Show and tell: Forvo

Never mispronounce a word again?

Sometimes you read a word and wonder how to correctly pronounce it, be it in in a foreign language or in English. Wouldn’t it be great to hear native speakers saying it for you?

Meet Forvo, an online pronunciation guide. Users can post requests for words they would like to hear pronounced. They can also upload recordings of pronunciations for words in their native language. Recordings are limited to 2.5 seconds because Forvo only wants words in isolation and no phrases (cue the linguistic debates on how a word should be universally defined…).

At the moment, Forvo proudly announces a total of 2,741,146 uploaded words with 2,640,886 pronunciations in 319 languages. There are more pronunciations than words thanks to a laudable feature allowing multiple pronunciations for a single word to be uploaded, thus capturing regional and dialectical variations. Forvo’s rather ambitious goal is to provide pronunciations for all the words in the world, including names. Obviously, it’s still a work in progress.

I would imagine that the set of words uploaded for any language would not be representative of anything much in Forvo’s current state. If user queries lead to pronunciations being uploaded, then most words on Forvo will be the “tricky” ones. For instance, the latest English recordings uploaded are for studentship, bowler hat, streetlight, vining, denchfield, thereabouts and putatively. Denchfield had me stumped for a while. While users have the option of adding categories and other information to entries, this entry had only the recording to offer. According to Google, denchfield is a name or a place name. Or have you ever heard a word like it? Proper names are distinguished from nouns only if an appropriate category is added, which can be confusing for entries lacking that information.

The German selection of entries still waiting for a pronunciation file to be uploaded is a solid list of compound nouns, like Transportkostenbeteiligung, Verwertungsstelle, Ziegelrohstoff, and Gewerbebaumaßnahme. German learners all over the world, read them and weep.

There does seem to be a dedicated community, though. According to a list of the best contributors, one German user has uploaded a whopping 164,491 pronunciations of German and Low German words. Actually, German is the language most represented on Forvo all over, followed by English, Russian, (a little bit unexpectedly) Tatar , Portuguese and French. But you can also find words from Esperanto, Interlingua, Volapük and Klingon on Forvo, showing what an interesting variety of contributors are helping build the database.

One or two flies in the ointment

Forvo does have a volunteer editing team with more than 450 members, but consistent quality control is hardly possible (the weak spot of all crowd-sourced projects). There aren’t many requirements to becoming an editor. If you’re an active Forvo contributor, you can simply ask to receive editor status. Users can report anything that looks wrong, but editors will probably struggle to correctly judge any entries other than those in their native language. On top of that, some of the recordings uploaded are also full of background noise or weird feedback sounds.

Registering and getting started with contributing audio pronunciation files is painless. All you need to do is state your native language and pinpoint your location on a map. You are now a  registered user and can upload pronunciations. That’s it. There’s nothing stopping me from calling myself a native Spanish speaker and merrily uploading my mangled versions of Spanish words.

Then again, if you want to encourage people to contribute, the red tape needs to be kept to a minimum. Forvo’s current set-up makes it as easy as possible to chip in and fill the database.

More than just a fun website

Minor complaints aside, there’s a lot to discover on Forvo. If you have a little time to spare, go poke around and listen to some recordings or upload some of your own.

Forvo is also something more than a nice way of whiling away your time. It has the potential to become an easily-accessible database of spoken language material from smaller and endangered languages. Of course, there are excellent language documentation projects out there with linguists working hard to preserve and document what’s left of dying languages. (For example, the DoBeS project dedicated to documenting endangered languages.) Unfortunately, these efforts often remain hidden from non-academics or fail to capture their imagination.

At the beginning of 2013, Forvo was the talk of the town and it may have reached a wider audience than academic projects. And maybe some speakers will feel inspired to share some of the sounds of their languages with Forvo and with us interested users (always providing they have the necessary technology available). And maybe Forvo will make speakers of larger languages curious about what other languages sound like. Forvo may be a long way from having covered all the languages in the world, but all projects that celebrate and document language diversity are worth talking about.

PS My favorite sentence in the FAQs: Bad words are not forbidden as long as they are politely pronounced and appear in well-known dictionaries. (I’m not sure what counts as a well-known dictionary for smaller languages. And I’m not sure that the volunteer editors know that either.)


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Image source: Unsplash, Canva

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Else Gellinek is a German-American, bilingual linguist and translator specializing in PR, marketing and corporate communications as well as non-native editing. She blogs about the translation industry, freelancing, language and anything else that might tickle her fancy.

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