The Best Technique for Phonemic Training
The last two posts pointed out that before children speak their native language, they create a sound map which requires a perceptive shift from distinguishing all sounds to only distinguishing the sounds of their native language. This is not to say that children cannot learn L2 sounds. On the contrary, children can learn the sounds of a foreign language, but they need to hear them! The sounds must be made salient and this post will discuss the best method for doing that.
A study by Zhang, Kuhl, Imada, Kotani and Tohkura, (2009) is a good example of the method discussed. This study was conducted with NTT in Tokyo and looked at whether university-aged Japanese listeners could be trained to distinguish /r/ from /l/. The Japanese subjects heard numerous speakers produce /r/ and /l/ syllables containing contrastive minimal pairs. The sounds, however, were exaggerated. After twelve hours of training they showed over twenty percent improvement in discrimination. Also, MEG (brain scan) data revealed that the subjects treated the stimulus with the left-hemisphere of their brains indicating that increased linguistic, as opposed to purely auditory, processing was involved.
Putting the phonemes in contrast is a tried and true technique and exaggerating them means making the signal audible. Simply: if learners can’t hear the sounds, they can’t learn them, so put the sounds next to each other and exaggerate the difference. Also, having numerous speakers, called “high variability,” is also helpful. Studies using contrasting pairs and signal enhancement have shown more success when the sounds were presented by numerous voices (Logan et al, 1991). This, in most settings, would require the use of audio devices.
Zhang, Y., Kuhl, P., Toshiaki, I., Iverson, P., Pruitt, J. Stevens, E.B., Kawakatsu, K., Yoh’ichi, T., Iku, N. (2009) Neural signatures of phonetic learning in adulthood: A magnetoencephalography study. NeuroImage. 46. 226-240.
Logan, J. S., Lively, S. E., & Pisoni, D. B. (1991). Training Japanese listeners to identify English /r/ and /l/ : A first report. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 89, 874-886.