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Sounds as important aspects of foreign language learning

Dr. Mirjam Broersma, Associate professor in Linguistics

Mirjam Broersma

Studying sounds is central to the work of a group of CLS language acquisition researchers. A recent success is their series of studies with adopted children. The researchers examined whether Dutch adults who were adopted from Korea when young still remember something about the Korean language. Dr. Mirjam Broersma, “We exposed them to Korean sounds and did the same with non-adopted Dutch adults. We found that the adopted participants were better at recognizing and producing the Korean sounds than the non-adopted ones. This indicates that linguistic knowledge is already stored in memory when people are very young. Even if a person is adopted aged three months and has only listened to but never spoken a word of Korean, that person is better at learning Korean sounds in adult life than a person who has never been exposed to those sounds."

Storing sounds
These findings shed new light on the acquisition of linguistic sounds. “A commonly-held assumption is that children start mastering the sounds of their language from the age of six months. We’ve shown that this process starts even earlier,” says Broersma. Moreover, the findings show that children use specific examples of each sound to create and store general information about these sounds in their minds. Broersma, “Our research shows that this general information remains available over time, even though adopted adults have no conscious knowledge of the specific sounds they were exposed to as babies. This is an important finding in light of the more general and currently hot debate about whether or not people store and remember all the specific examples of the sounds they hear.”

Innovative research
CLS research on the acquisition of sounds is both unique and innovative in its ambition to experimentally study natural learning processes. Broersma, “We connect the research paradigms of applied linguistics and psycholinguistics to study language learning in natural settings such as classrooms, and develop new methods to recreate these settings in a laboratory environment. This approach combines the advantages of both paradigms and helps us to gain comprehensive information about language learning.”

hearing child

The combined approach is used to examine whether second language learners benefit from making mistakes in their pronunciation. For example, Dutch speakers of English often pronounce flash as flesh because they find it difficult to differentiate between the two vowels. Broersma, “We aim to find out whether pronunciation improves if speakers become aware of their mistakes. We examine this by comparing the different types of feedback they receive from interlocutors. For example, an interlocutor might simply say that she does not understand the speaker, or she might provide more explicit feedback by explaining the speaker’s mistake.” This feedback might be a prompt for the speaker to (unconsciously) adjust word pronunciations.

Language education
One of the main goals of the researchers is to translate their findings in order to optimize educational materials. “At the moment, the role of sound recognition and sound production in language education is quite marginal,” says Broersma. “We aim to change this because sounds are important to all aspects of language learning. If you find it hard to recognize sounds, for example, it becomes even harder to understand complete sentences uttered in a conversation. Sounds are of crucial importance in speaking and listening, and therefore of crucial importance to research on language learning.”