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Exposure to sound patterns may hold key to language skills

Tuesday 27 Jan 2009 12:00a.m.

Exposure to sound patterns may hold key to language skills

Exposure to the sound patterns of another language, even if it is initially meaningless, could hold the key to quickly picking up a foreign tongue, says a researcher.

Victoria University PhD graduate Paul Sulzberger made his discovery while trying to find out why many students dropped out in the early days of trying to learn a new language.

He believed his findings could revolutionise the teaching of languages.

Listening to a language's sound patterns was critical as it set up structures in the brain required to learn the words, he found.

"Our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have been exposed to the particular combinations of the sounds which make up the words," he said.

"Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language - which is how babies learn their first language."

He was interested in what made it so difficult to learn foreign words when we were constantly learning new ones in our native language.

He found the answer in the way the brain developed neural structures when hearing new combinations of sounds.

"When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation.

"A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words."

Extending exposure to foreign languages had been made easier by globalisation and new technology.

Listening to songs, movies and even foreign news reports on the internet were all easy ways to expose the brain to foreign language sounds, Dr Sulzberger said.



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