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Are there any programs that will play a sound and allow the user to choose which sound was played? The options would need to be IPA or some other descriptive method (e.g., voiceless alveolar stop). Ideally it would be able to start in the phonetics of one language and gradually expand to more sounds and smaller differences between sounds. For example, it could start with phones from a certain dialect of English, and after the basics are mastered it could move into smaller differences, like aspirated stops vs unaspirated stops or alveolar stops vs dental stops, all the while introducing sounds not found in the starting dialect.

I am interested in being able to produce and discern more sounds, but when I searched for such a tool, I was unable to find anything that went beyond the basic sounds of English.

Edit to account for user6726's answer:

Rather than "choose the IPA symbol," this would of course need to be designed as a comparison between two given sounds. Since I am only interested in ear training and not applications to a specific language, the sound samples do not need to come from natural speech, but could come from one person producing a wide range of different sounds.

  • 1
    For simultaneous training on reading IPA and hearing the spoken text (not quite what you asked for, but useful; it's not a quiz but an archive -- the same English paragraph in all cases, read by either native English speakers from all over the Anglophone world, or by English speakers whose native language varies all over the world, try the George Mason Speech Accent Archive. Everything is closely annotated in IPA; these are phonetic, not phonemic transcriptions. – jlawler Aug 25 '15 at 19:59
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Unfortunately, no. There are two impediments to such a program. First, there isn't a sufficient database of individual sound recordings. You might cobble together collections of certain common sounds from various resources, for example words containing /a/ or /ɑ/ or /æ/, but it is usually very hard to find recordings of a given putative sound with multiple speakers of a language. Finding multiple speakers for a language is important, because you have to be able to distinguish between peculiarities of a single speaker vs. peculiarities of a language. Taking three speakers to be the minimum sample necessary for making a somewhat credible claim about a single language, note that we still do not know truly language-dependent (as opposed to speaker-dependent) facts of VOT for the languages reported in Lisker & Abramson's classic work on VOT. Now, looking at Cho & Ladefoged 1999 which looks at VOT in a number of languages (all endangered, in a nice twist), they got data from a reasonable number of speakers of each language, and you can see that VOT for the aspirated / unaspirated contrast differs quite substantially across the languages that they sampled.

The second problem is even more profound, in that the underlying premise is false. That is, were one to listen to samples of the [k] vs. [kʰ] contrast across languages, one could never in principle get the correct answer by listening to any individual sound. Navaho unaspirated [k] is about comparable to Thai aspirated [kʰ] (both languages have a contrast between aspirated and unaspirated). This is especially clear in dealing with vowel height, where the "ɪ" of one language is the "e" of the next language. There are general phonetic ballparks, where a glottalized stop will have a certain range of known variation (and surely some additional unknown variation), but the idea that there is a single phonetic representation of a particular IPA symbol is clearly false. So to ask a listener to make an absolute identification of a particular sound is a conceptual mistake. What could be useful would be a comparative judgment of similarity between two sounds.

Substantial though still insufficient raw materials are available via the UCLA phonetics archive. A second possible resource is the Journal of the IPA, via their sketches, which nowadays tend to include online speech samples. Eventually, the materials will be available, and then what remains to be done is better defining what needs to be done with these samples, in order to better grasp the similarities and differences of phonetic segments across languages.

[EDIT]

However... in light of the comment about expert performances, you can in fact get performances by Peter Ladefoged here, performing IPA symbols. These are not sounds of a specific language, rather they are reference sounds which may or may not match some actual language. You can also get productions of cardinal vowels by Jones here, and side-by-side recordings of Ladefoged, House and Wells performing vowels. The latter is informative in that it reveals variation within the community of well-known experts.

  • I couldn't agree more.In addition, even if we compare, say, the VOT of two sounds both of which can be considered aspirated, in order to get a cross-linguistically meaningful result, we always need to carry out some sort of normalization procedures to account for such factors as different speech tempos and various elicitation circumstances (which is basically the same as what @user6726 mentions in their answer [btw: is my usage of their as the general, gender-neutral pronoun correct? :-)]). – Pavel Jetušek Aug 25 '15 at 8:49
  • Now that you have said it explicitly, the comparative judgment is more along the lines of what I was looking for. It would be more helpful (in addition to not being intrinsically impossible) to have "which of these stops is more aspirated" or "which of these vowels is higher". Thank you for making that point more clearly than I did. – Zach Aug 26 '15 at 6:03
  • What I had in mind, rather than archives of natural speech, was a collection of sounds performed by someone (or a group of people) trained in speech production. This person could record many different sounds, and record for each where it falls on the "spectrum" of that particular sound. I am looking for something that I could see a phonetics instructor throwing together for the students, or even assigning as a project. If it were crowdsourced (within a trusted community), then the collection of available sounds would grow quickly without much work from any individual. – Zach Aug 26 '15 at 6:09
  • The links provided in the edit are definitely a step in the right direction. I would of course like to see versions with more sounds and smaller distinctions, but I understand that this is less likely to already exist. – Zach Aug 26 '15 at 20:08

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