Tag Archives: language teaching

Seeing is believing

eye rf

If you’ve ever done pronunciation drilling with your hand cupped behind your ear like a demented kids TV presenter (all together now!) you’re probably of the opinion that exaggerating audio cues helps students to discriminate the sounds of a second language. But did you know that students can improve their chances of learning sounds by simply looking at a speaker’s face?

Research on how language learners use visual cues in the perception and production of sounds supports what auditory and visual sciences have known for some time: what you see has a strong impact on what you hear. This relationship is niftily illustrated through the “McGurk effect”, not the latest McDonald’s menu, but a rather compelling example of how the human sensory experience is interlinked.

More recently, with the help of fMRI scans (which basically involve sending people down a tube into a giant washing machine and having a nosy around at changes in cerebral blood flow) neuroscientists have found that the auditory cortex is active while watching silent speech (Calvert et al. 1997). In other words, the part of the brain that usually deals with sound is affected by visual information, which helps native English speakers to identify sounds in face-to-face communication. The good news is, it seems that visual cues can be interpreted by non-native speakers too.

Studies suggest that audiovisual training, in which students are shown a video of the speaker’s face, is more effective than listening practice alone in helping students to differentiate sounds (e.g. Hazan et al. 2005). Unsurprisingly, this technique has been shown to be most effective in sounds where the difference in mouth position is highly visible, such as b and v (a saving grace for Spanish students and their English bowel problems). However, audiovisual training has also produced positive results for problem areas with more subtle physical differences, for example in the differentiation of l and r for Japanese students. What’s more, these studies show a positive impact on pronunciation, indicating that increased attention to native speakers’ mouth movements enables students to reproduce the sounds more effectively themselves.

Most teachers agree that out of the big four (speaking, listening, reading and writing), it’s listening which causes students a real pain in the auricle. Given that the majority of real world listening takes place face-to-face, excluding visual components a priori is at odds with what we know about natural speech processing. In light of studies which point to the advantages of visual training, it’s time to question the dominance of audio-only files in the classroom.

  • Do you do any exercises which draw students’ attention to the speaker’s mouth?
  • How do you think this research could be applied in classrooms which don’t have video technology?
  • Can you think of any practical ways to help students to pay attention to visual cues?

Calvert, G., Bullmore, E., Brammer, M., Campbell, R., Williams, S., McGuire, P., Woodruff, P., Iversen, S and David, A. (1997) Activation of Auditory Cortex During Silent Lipreading. Science 25: 276

Hazan, V., Sennema, A., Midori, I., Faulkner, A. (2005) Effect of audiovisual perceptual training on the perception and production of consonants by Japanese learners of English. Speech Communication 47: 360



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Time for research?

teachers and reasearch

“What is the place of research-based theory in the knowledge base underlying ELT?”

A recent Guardian article addresses an oft-overlooked concern of the ELT profession: the lack of interaction between academic research and teaching practice. In tefl heaven (where celestial teachers write CCQs on their lesson plans, check instructions and keep reflective diaries) researchers would investigate issues directly relevant to the classroom. And teachers would have time to read it.

Teaching business English, lunch often involves scoffing down a sandwich in the lift then spending the next hour across the desk from a finance bigwig, stealthily removing crumbs from your suit jacket every time he looks down to do a gap fill. Teaching kids, lunch often involves stealing stray cola bottles from next class’s pass the parcel game in-between mopping up little Phillipo’s wee and turning the classroom into a magical castle. It’s no wonder teachers are loath to wade through empirical research independently.

Let’s go back to tefl heaven for a moment and imagine a place where business men no longer request lunch time lessons and little Phillipo has better bladder control. Even if teachers had more time to engage with academic research, would it really benefit their teaching? Isn’t it all just a load of intellectual thumb twiddling anyway?

The Guardian article recognises that teachers fail to see the value of research which is all too often based on the personal agenda of academics instead of addressing real classroom concerns. While the field would certainly benefit from coaxing more academics out of the ivory tower and into the classroom (better not tell them about the crumbs and the wee) there is already a significant body of research with clear practical implications for teachers. The key issue, then, is how to make the jump from journal to classroom.

The article calls for employers to set aside time and funding as part of the job description to permit teachers to study professional literature and attend conferences. Another option would be to provide in-house training aimed at making research more accessible to teachers. Encouraging teachers to critically assess empirical research would allow them to make informed decisions about their own teaching. Academic research could be an extremely valuable resource if only it addressed practical classroom concerns and if only teachers had the time and opportunities to engage with it. Tefl gods, if you’re listening, please give us a sign.



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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.



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