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Understanding and correctly reproducing phonemes is widely accepted to be a key building block in successful language learning. The latest insights from Finnish researchers suggests that listen-and-repeat techniques can be useful tools in helping students to pick up second language phonemes. This blog post looks at how language teachers can use these insights to better support their learners.
Published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, Volume 147, January 2020, Pages 72-82, the latest research from Antti Saloranta, Paavo Alku and Maija S.Peltola offers numerous insights for language teachers. Their paper: “Listen-and-repeat training improves perception of second language vowel duration: Evidence from mismatch negativity (MMN) and N1 responses and behavioral discrimination” is the latest in a succession of research studies from these experts, who are based at the University of Aalto and the University of Turku in Finland.
The purpose of their study was to answer three main questions:
- Can vowel duration perception or production be improved with the same amount of listen-and-repeat training as perception and production of vowel quality or consonant voicing contrasts?
- If vowel duration processing can be trained, are the effects generalized to other, untrained vowels?
- Finally, if generalization occurs, is it limited to linguistic sounds or is the processing of non-linguistic sounds affected as well?
The researchers investigated the impact on 12 participants (4 men). All were aged between 19 and 29 years and were exchange students joining the University of Turku. When asked to self-evaluate their Finnish skills, all of the subjects stated rated their skills as either ‘basic’ or ‘no skills’. Importantly, the native languages of the participants (French, Spanish, English, Russian, Lithuanian, Mandarin and Nepalese), all contain vowel phonemes similar to the ones in the linguistic stimuli.
The linguistic stimuli used in the experiment were pairs of fake Finnish words consisting of two syllables. The pairs are semisynthetic allowing the researchers to produce natural sounding stimuli that could be carefully controlled and measured.
The pairs used were /tite/ – /ti:te/ and /tote/ – /to:te/. The researchers choose these words because they contain different places of articulation and given their prevalence in common global languages. A non-linguistic stimulus was also created using artificial sound and noise.
Research subjects were exposed to the recordings over a 3-day test period. The research followed a common test structure incorporating baseline tracking, training and measurement for each of the different stimuli. The stimuli were played to the research subjects via a Sanako SLH-07 headset and using the Sanako Lab 100 language lab software and hardware. The instructions to all subjects were clear - they listened to each sound carefully and were then asked to repeat it as clearly and as accurately as they could. Recordings of the subject’s voice and EEG were made and analysed.
The results captured by the researchers were notable. They demonstrated that the periods of listen-and-repeat training had “clear, statistically significant learning effects on the perception of the trained linguistic stimuli.”
The researchers specifically noted: “the increase of the mean amplitude of the MMN response, the reduced latency of the N1 response, the increased behavioral discrimination scores and reduced discrimination reaction times.” As the research paper makes clear: “All of these are indicators of training effects.” The study also indicates that such training also “generally affects the general duration processing system, making it more sensitive to duration differences.”
All of the research subjects also undertook self-evaluations as part of the project. They all correctly identified vowel duration as the key linguistic feature under investigation. Notably, most of them felt that the tasks “had become easier as they progressed through the experiment, though not all stimuli were considered equally difficult.” The researchers concluded that:
“Taken together with existing literature, it seems that listen-and-repeat can be a useful tool in the acquisition of second language phonemes.”
In the light of this research, how can language teachers use listen-and-repeat approaches to improve the effectiveness of their engagements? Perhaps the answer lies in so-called “mindful repetition”, which seeks to extend students’ learning beyond simply repeating words and phrases and hoping that their language proficiency or knowledge improves.
Instead, its proponents argue that mindful repetition helps students to be more actively engaged in their repetition and more attentive to the individual elements within it. Teachers could and should encourage/support students to develop higher order skills such as considering how words are said, how the words might be used and how the words compare to other words they know/understand. Such elements help to engage students of different levels and learning styles and better enable them to notice the various elements that build language fluency. Why not give it a try next time you teach?