This weekend, here at Penn, there's a workshop on "New Tools and Methods for Very-Large-Scale Phonetics Research", organized by Jiahong Yuan, Andreas Stolcke, Suzanne Boyce, Francesco Cutugno, Sarah Hawkins, and me. The call started this way:
The field of phonetics has experienced two revolutions in the last century: the advent of the sound spectrograph in the 1950s and the application of computers beginning in the 1970s. Today, advances in computation, networking and mass storage are promising a third revolution: a movement from the study of small, mostly artificial datasets to the analysis of published corpora of natural speech that are thousands of times larger.
The response has been excellent, as you can see from the program. I'll report here, as time permits, on some of the presentations that seem likely to be of interest to a general audience.
The last day of the workshop will focus on a topic that is potentially of great importance, in my opinion:
The last day of the workshop (January 31) is for those interested in discussing development of tools suitable for teaching acoustic-phonetic analysis to beginners while allowing smooth progression to efficient advanced research protocols. The aim is to capitalize on the strengths of existing freeware systems, losing none of their capabilities, while providing as unified a platform as possible for future development. Questions to be addressed include:
* What free or low-cost software is currently available?
* Of competing systems or platforms, which is best for what purpose, and why?
* How can currently available platforms be adapted to preserve the best of each and minimize disruption for currently expert users who want to exploit the new integrated platform? (i.e. what is needed to develop an interface between the new and existing platforms?)
* What capabilities might be most conducive to flexibility and efficiency for users?
There are already many excellent tools for specialists and would-be specialists — Praat, Elan, Wavesurfer, EXMARARaLDA, Festival, Transcriber, Emu, HTK, the Penn Forced Aligner, etc. — as well as tools aimed at a broader audience, like Sox and Audacity. Even for experts, there are some things missing, and of course many things that could and should (and will) be improved); but the biggest gap between reality and opportunity is in the area of tools for beginners.
There's no reason today why interested middle-school students shouldn't know how to do basic audio analysis and editing — I can testify from personal experience that some of them do, especially when they're motivated by creating music. In middle school and high school, there are wonderful opportunities to use such techniques not only for teaching some basic concepts in applied linguistic phonetics, but also aspects of other fields, from physics (e.g. period, wavelength, frequency), to music (pitch, intervals, timbre, timing), anthropology (accent differences and the response to them), and psychology (just noticeable differences, psychometric response functions, …). There are also clear creative opportunities in rhetoric, drama, oral literature, and so on.
At higher levels, would-be teachers should learn such things at least at a basic level, and of course people in areas like speech therapy and speech pathology have a special need for these concepts and skills.
The call focuses on tools, but obviously curricula that use the tools are at least as important.
We hope that Monday's discussions will sharpen ideas about the opportunities, and reinforce efforts to take advantage of them.
[Note that this is not a call for participation, as the workshop will already be near the rated capacity of the available rooms, unless the recent snow storm takes a more serious toll than we now anticipate. If you happen to be in the area and want to attend, we can probably shoe-horn you in; but for others, we'll make the slides, posters, and other materials from the workshop available as soon as possible.]