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June 15, 2005

Adults Can Be Retrained To Distinguish L and R

Adults can be retrained to learn second languages more easily, according to research presented at the International Speech Communication Association (ISCA) Workshop on Plasticity in Speech Perception this week in London. Organised by researchers at the Centre for Human Communication at UCL (University College London), the workshop is co-chaired by Valerie Hazan and Paul Iverson. Findings reported by Iverson build on "an important new theory that the difficulties we have with learning languages in later life are not biological and that, given the right stimulus, the brain can be retrained," according to the RedNova web site. It has long been believed that adults cannot distinguish the subtle sounds of a foreign language to the same extent that young children can because the "plasticity," or ability to change, of the adult brain is set. Using a study group of 63 native Japanese speakers in Japan and London, Iverson and Hazan showed that a training course of 10 sessions could produce an average 18% increase in their ability to distinguish between l and r sounds.

Dr Iverson said: "Adult learning does not appear to become difficult because of a change in neural plasticity. Rather, we now think that learning becomes hard because experience with our first language 'warps' perception. We see things through the lens of our native language and that 'warps' the way we see foreign languages.

"It is very difficult to undo this learning. That is, we change our perception during childhood so that it becomes specialized to hear the speech sounds in our first language. This specialization can conflict with our ability to learn to distinguish sounds in other languages. Through training, we can essentially change our 'perceptual warping' to make second-language learning easier. I hope that this research will lead to new ways of training adults to learn second languages."
RedNova.com article
Plasticity in Speech Perception 2005 web site
International Speech Communication Association web site
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