Sounds and Symbols Examination

The examination for the Sounds and Symbols benchmark in the Tarbet-Telfer Language & Accent Benchmarks is in two parts, one written and one oral. The written part is an invigilated examination lasting about 25 minutes, taken by all candidates together. It is followed by the oral part, taken by each candidate separately in a 15-minute session.

The examination is a test of the candidate's ability to convert speech into IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols, and vice versa. Candidates must use only the symbols prescribed for the target language or accent. Likewise, these are the only symbols that candidates are asked to recognise and speak.

Written examination

The written examination has three questions:

  • A multiple-choice tick-box test of the candidate's knowledge of terminology;
  • Transcription of the ordinary written language ('orthography') into IPA symbols. There is a list of 10 to 15 separate words, and 3 or 4 connected phrases of exactly 4 or 5 words each.
  • Transcription of dictated speech into IPA symbols. The speech comes either from the invigilator speaking live or from a recording. It consists of between 5 and 8 nonsense syllables, between 5 and 8 separate words, and 2 phrases of exactly 3 or 4 words each;

Fifteen minutes are allowed for the first two questions. The third question will take about 10 minutes, allowing the candidates a reasonable amount of time to write down the dictated words and phrases.

Oral examination

For the oral examination candidates read three pieces of IPA text: the first consists of 10 to 15 nonsense syllables, the second consists of 10 to 15 separate words, and the third is a connected passage of 50 to 60 words. No other persons are allowed in the examination room apart from the candidate and the examiner. The candidate is handed the material when he or she comes into the room, and has 10 minutes to prepare it, then 5 minutes to speak it. The performance is recorded for later assessment, and results, with comments, are sent to the candidate within a few days.

Marking scheme

The terminology test is worth 5 marks, the written examination is worth 35 marks, and the oral examination is worth 60 marks, giving a total of 100 marks. Marking (apart from the terminology test) is by strict count of each symbol. If the symbol written by the candidate is an accurate representation of what was said, or of the normal pronunciation of a written word, then one point is given for that symbol. Similarly, if what the candidate speaks is an accurate rendering of the symbol in the IPA text, a point is given. The candidate's points are then scaled over the total number of symbols in the test to produce a mark out of 35 for the written examination, and a mark out of 60 for the oral examination.

Candidates should particularly note that the Sounds and Symbols examination is concerned only with the accurate understanding and speaking of IPA symbols; it is not concerned with intonation, timing, voice quality, or any other features of the specific accent. You may have a really good ear for an accent, and be able to deliver, intuitively, a highly convincing performance of it, but you will not get credit for that. You will only get credit for accurately understanding and speaking the IPA symbols.