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Enough! Neural Foundations of Cognition and Language

This post, as is often the case, will discuss articles I have recently read. This time though, I will leave one of the articles anonymous. I don’t feel like being polite or diplomatic. I’ve just had it. I’m fed up.


The article that will remain unknown is about phonics. It is a conference paper from a year or so ago. It gives the history and development of phonics and discusses some different approaches to phonics. It then discusses phonics in an EFL setting. It points out the importance of teaching phonics to EFL students and says phonics has been largely embraced by EFL teachers. But, the article never mentions the fact that students in an EFL context cannot hear the sounds, cannot distinguish all the sounds of English. It just carries on as if EFL students should be taught phonics exactly the same way native speakers are taught despite the fact that matching sounds to letters is a much different experience if you cannot distinguish some sounds from others. This is self-evident, no?



The article mentions Piaget and then discusses the Critical Period Hypothesis. It concludes:


In sum, as Bialystok and Hakuta concluded on reviewing the published material, second-language learning (or EFL) is not necessarily subject to biological critical periods, but on average, there is a continuous decline in ability to learn with age.


Enough is enough!



Bialystok and Hakuta wrote this in 1994 and they were referring to “biological” restrains as proposed by Lennenberg. The fact is, there are “windows of opportunity” if you don’t want to call them critical periods, and in terms of phonology – which is highly relevant to the topic of phonics – these “windows” are firmly framed.



The next article I will discuss makes this very clear. Titled:


Neural Foundations of Cognition and Language


It was written by Lindsay C. Bowman, from UC Davis, Lara J. Pierce from Harvard, Charles A. Nelson, from Harvard Medical School and Janet F. Werker, from the University of British Columbia who is one of the world’s leading experts on children’s acquisition of language. The article is 33 pages long, a chapter from a book, and a fantastic read. It is here:

DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-804036-2.00010-8
In the book: The Neurobiology of Brain and Behavioral Development


Starting with the biology of the developing brain, it discusses the nature of cognition, memory, and theory of mind all within the context of the latest research in neuroscience.
Obviously, the part on language interested me the most and the first subject in the language section is phonology. I will quote the article at length because it says exactly what I have been saying for ten years:


From the beginning of life infants possess a unique ability to distinguish speech sounds, including from unfamiliar languages a task that is difficult for adults. However, via a process of perceptual attunement that occurs during the first year of life, infants become specialized at discriminating the sounds/sound categories of the language they hear around them. During this process, infants’ ability to discriminate speech sounds that do not have functional relevance within their language environment declines while their ability to discriminate native-language speech sounds is maintained or improved.



Kids lose the ability to hear non-native sounds around their first birthday, is the way I have been putting it for a decade. Yet, people in our profession, at professional conferences, are presenting on phonics and saying there is not a critical period for EFL learners. They are failing to point out that phonics in an EFL setting is different than phonics in a native English speaking setting.


Heaven help us.



More from the Werker article:

Importantly, while infants’ phonetic categories can be modified up to about 10 to12 months of age beyond this point they become increasingly difficult to change.



Distinguishing the sounds gets increasingly difficult. By the time most students are old enough to enter an English class their native sound categories are so well established that a once a week English lesson will probably not be enough exposure to train them to hear the difficult sounds. Most students will need more exposure.



How? What? HVPT. See my last post.


It is what b4 from Aka-Kara English does.

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