Can you teach an old ear new tricks?


Audition plays a crucial role in native or second language acquisition. Unlike English, Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. One of the main challenges of learning a second language is hearing and reproducing unfamiliar speech sounds. Despite several studies indicating that musical training and auditory acuity influence second language learning, little is known about whether the acoustic nature of a language sharpens basic auditory functions involved in language processing.

To shed some light on this subject, funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Dr Niko Kargas, Dr Simon Durrant, Dr Matina Tsiora, Mr Ferenc Igali, Miss Federica Menchinelli and Miss Charlotte Cartledge assessed relevant auditory processing skills crucial for language learning and non-native speech perception in native English and Mandarin Chinese speakers matched for musical training, IQ and age. To do this, the research team used three auditory discrimination tasks (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration). Contrary to the hypothesis, both groups demonstrated similar performances in all tasks, suggesting that the acoustic nature of a language might not play a crucial role in the refinement of basic auditory functions. However, in the Mandarin Chinese speakers’ group, good performance in the frequency discrimination task (which is the dominant acoustic parameter of their native language) was associated with poor second language (English) production and comprehension, indicating that the speakers’ native acoustic language experience influences the perception and production of second language speech sounds. It is suggested that further research is needed to clarify the effects of these associations. This information could facilitate the development of easy to implement and effective second language-based auditory training programs.

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