Hi-tech help for learning English

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2011, 12:00am


A Chinese University professor has developed software that takes a tradition that is synonymous with Swiss finishing schools into the 21st century.

Professor Helen Meng Mei-ling and research associates have created an internet-based computer-aided pronunciation training program that will help students learn the art of pronunciation.

Gone are stuffy old men in suits insisting that you pronounce your t's and r's properly. Instead students at the university who are learning English are using 'Enunciate', an online system that re-engineers automatic speech recognition technology to support pronunciation training for native Cantonese speakers.

Users pick a word or sentence they wish to pronounce, hear a model pronunciation and are then shown a phonetic breakdown of the word or sentence. Students then repeat the word and, if the pronunciation is incorrect they are shown phonetically why this is so.

Users of the program can learn to pronounce any word they want as Enunciate uses an electronic dictionary to generate pronunciation for any word inputted. The program also generates animation of the inside of the mouth for the word that is to be pronounced that shows users where their lips, tongue and teeth should be to learn how to pronounce the word correctly.

It is these features that make Enunciate different from other pronunciation training programs, says research associate Lo Wai-kit. 'In conventional systems, students are simply told if their pronunciation is correct or not. By showing students where they are going wrong this system will help students improve.'

Lo said bad pronunciation should be expected in any second-language learning because of a phenomena in linguistics called the language transfer effect. This is when students apply phonemes - the smallest segmental unit of sound - for Cantonese to English. The letter v is a good example of how this can occur. 'In Cantonese there is no v sound, so speakers have difficulty with the letter v in English words. If it is in the middle of a word like 'river' it is pronounced as an f and if it is at the beginning of a word like 'value' it is pronounced as a 'w'.'

Lo and the rest of Meng's team are demonstrating the software as part of 12 Chinese University technology projects, at the International ICT Expo which starts tomorrow at the Convention and Exhibition Centre. Lo hopes that it will generate interest in software that he believes 'every native Cantonese-speaking student of English needs'.