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What is 'The Science and Technology of Speech and Hearing'?

This broad field of study includes the production of speech sounds by humans and by machines, the perception of speech and other sounds by humans, and the analysis of speech sounds by machines. We are interested in how speech sounds are made, how these sounds are used to communicate in language, how the significant properties of those sounds can be analysed, how sounds are analysed by the human hearing mechanism, how humans and machines can recover the linguistic content of speech sounds.

There is a large body of scientific knowledge about how we use speech to communicate, and an increasing body of knowledge about how this scientific understanding can lead to technological applications, in for example: the generation of speech by machine, the recognition of speech by machine, the efficient communication of speech signals, the identification of an individual by their voice, the rehabilitation of hearing impairment, etc.

This broad field overlaps with many disciplines, some of which are described in more detail below. It overlaps with Linguistics, Phonetics, Physiology, Psychology, Audiology and Speech Therapy; and it exploits knowledge from Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Physics.

Broadly this site is concerned with normal speech and hearing: it does not try to cover issues related to speech disorders or hearing disorders. However it does provide links to other sites which deal with these topics.

What is Linguistics?

In its broadest sense, Linguistics is the study of human language: how it is structured, how it is used to represent meaning, how it is used to communicate ideas, how it is formed, how it is decoded. Linguistics tries to look for commonality across all human languages, and shouldn't be confused with 'Language Teaching' which aims to teach a single language. It is confusing that an expert in languages is called a 'linguist', since it leaves no name for an expert in Linguistics - maybe he should be called a 'linguistician'!

Contemporary Linguistics is divided into sub fields of study; some of these are:

Syntax
The study of the grammatical form of sentences: what makes the sentence "he gave the book to Mary" have the form of a typical English sentence, while the sentence "gave he book the Mary to" does not?
Semantics
The study of the meaning of sentences: in the sentence "he gave the book to Mary" what was happening? who was doing the giving? who was doing the receiving?
Pragmatics
The study of how sentences are used to communicate: what are the rules of discourse that mean we can follow each other's conversations; why when someone asks you "Can you tell me the time?" you don't answer "yes" or "no".
Morphology
The study of the form of words: how groups of words share related meanings through regular patterning: what links "like", "likes", "liked", "likeness", "likely", "likelihood"?
Phonology
The study of the pronunciation of words and sentences: what basic sounds are used by a language, what regular patterning occurs in words; why does the sound used at the end of the word "sing" not occur at the beginning of a word?
Phonetics
The study of the production of speech by the human vocal mechanisms: how are sounds made, how do speakers of different accents differ. See 'What is Phonetics?' below.
Psycholinguistics
The study of the mental processes by which sentences are constructed and decoded by human beings.
Sociolinguistics
The study of how language variation is related to its use in society to form groups of geographical region, economic class or ethnicity.
Computational linguistics
The study of how computers can be used to analyse and generate sentences.

Other areas include the history of linguistics and the application of linguistic theory in language teaching. You can read more about Linguistics on the Linguistics Society of America web pages, particularly their booklets on the Science of Linguistics and on the Domain of Linguistics. Or look at the Wikipedia entry for Linguistics.

What is Phonetics?

Phonetics is the study of speech. It is concerned with how speech sounds can be categorised, how they are generated in the human vocal tract, why they each sound different to a listener, and how a listener is able to recognise them. The study of the organisation of speech sounds in a language is called phonology, while the study of how humans use their vocal apparatus to speak is called articulatory phonetics. The study of the quality of the sounds used to signal different pronunciations is called acoustic phonetics, while the study of how we perceive and decode speech sounds is sometimes called auditory phonetics. Finally, the general field of study in which instruments are used to study speech production and perception is called experimental phonetics

What is Audiology?

Audiology is a clinical field concerned with hearing impairment. Audiologists are involved in the screening, assessment and diagnosis of hearing disorder, and in the provision of hearing aids and other aspects of rehabilitation.

You may want to read these descriptions of hearing disorders from the American Speech and Hearing Association.

What is Speech Therapy?

Speech Therapy (more commonly known as Speech and Language Therapy) is a clinical field concerned with disorders of human communication. Speech and Language therapists are involved in the assessment of people with a communication problem, and the provision of therapy. Since communication problems have many causes, a speech and language therapist has to have a wide knowledge of how human linguistic communication works and can fail. Common disorders include: Aphasia - problems in language construction or decoding; Dyspraxia - problems in control of the vocal apparatus, Dysfluency - problems with the fluency of pronunciation (i.e. stuttering); Dysphonia - problems with the generation of voice in the larynx; and Dyslexia - problems with reading. Common causes of communication disorders include head injury, hearing loss and stroke; although a number seem to have a genetic component.

You can find out more information about a wide range of speech and language disorders from the American Speech and Hearing Association.

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Copyright © 2017 Mark Huckvale

Last modified: 10:50 19-Oct-2014.