The Ears Have It


The power of immediate feedback

Our ears are amazing. Truly.  Too often the visual dominates and these small things on the sides of our head, get short shrift. However, researchers are realizing just how much they are the key to learning a language both when young and later on in life. We are learning that it is very important for language learning, to distinguish between the sounds of the language. It is this ability that is key to a child learning a first language or a child picking up a second. They are masters of distinguishing between sounds, intuiting silence and recognizing when a sound is with meaning and without.  This TED talk by Patricia Kuhl drives this home.  Further, researchers are finding that training teens/adults in recognizing the differences between sounds can dramatically help learners become fluent speakers. Here, you can test your own ability.

This Scientific American article highlights a study of Japanese speakers who underwent specific phonological training to distinguish between the /l/ and /r/ phonemes.  Key to the success of the training this study found was instant feedback – like the kind given on EnglishCentral.  The study states;

The researchers then tried something new. Same study, same dismal test scores, different Japanese adults. This time, in the training phase of the experiment, researchers gave their test subjects immediate feedback. Every time a subject pressed the R or L button on their keyboard, they got a green check mark or a red X on their screen, indicating whether they were right or wrong. Suddenly, everyone began to learn. Within an hour of testing, subjects were reaching 80 percent accuracy at identifying r and l, even in unfamiliar words.

The article goes on to state that large amounts of input along with specialized feedback are key to retraining the ears and getting learners to recognize foreign sounding sounds and “picking up” language.  They quote several other important pieces of research related to how important it is for learners to be exposed to a wide range of language input / types. Well worth the read, it directly supports the importance of the video based learning provided by EnglishCentral.

Key it seems is “how” students listen. Noticing (Schmidt, 2001) is very important when listening and it is necessary for students to consciously listen and focus on aspects of language. It’s not enough for students to just sit back and take in the audio. This article “The Key Is Listening With Intention“, makes this clear. 

This study by research teams in Finland and Italy discovered the neural mechanisms by which students came to understand L2 sounds. It shows that assimilation of L2 vowels to L1 phonemes governs language learning in adulthood and urges the development of novel methods of second language teaching. The authors urge specific aural training in order to reactivate the neuralplasticity of the cerebral cortex. Something EnglishCentral provides and specializes in.


Our ears are so, so important. They are the engine  through which we learn to speak. This NYTs article relates how we trust our ears much more than our eyes – our ears overrule our sense of vision when we are in doubt. We are much more locked into our sense of hearing than that of vision (which we too can shut off at will with our eyelids).   The authors sum things up by stating,

Yet in ways that researchers are just beginning to appreciate, we humans are beholden to our ears. Mechanically, electrically, behaviorally and cosmetically, our paired sounding boards are a genuine earmark of our species. And if the words aural and oral are often confused, they should be, for our ears and our mouths jointly gave us our voice.

We at EnglishCentral certainly concur.  Researchers are learning how valuable aural training is. Such esteemed experts as Rod Ellis are stressing we need to value a focus on form more than we have previously. That specific training in form is the key to unlocking our potential as language learners.


  1. Reblogged this on nataliaeydelman and commented:
    An excellent explanation of the contribution of ears to our ability to learn a language with a number of insightful examples demonstrating their importance to mastering a language. And one more point the article is stressing is the importance of mmediate feedback for successful learning. Highly recommend reading it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: