Resetting the ears for language learning

Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Valencia have joined forces with Isora Solutions to test a new approach to language learning: resetting your ears with the goal of recreating the critical period of language learning in childhood.

The goal of the study in the department of Applied Linguistics at the Universitat Politècnica de València (Polytechnic University of Valencia, UPV) and the company Isora Solutions is to analyze the effect of neurosensory auditory stimulation in language learning.

According to the research team, we are all born polyglots–able to differentiate all sounds in all languages–but over time we start to focus on the sounds of our native language, in effect ‘tuning’ our ears to a narrow set of frequencies, at the expense of others. This makes it harder to learn a foreign language as an adult, since it is not just a case of buckling down and learning the grammar, but of a physiological hurdle that prevents us from adequately distinguishing the new language’s full range of sounds. In the current study, the researchers are testing neurosensory auditory stimulation as a means of resetting our ears to regain this starting capacity.

“Spanish-speakers hear frequencies of between 125 and 2,500 hertz; Russians, meanwhile, are able to receive and process frequencies from 25 to 11,000 hertz, which goes some way to explaining their affinity for language-learning,” said Hernán Cerna of Isora Solutions. “What we hope to achieve is to reset our hearing so that we can process the full range of frequencies we are born with.”

resetting the ears for language learning

In a study designed to “re-set the ears” for language learning, participants listen to auditory stimuli via special bone-conduction headphones.

In February 2016, researchers began carrying out auditory stimulation sessions on a total of 180 volunteers of all ages (from 19 to 59), using a method and technology developed by the company Tomatis. First, clinical hearing examinations were carried out to establish the good health of the participants’ hearing. Then their level of English (as a foreign language) was assessed, primarily in terms of speaking and listening, in the form of a listening test devised by specialist UPV researchers.

During the 6-month study, participants are undergoing neurosensory auditory stimulation in the form of listening to Mozart pieces that have been filtered to create sudden changes in tone and intensity, which are intended to “surprise the brain.” Study participants listen to the doctored musical masterpieces through purpose-designed bone conduction headphones, whereby they will hear the music not only through their ears but also through their upper brains.

Subsequent sets of auditory stimulation sessions include English-language tests to consolidate improvements to the volunteers’ listening skills in this foreign language. Cerna reported that the idea is to “get the ears to open up to a larger range of frequencies” and, by doing so, boost language receptiveness. The participants undergo the language tests after each session of Mozart to allow researchers to chart each the progress of each participant.

“We hope to show how, through auditory stimulation, it is possible to extend the range of frequencies we are able to process, and that neurosensory linguistic integration is highly efficient for people who want to learn, study, or recover a language,” said Cerna.

Source: Universitat Politècnica de València

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