Sunday, June 26, 2005

Second language acquisition stuff

Thanks to Mirabilis.ca, I found this intriguing article that might interest some people I know (the multilingual grad students in particular). An excerpt:
Our ability to hear and understand a second language becomes more and more difficult with age, but the adult brain can be retrained to pick up foreign sounds more easily again. This finding, reported by Dr Paul Iverson of the UCL Centre for Human Communication, at the "Plasticity in Speech Perception 2005" workshop - builds 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.

It is an accepted fact that the younger the child, the easier it is for them to learn a second language. Children are able to understand words and hear small sound differences that adults often miss – making understanding more difficult for adults. For example, Polish students of English have difficulty differentiating between vowels such as "pen" and "pan" while German students must learn to hear a difference between the v in "vest" and the w in "west".

Scientists used to believe that the adult brain could not be retrained later in life to distinguish between these sounds: in other words the brain's plasticity (or ability to change) was set.

Dr Iverson shows that adults can retune their brains to hear these differences again. Scientists now believe that the difficulties are caused by our experience which teaches us to ignore certain sounds so that we are able to give our full attention to the sounds that (in our native language) matter most to understanding a sentence.