Sound foundation for language study | South China Morning Post
  • Thu
  • Feb 26, 2015
  • Updated: 7:08am

Sound foundation for language study

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 May, 2006, 12:00am

As a fluent speaker of four languages, people frequently ask me how I acquire a language. When I ask why, they respond by saying: 'Well, you speak it so well.' I counter with: 'But what do you mean by 'well''?

The typical definition I receive is: 'You sound like a native.' Pause at 'sound'. While language experts unanimously agree that accent is not an accurate prediction of a speakers' proficiency level, recent research on polyglots provides evidence that there is a link between a person's sensitivity toward sounds, or phonemes (the technical term used by linguists), and language learning ability.

For example, a recent cognitive neuroscience study conducted at University College London showed a difference in brain structure between sound-sensitive people and those who are not. Likewise, previous research demonstrated a discrepancy in grey structure matter for musically inclined people.

So does this spell bad news for adults and/or tone-deaf people? Not exactly. It is widely agreed that young children are able to pick up a large range of sounds with few difficulties. As for older learners, two concurrent studies conducted by Dr Paul Iverson and Dr Valerie Hazan of the UCL Centre for Human Communication are trying to prove that adult learners can be trained to become more acute toward foreign sounds.

Participants were native Japanese speakers who went through a training programme to help them distinguish between the English 'l' and 'r' sounds. Initial results showed an average 18 per cent improvement in sound recognition.

Although I am not a psycholinguist, I can substantiate their claims through my own experiences as both an English language learner and teacher. One of the keys for acquiring the vocabulary, syntax and accent of a language is contingent on being able to differentiate and process individual and combinations of sounds into meaningful units.

Obviously, someone who naturally is more acute to sound variations will learn faster and better. However, the training of one's ears to become accustomed to unfamiliar sounds is still a requisite for successful language learning regardless of natural skills. Hence, the appalling lack of phonetic training in Hong Kong is an area that needs to be targeted for improvement.

English teachers should be offered appropriate continuing education courses in phonological pedagogy.

With opportunities to improve phonetic skills, students will be able to nurture a stronger language foundation for further progress. This, along with strong motivation to learn the language, diligence and time, can ensure greater success.

Stephanie Lo is a programme assistant in the Hong Kong America Centre, Chinese University of Hong Kong,


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