New study may revolutionize language learning

January 27, 2009

( -- The teaching of languages could be revolutionised following ground-breaking research by Victoria University, New Zealand, PhD graduate Paul Sulzberger. Dr Sulzberger has found that the best way to learn a language is through frequent exposure to its sound patterns--even if you haven't a clue what it all means.

"However crazy it might sound, just listening to the language, even though you don't understand it, is critical. A lot of language teachers may not accept that," he says.

"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. If you want to learn Spanish, for example, frequently listening to a Spanish language radio station on the internet will dramatically boost your ability to pick up the language and learn new words."

Dr Sulzberger's research challenges existing language learning theory. His main hypothesis is that simply listening to a new language sets up the structures in the brain required to learn the words.

"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," Dr Sulzberger says.

He was prompted to undertake the research after spending seven years teaching Russian to New Zealand students and observing drop-out patterns.

"I was very conscious of the huge difficulties students have when they tackle another language, especially at the beginning. Many drop out because they feel they are not making progress."

Dr Sulzberger says he was interested in what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language. He found the answer in the way the brain develops 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."

Dr Sulzberger looked for ways people could develop these structures to make the learning process easier. His finding was simple: extensive exposure to the language, something made easier by globalisation and new technology.

"It is easier to learn languages these days because they are so accessible now. You can go home and watch the news in French on the internet."

He says people trying to learn a foreign language in their home country are at a disadvantage compared to those who travel to another country and immerse themselves in its sounds and culture. For the same reason, he says, we need to rethink the way languages are taught.

"Teachers should recognise the importance of extensive aural exposure to a language. One hour a day of studying French text in a classroom is not enough—but an extra hour listening to it on the iPod would make a huge difference," Dr Sulzberger says.

"Language is a skill, it's not like learning a fact. If you want to be a weight lifter, you've got to develop the muscle - you can't learn weightlifting from a book. To learn a language you have to grow the appropriate brain tissue, and you do this by lots of listening—songs and movies are great!"

Provided by Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Explore further: Imagine if technology could read and react to our emotions

Related Stories

Imagine if technology could read and react to our emotions

November 26, 2015

Computers have always been good at doing fast calculations, but adapting to the emotional state of the person using the computer – now there is a grand challenge! The field is called affective computing, and soon it will ...

Time travel with the molecular clock

November 23, 2015

Migration isn't a new phenomenon, but new insights suggest that modern-day Europeans actually have at least three ancestral populations. This finding was published by Johannes Krause and prominently featured on the cover ...

Indigenous language project considers what is in a word

November 16, 2015

One of Australia's oldest Indigenous languages is being immortalised in a speech register with work underway in the Western Desert to document formal ways of speaking before the knowledge is lost forever.

Recommended for you

Four pre-Inca tombs found in Peru's Lima

November 27, 2015

Archaeologists in Peru have found four tombs that are more than 1,000 years old in a pyramid-shaped cemetery that now sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Lima, experts said.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2009
Dr Sulzberger's research challenges existing language learning theory.

He may be doing good research but this statement and article seems to over hyping the significance of his result and does not tell us what his actual research was. I am a native English speaker living in Japan and I think it is pretty obvious to people how have immersed themselves in a foriegn language, that at first it is all a muddy mess but just listening your ear get atuned and you can start to seperate out words and recogonized repeated words or slight differences in the words just by listening, even with out understanding. Grammer parterns are also leaned this way.
not rated yet Jan 28, 2009
I assume that his research is based on his own students??? If he asked each how much they listen to Russian outside the classroom then match that to those who dropped out. Only guessing here.

What he is referring to is immersion. Which is an old bit of knowledge... Japanese students will spend a year or so at an USA college through a special program with tutors and basic courses from the college. The brave ones :-) go full immersion by taking the TOEIC test and go to the USA college on their own.

If there is a pressing need to understand those sound combinations your brain will learn them. Babies do it with crying, later little children do it with nouns.

Sorry, like ryuuguu said above. Nothing really new here.
not rated yet Jan 28, 2009
Indeed. When I began learning German (I was inspired by Bourne, and the Zurich cops speaking German in the Bourne Identity) I began listening to it over and over until I knew how to pronounce it fluently. (I knew what they were saying by the subtitles), I then began saying the sentences in real life to German people. Who promptly believed I was German! (Hehehe)
1 / 5 (1) Jan 28, 2009
He certainly didn't ask you to pronounce "streichholzschächtelchen". :)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.