Phonetic Transcription and Why Professionals Should Avoid It

 In Transcription
Phonetic Transcription

Quality Research Beats Phonetic Transcription Every Time

Phonetic transcription is great – if you teach primary school children. It may also come in handy if you work as a translator. It is not so good if you want accurate transcriptions of audio files. In fact, this method of transcription is not used by any organisation whose text documents are required to meet international standards. If you are wondering why, this guide will tell you everything you need to know about phonetic transcription. It will explain what phonetic transcription is and highlight why it is no substitute for quality research. Importantly, it will pinpoint why professionals don’t trust it.

As one of the UK’s leading audio transcription services companies, we see the words ‘phonetic transcription’ used all the time. You may have seen it yourself, if you have been searching for a transcription company. It is not a word we use to describe our transcription services process, because we do things differently. Here, at Alphabet, we believe in research – not guesswork.

First things first, let’s take a look at what phonetic transcription is and how it works.

What is Phonetic Transcription?

You may see phonetic transcription described as something else. For example, some transcribers may refer to it as ‘phonetic notation’ or ‘phonetic script’. It is important to remember that these descriptions mean the same – phonetic transcription. Transcribers who use this method to document audio files in text format visualise the sounds that they hear. They usually don’t carry out any prior research. That means what they write is based entirely on the sounds they hear and not knowledge.

You don’t have to use guesswork to imagine the potential for errors. Have you heard of the guy who thought ‘euthanasia’ was ‘youth in Asia’? He wondered what was controversial about young people living in Asia for years before his mistake was pointed out. How many words can you think of in the English language that sound nothing like how they are correctly spelled? Consider the number of UK organisations outsourcing transcription to non-native speakers, using phonetics and you will understand the scale of poor quality work. If you work in a sector where accuracy is everything, phonetic transcription is not for you.

All phonetic transcription experts use a phonetic alphabet to help them match sounds to letters. Over the centuries, many different types of phonetic alphabets have come and gone. Today, the most universally used one is called the International Phonetic Alphabet or, in short, ALP. By understanding how this system works, you will appreciate its limitations when it comes to transcribing audio files.

Limitations of the International Phonetic Alphabet

While the International Phonetic Alphabet has survived for more than 100 years, it has significant drawbacks. Quality audio transcription is one of them. This phonetic transcription system, which contains 107 letters, was not designed for audio transcription. Formulated in the 19th century, it is primarily an aid to those learning or teaching languages. Others who may benefit include performers. Actors, for example, use phonetics to learn accents or to make their spoken words sound crystal clear on camera.

Modern technology was the stuff of science fiction when this phonetic alphabet was put together. It is designed to reflect speech as sounds, not written words. And it is based on Latin. That is why phonetic transcription is a poor choice for those who require quality audio transcription. The English language is riddled with ‘weird words’, including many that contain silent letters. They are spelled entirely differently to how they sound. Some classic examples include:

• Knowledge
• Gnome
• Knight
• Phlegm
• Muscle
• Asthma

Add to that different spellings of words that sound the same but mean different things. ‘There’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, for example. Or ‘affect’ versus ‘effect’. These anomalies in the English language make it particularly unsuitable for phonetic transcription. If you require an audio transcription of important medical research work, you cannot afford to have words misinterpreted.

Because the English language is a myriad of complexities, it contains homophones. They are words that sound exactly the same as other words. Then there are heterographs. They are words that also sound the same. However, that is where the similarity ends. The meanings, and spellings, of heterographs are entirely different. The ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ example mentioned above perfectly illustrates this problem in the context of phonetic transcription.

Another example is ‘to’, ‘two’ and ‘too’. Confusing similar words include ‘buy’, and ‘by’ and ‘bye’, along with ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’. Other similar words that people often confuse include ‘break’ and ‘brake’. It is worth pointing out that words, just like technology, evolve. Did you know ‘fathom’ used to mean giving someone a hug? Or that ‘clue’ was once used to describe a ball of wool?

The Dangers of Taking This Route

Spelling mistakes caused by phonetic transcription can be dangerous, as well as unprofessional. Consider the potential impact of a spelling error on a prescription. Now think about it in the context of a drug trial. When lives depend on quality transcription, would you trust the sound of a word? Many medicines and conditions have similar sounding names. Professional transcribers carry out research to ensure mistakes are not made. They pay attention to things such as accents, including local dialects, and how that can impact the sound and meaning of a word.

To illustrate the potential danger of phonetic transcription, we have looked at common errors. The Pharmacy Times reports a mix up between the drugs sertraline and cetirizine. The latter is a drug used to prevent seasonal allergies, such as hay fever and rhinitis, while sertraline is an antidepressant. An audio transcription of a voicemail message saw a patient with allergy symptoms prescribed with sertraline. Those working in the medical profession are constantly reminded about the dangers of drugs that sound alike and look alike. Would you trust phonetic transcription to know the difference?

Other commonly misinterpreted drugs include Celexa and Zyprexa and Cedex and Cidex, but the list is endless. It is estimated that five million errors are made every year in spellings of medicines alone. Taken into the broader context of phonetic transcription, you will understand the huge potential for poor quality audio transcription.

Good Audio Transcribers Don’t Use It

We do not use phonetic transcription. In fact, no good transcription company does. The reasons are outlined above. Speech recognition is still in its infancy when it comes to transcription. While many tech developers talk about ‘big data’ and ‘deep learning’, most of the applications currently available rely on phonetics. The economies of outsourcing audio transcription to a transcriber who uses phonetic transcription are outweighed by serious quality issues.

Why pay twice to have a job done when it can be executed perfectly the first time around? Anyone offering a phonetic transcription service will rely on sounds. Their services may appear cheap, but the cost to you and your organisation could be very high. In the world of professional audio transcription, use of the phonetic alphabet is considered ‘lazy’. That is because it does not value the importance of quality research. The consequence is often work that does not meet professional standards.

We research topics thoroughly. This is a brand where transcribers have in-depth knowledge of phrases and words specific to different industries. They are trained to know what words they are likely to hear and how they are correctly spelled. Understanding the context of words is important, too. Alphabet meets and exceeds international standards with high-quality work.

If you are not sure how your audio files are being transcribed, it pays to ask. This is especially important if you outsource your work to non-native English speakers. Some transcribers may not use the words ‘phonetic transcription’ in their sales pitch, even though, at the end of the day, that is the system they are relying on.

Research v Phonetic Transcription

Understanding a topic is pivotal to success in any sphere. We consider it an essential part of its service. While research is the cornerstone of innovation, it is a byword for quality in transcription. Phonetic transcription does not include research. It is what it is; a transcription style that relies solely on sounds.

Many of our clients use research to develop products, ideas and pioneering medical advancements. If you work in a sector that uses industry specific terminology, you can’t afford to trust phonetic transcription. While all organisations should aim to meet global quality standards, the following sectors, in particular, should avoid phonetic transcription:

• Agriculture
• Food processing
• Legal
• Manufacturing
• Healthcare
• Financial
• HR
• Pharmaceuticals
• PACE
• Software
• Semiconductor
• Information technology
• Construction
• Robotics
• Aerospace
• Energy

Audio transcription standards in these, and many other areas, need careful attention. Audio files can contain case-sensitive information that someone, without background knowledge, will not understand. If a document transcribed from a sound file is to be used to support research, is likely to form part of a court case or a disciplinary hearing, it is essential that the person who transcribes it is familiar with industry-specific terminology. Knowing how to correctly spell those words is crucial.

Imagine presenting a document that is the basis of a business strategy or new benchmark only to find it is riddled with errors? How much time have you got to correct the mistakes? If it is too late, your reputation and that of your organisation could be in tatters.

Quality or Speed?

The reason why some transcription businesses use the phonetic transcription model is because it is perceived by clients as quick. It doesn’t rely on research for accuracy. What’s more, it often does not include proof reading. We use a powerful combination of research and proof reading to guarantee accuracy. What’s more, it manages to combine both and meet tight deadlines.

Proof reading should be an integral part of audio transcription. That is because humans are human. Mistakes can and do happen. But we do not expect clients to correct errors, and that is why our proof readers go the extra mile to find that elusive acronym or complicated drug name.

How can phonetic transcription providers correct errors if they can’t recognise wrong words in the wrong place? Without adequate research, an audio transcription will not meet recognised benchmarks for quality. There are well-established paths to accuracy in transcription. Phonetic transcription is not one of them. For anyone considering using a transcription service, first consider the important skills below. Ask yourself if these are the disciplines adopted by its transcribers.

Learning: nobody ever stops learning – especially audio transcription specialists. Is your audio transcription provider willing to take the time to learn your lingo? Does it carry out background research? Does it employ proof readers? Are they committed to learning and understanding new things?

Commitment to quality: caring about the standard of audio transcription is pivotal. Does your transcription provider give you the impression that they care? Do they have processes in place to catch errors? Do they employ proof readers? Transcribers who care check their work, don’t rely on spellcheckers and take pride in what they do. They do much more than just listen.

The Problem with Phonetic Transcription

The real problem with phonetic transcription is that it is not suitable for sound files. Audio transcription should always be carried out by a transcriber who considers knowledge and accuracy more important than churning out poor quality work. If you are a professional, take a look at the transcriptions you receive. How many errors can you spot? Do they take hours of your time to correct?

Find yourself having to red pen phonetic transcription files? There is another way. After all, you pay other people to transcribe your files because you need a professional document. Invest in quality you can afford with a transcription specialist that doesn’t rely on sounds alone. Find out more about the benefits of using a transcription provider who values research and proof reading.

Even smart people make mistakes. You must know someone who has written ‘peaked my interest’ instead of ‘piqued my interest’. Silly mistakes can cause embarrassment and have far-reaching consequences. For professional documentation from sound files, choose an audio transcription service that ticks all the boxes – Alphabet’s Transcription Services.

For further information about the work undertaken by Alphabet, telephone +44 (0) 01707 260027.

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