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Word Learning and Short-Term Memory

The conclusion to an article I recently read states “the ability to discriminate non-native phonemes is crucial to word learning in a nonnative language.”

Nothing new there.

I’ve been saying that for years. The research has been there for years.

It was an interesting article, however, involving over 100 native English speaking children and 9 very different languages: Hindi, Mandarin, Korean, Polish, Arabic, Igbo, Yoruba, Japanese, and Thai.  

The title is: Non-native phonemic discrimination, phonological short term memory, and word learning

The journal is: Journal of Phonetics 50 (2015)

And the authors are:  Silbert, Smith,  Jackson, Campbell, Hughes, and Tare

It is a very elaborate study and the researchers point out that if a learner cannot discriminate a pair of sounds that are distinctive in a second language, words that rely on that difference to cue meanings will be difficult, if not impossible, to store in memory accurately.

It is a well-known fact that being able to hear the sounds of a second language effects the ability to learn words, but the researchers wanted to dig a bit deeper. They wanted to find out if the difference in children’s ability to distinguish non-native sounds was simply the result of differing natural abilities or if something else was in play. While perceiving the difference between a minimal pair requires perceptual acuity, being able to recall the differences puts demands on phonological short term memory. The second of the two experiments investigated how discrimination abilities correlate with word learning. I’ve already written the conclusion.

The importance of learning to hear the sounds of English cannot be overstated. And, as I’ve said before, teaching the sounds…

…is what b4 does.

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