A student studying theoretical or applied linguistics will almost certainly need to take one or more phonetics courses. In general, phonetics is the study of the physical production and reception of the sounds in language. Specific types of phonetics courses may provide an overview of the subject, focus on one of the three main sub-branches of phonetics — articulatory, acoustic, or auditory, or approach phonetics as part of the study of a particular language. Phonetics courses should be differentiated from phonology courses, which are theoretical in nature and study how sounds function on a cognitive level within a language.
A phonetics overview course is included in the core program of study for most degrees in linguistics or communication disorders. Content covered in this type of class will likely include phonetic transcription using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as well as studies in each of the three branches of phonetics. An introductory phonetics course usually has many hands-on and interactive elements as students familiarize themselves with the various physical mechanisms involved in language production and reception.
More advanced phonetics courses may focus on one particular area of phonetics. Articulatory phonetics is the study of how the vocal organs — the vocal cords, lips, tongue, nose and other organs that play a part in producing vocal sounds — work together to create each of the sounds of language. Ths branch of phonetics involves learning to differentiate the places and means of articulation within the vocal tract. Acoustic phonetics, on the other hand, studies the sounds themselves, rather than their means of production. This study may involve measuring the wavelength amplitude or other mathematical properties of articulations. Lastly, auditory phonetics deals with the anatomical mechanisms by which speech sounds are perceived, differentiated from other sounds, and processed by the brain.
Some phonetics courses are geared toward helping a student learn a particular language. This type of course may be part of a program of study in a foreign language rather than in linguistics. These courses will probably concentrate on articulatory phonetics as a means of helping the student learn to produce sounds that might not exist in his or her native language. For instance, variations on "r" and "l" sounds tend to be difficult to produce in a language other than one's own, to the point that a non-native speaker might have trouble even hearing the difference between those two consonants. A phonetics course aimed at teaching English to speakers of other languages might spend considerable time learning about the precise placements of the tongue required to produce each of those sounds.