The linguistic genius of babies: what does it mean for grown-ups?

“In investigating the child’s brain, we may be able to help keep our own minds open to learning for our entire lives”

Chinese tones are baffling to non-native speakers. While westerners marvel at how a seemingly small pitch change is enough to differentiate between words like “mother” and “horse”, Chinese natives get the giggles when expats get all nostalgic about their horse’s cooking. Notoriously difficult to master, these differences are often incredibly subtle to non-native ears. Yet native Mandarin speakers differentiate tones with the same ease as English speakers perceive consonant contrasts in words like punk and monk. This contrast is what’s known by linguists as a minimal pair (and by barbers as what saves Sid Vicious wannabes from walking around with an unfortunate bald patch). But why is it that minimal pairs which are so obvious to native speakers can be so troublesome, and at times downright embarrassing in a second language?

Studies of how babies learn to differentiate sounds in their mother tongue shed some light on the matter. Neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl explains how newborns are “citizens of the world” equipped to distinguish between all sounds in all languages, from English to Igbo. Between the age of 6 and 12 months, neural networks lock on to native sound patterns, preparing babies to become more effective communicators in their mother tongue. The downside of this neural commitment is that it leads to a decreased sensitivity of sound patterns in other languages.

So what does this mean for those who learn languages later in life? Do adult brains maintain enough plasticity to accommodate new languages, or are neural networks set in stone? Many studies indicate that some plasticity remains (e.g. Evans and Iverson 2003; Hazan et al. 2005; Kingston 2003), although the jury is still out on how much. We simply don’t know enough about the human brain to answer this question yet. However, Kuhl is optimistic that the dynamic field of neurolinguistics will one day provide us with a better understanding of how adults learn sound patterns in other languages.

It certainly seems that grown-ups get bit of a biological raw deal. Adults rarely attain native-like pronunciation, even after many years of living in an L2 speaking country (Harris 2010). Does this mean we should give up on pronunciation training, throw our IPA charts on to the fire and settle for a life of trying to guess if students are angry or hungry? Absolutely not. Iverson et al. (2005, 2011) demonstrate that targeted discrimination training is exactly what students need to improve their sensitivity to English sounds. The most successful techniques involve giving students repeated, focused exposure to sound contrasts (such as the vowels in sheep vs ship) with a variety of speakers in different contexts. This training has been shown to have a positive effect on both perception and production, suggesting that we can and should help students with targeted pronunciation exercises. Give students more practice. It might just save them from a lifetime of anxiety over asking for a “sheet” of paper lest they get the wrong vowel sound…

  • Why do you think some adults are better at “picking up” accents than others?
  • Do you think that pronunciation can be explicitly taught?
  • If you teach pronunciation, what sort of exercises do you do?
  • Do you have any suggestions about integrating discrimination training into lessons?

Evans, B. G., Iverson, P. (2007). Plasticity in vowel perception and production: A study of accent change in young adults. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 121(6)

Harris, K. (2010) Native English speakers’ production of Italian /t/: The extent of phonetic learning in adult second language acquisition and the effect of native speaker input. Leeds Working Papers 15 pp.40-73

Hazan, V. et al., 2004. Effect of intensive audiovisual perceptual training on the perception and production of the /l/-/r/ contrast for Japanese learners of English. Speech Communication, 47(3), p.360-378.

Iverson, P., Hazan, V. & Bannister, K., 2005. Phonetic training with acoustic cue manipulations: A comparison of methods for teaching English vertical bar r vertical bar-vertical bar l vertical bar to Japanese adults. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 118(5), p.3267-3278.

Iverson, P., Pinet, M., Evans, B. G. (2011). Auditory training for experienced and inexperienced second-language learners: Native French speakers learning English vowels. Applied Psycholinguistics

Kingston, J. (2003). Learning foreign vowels. Language and Speech, 46, 295–349.

http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html

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