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.
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.