explanation of why some classroom techniques work so much better than others, it allows teachers to extend their successful practice, and confidently address the issues most critical to learners, as they arise.

Because it's well known that language learning depends more on what happens outside the classroom than inside it, Cognitive Phonetics places a lot of emphasis on making sure learners' speaking and listening environment is conducive to ongoing improvement. That means working with native speakers.


With Cognitive Phonetics, there's no grammar exercises, no reading aloud, no childish games. It's all about coaching learners to speak clearly, express themselves the way they want to, and cope confidently with inevitable minor breakdowns in communication.



Teaching pronunciation with the stars.

Teaching Pronunciation: A handbook for teachers and trainers.

Teaching teachers to teach /r/ and /l/ to Japanese learners of English: An integrated approach.

Helping teachers help students with pronunciation.

NEW! A little bit of theory, useful for those interested in the status of phonemes

SEE ALSO NEW MATERIAL UNDER 'Speaking and Listening'

Speaking and listening Making it easier to talk to people who have a foreign accent.

These days many places of work and learning are multicultural. This brings a lot of advantages but also quite a few challenges. Teaching, learning, teamwork and management all depend crucially on spoken communication. Having a mix of native and non-native speakers can make speaking and listening more difficult.

But though there are many workshops on intercultural communication, few tackle what can be the hardest issue of all: basic mutual intelligibility. After all, simply to understand what the other person is saying is a big step towards understanding their cultural point of view.

Whose responsibility?

It is easy for local people to assume good communication depends on second language speakers improving their pronunciation, and certainly that is part of the solution. However, communication is a two-way street, and there is a lot that can be done from both sides.

My research shows most local people want to help second language speakers. Unfortunately, they don't always know the best ways to do so. A little knowledge about cognitive phonetics can make all the difference, as small adjustments can dramatically ease the burden of spoken communication for all concerned.

We can't all learn an Asian language, but we can learn to use our own language in a way that helps second language speakers learn, and lets us learn about other cultures directly from the people we work with.


Take a survey!

If you are a manager of a multicultural workplace or university, you may be only partially aware of the communication difficulties faced by your team, and their impact on productivity.

A workplace survey can help you find out the issues – and tackle them with some simple and constructive solutions.

If you are interested in speaking and listening, you might find some of the readings under Forensic Transcription interesting, especially this one.

NEW! Read about a recent Speaking and Listening project.