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Why Learners Can’t Distinguish Some Sounds

            In the last post, I showed that children lose the ability to hear non-native sounds at 1-year of age. In this post, I’ll explain why this is, and I’ll use the Native Language Magnet Theory (NLM; Kuhl, 2008) to do it.

            NLM holds that infants recognize and categorize sound patterns into a “sound map.” By 6-months an English speaking infant has heard hundreds of thousands of examples of the /i/  as in “daddy” and “mommy,” and NLM claims babies develop a representation in their brains that helps them hear the sound clearly. Babies create abstract examples of sounds with a target area around each sound, and these prototypes “tune” the child’s brain to the native language.

         This makes learning a second language more difficult. Once a sound category exists in memory, it functions like a magnet for other sounds. That is, the prototype attracts sounds that are similar so that they sound like the prototype itself. Learners, especially beginners, hear the new language as their native language. This is why Japanese, who do not have the prototype of the vowel of “bit” mapped in memory, tend to hear it as the vowel in “beat” which they do have mapped. The neural commitment to a learned sound interferes with the processing of information which makes hearing new sounds difficult.

         Importantly, the sound map can be modified and that is what b4 from Aka-Kara does.




Kuhl, P. K., Conboy, B. T., Coffey-Corina, S., Padden, D., Rivera-Gaxiola, M., & Nelson, T.(2008). Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: New data and native language magnet  theory expanded (NLM-e). Philosophic Transactions of the Royal Society B.


One Response to Why Learners Can’t Distinguish Some Sounds

  1. Dennis Hawkins

    I follow what is being said and have found this to be the case not only with the identified group above, i.e. Japanese but also my challenge with getting Japanese sounds down correctly. The difference being, we non Japanese are praised for the efforts we make to utilize the Japanese language …

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