Dynamic phonetic chart application

I’ve just completed a new Flash learning application, the International Phonetic Alphabet MILA, aimed at EFL/ESL learners and teachers which I believe is a good solution to many of the problems facing those who want to use phonetics in teaching English as a foreign or second language.

What does it do?

It can display any number of phonetic symbols which appear in groups as coloured buttons (see illustration).  When users click on one of the symbol buttons, a list of example words appears with the phonetic spelling and a play button next to each one so that they can listen to audio recordings of the example words.

The example on my Moodle deploys the symbols in a typical arrangement. They’re in columns of corresponding short and long vowels, dipthongs, corresponding voiced and unvoiced consonants and finally the remaining consonants.  By editing an external XML file, you can arrange and group the set or subsets of the phonetic symbols any way you like. For example, the past simple of regular verbs ending in /-id/, /-d/ and /-t/.

Why is it an advantage to make it dynamic?

Traditional phonetic charts are fixed, static items that you cannot change. In most English courses, learners are presented with a single, very general, one-size-fits-all chart for the entire course. Such charts typically have a small, fixed set of vocabulary for learners to view and listen to and, more often than not, it bears no or little relation to the vocabulary being studied at any particular moment in the course. See this example on Oxford University Press’  New English File site or this example on the British Council’s BBC Teaching English site.

Making any Flash web application dynamic gives one very important advantage. Anyone can edit it without having to buy expensive software. In fact, all you need is a text editor and a little familiarity with XML, which is human readable and relatively easy to learn. Any teacher or course content developer can create any number of vocabulary sets and deploy them in Moodle along with the related course materials, giving learners specific pronunciation support for the target language in a particular module, unit or activity. Did I mention that it’s also very easy to correct any typos that you find?

Secondly (the technical bit), the Flash learning application contains no text or audio itself, all of that is loaded externally, making it only 12Kb in size which is less than half the size of the containing Moodle web page (a similar sized photo would be around 50 – 200Kb). This means that it appears almost instantly. The International Phonetic Alphabet MILA then loads the words and phonetics as an XML file (XML is the de facto standard file format for dynamic elearning content). The audio files are loaded as and when users play them. Typically, audio files tend to be quite large and so only loading them as required means that the application starts faster and only uses the internet bandwidth that is absolutely necessary – ideal for users with slow (mobile) or intermittent connections.

How is using Flash an advantage over normal web page based phonetic charts?

Phonetic symbols have always been a bit of a problem on the internet, well actually, text and fonts in general. In order for a web page to be displayed with the correct font, e.g. Times New Roman, that font must be installed on users’ computers. If it isn’t, a substitute font is found automatically. The trouble is that not all fonts contain phonetic characters, in fact very few do, so what works perfectly well on one computer may be unreadable on another if it hasn’t got the correct font installed.

Flash resolves this issue by allowing developers to embed (include) fonts within their Flash applications. This means that the application carries the required fonts with it and will work on any computer regardless of whether it has any fonts installed or not. This is especially important with phonetic characters since so few fonts contain them. Problem solved!