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Phonetic transcription in the 21st century: A tutorial

Will phonetic transcription be a part of SLP practice 50 years from now? Will speech recognition tools or some other emergent technology make this skill obsolete? We cannot know. In the meantime, this skill is necessary, even if the past several decades have brought changes in the techniques of speech-language pathology, and broadening of what we know about speech production and perception. Physical transcription, if anything, is more important now than it has ever been, with the increasing levels of multilingualism in our communities.

Joseph Stemberger and Barbara Bernhardt, of the Department of Linguistics and the School of Audiology and Speech Science at the University of British Columbia, have drawn on their backgrounds in phonetics, phonology and speech-language pathology, and a recent crosslinguistic project in phonological acquisition in children, to offer a tutorial that provides an overview of phonetic transcription for the modern world, and recommendations for research and training. It is published in Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica 2020;72:75–83;

At the outset, this tutorial addresses the purposes and levels of transcription, noting that it is fundamentally reductionist to define an absolute boundary between sound-production that is “good enough” and “not good enough,” and that such boundary in many respects is simply a judgment-call. A child may use speech sounds that are not part of the target adult inventory, moreover. A tool for managing this, of course, is the International Phonetic Alphabet (the ‘IPA’). Its utility, though, depends on how widely the individual SLP knows it. Are there suitable ways in the IPA for a bilabial fricative in English, an alveolopalatal fricative in Slovene or Spanish, or any of the retroflexes and trills in Slovene and Icelandic?

Technical and environmental conditions for transcription are also covered in the tutorial. It may or may not be necessary to record a child’s speech for off-line transcription and analysis later, for example. Ambient noise may or may not be a problem for transcribers, either. What about the problem of the transcriber’s own habituated perceptual sensitivity? There are in-built differences in transcription practices between languages for good reason. One way of circumnavigating this might be by supplementing a transcription with visually salient information, that shows tongue protrusion or lateralization, labiodental contact, lip rounding, lip spreading, or overall jaw movement.

Finally, Professors Stemberger and Bernhardt offer resources for deep training for SLPs, in practical ways of learning about the phonology and phonetics of target languages, testing children’s language in multilingual context, or simply refreshing or upgrading skills on the IPA.

MyoNews from BreatheWorksTM is a report on trends and developments in oromyofunctional disorder and therapy. These updates are not intended as diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease or syndrome.

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