“Hi! I'm Gabe. What's your name?”
“Seung-heon. Nice to meet you, Gabe.”
“Sorry, I missed that. What's your name again?”
This is bad.
“Seung-heon. It's okay—just call me Jerry. Everyone does.”
I hate it when this happens. I have every intention of learning this person's name, and my brain is simply not cooperating. I can't seem to hear what he's saying, I can't pronounce it correctly, and there's no way I'm going to remember it for more than five seconds. Thankfully, these Seung-heon experiences do not occur frequently; in most parts of the English-speaking world, we encounter far more Johns, Susans and Franks than Seung-heons. Generally, we can go about our usual social interactions without much trouble.
When we decide to do something rash like learn a foreign language, however, we run into difficulties. Nearly every new word is another Seung-heon. Our brain struggles to categorize the new sounds in each word—was it Seung, Seong or Sung? —and without the ability to do so accurately, the words do not stick in memory. That aural roadblock is one of the reasons that learning a language as an adult can be so challenging. Fortunately, researchers are starting to find ways to overcome this hurdle. If we train our ears for a few hours before diving into vocabulary and phrases, learning a language can become easier than we ever imagined.
Why We Can't Learn Like Kids
Most of us English speakers can't tell the difference between Seung, Seong and Sung now, but back when we were babies we could. A large body of work shows that babies possess a remarkable ability to distinguish all sounds in all languages. But between six and 12 months of age, they begin homing in on their native language's sounds. They become experts in their own language, and as a consequence they lose their facility with the unfamiliar sounds of foreign languages. As it turns out, it's challenging to regain that ability.
Some of the best data on this phenomenon come from studies of Japanese adults learning to hear the difference between r and l. Why the Japanese? For one, because the r-versus-l problem is notorious; Japanese speakers tend to do little better than chance when attempting to tell their rocks from their locks. Second, they know they have this difficulty, and many will happily volunteer to come into a research laboratory—whereas English speakers do not care much about learning the difference between Hindi's four nearly identical-sounding d's.
When you were a baby, you learned to tell rocks from locks by listening to lots of auditory input. You heard about rakes and lakes, fires and files, and your little brain began figuring out that certain sounds fit into the r-like group and that other sounds fit into the l-like group. Unfortunately, adults do not learn in the same way. In one robust study from 2002, researchers led by psychologist James L. McClelland, then at Carnegie Mellon University, sat Japanese adults down in front of a computer with headphones, played a recording of rock or lock at random, and asked them to press the R or L key on their keyboards accordingly. As expected, they performed terribly, only slightly better than chance. After continuing the test for an hour, straining to hear any hint of the difference between r and l, they still did not improve. Auditory input might work for babies, but it simply does not for adults.
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. In a similar study in 1999, subjects even began spontaneously pronouncing the two sounds substantially better.
Many studies have subsequently confirmed that feedback is an essential ingredient in training our brain to hear new sounds, and when we can hear new sounds, we naturally start to produce them more accurately. Granted, some sounds may still cause difficulties—just because you can discern a Czech word such as zmrzl doesn't mean that your mouth will cooperate without practice—but overall, a few hours of this type of ear training is a tremendously effective tool for improving listening comprehension, memorization and pronunciation. Yet most language-learning programs dive right into conversation or vocabulary, expecting students to pick up these tough foreign sounds on the fly.
Pushing beyond the Plateau
The disconnect between research and real-world language training does not end there. Studies that train their students with a small amount of input—just a few words uttered by a single speaker, as you often find in a classroom or a language-study book on tape—fail to produce comparable results in real-world tests where subjects encounter many different words, speakers and dialects. It turns out that the more voices and the more words tested in the lab, the better the results outside of the lab. In a study published in 2013, for example, linguist Melissa M. Baese-Berk, then at Michigan State University, and her colleagues showed that an hour of training over two days on five different varieties of accented English improved understanding of all types of accented English, even totally novel accents. These findings gel with the research about learning foreign sounds—in general, listening to a broad array of speakers will train your brain faster and let you more reliably transfer that knowledge to the real world.
Study after study—including Spanish, Greek and German speakers learning English, Greek speakers learning Hindi, and English speakers learning Mandarin—all confirm that this type of training produces significant changes in the brain's ability to process foreign sounds. And as scientists learn more, they are discovering ways to produce better results. In a 2011 study at Carnegie Mellon, researchers found that people who trained through video games—where they are not explicitly aware of what they are learning—improved more in much less time than when they tried explicit training. Some people might even hone their speech perception skills by training other cognitive brain functions first. In a pilot study not yet published, researchers led by psychologist Erin M. Ingvalson of NorthwesternUniversity found that giving elderly adults exercises to boost working memory and attention span helped them better understand speech sounds in noisy environments. Ingvalson believes that with more research, the same technique may also help foreign-language learners.
As science reveals how the adult brain adapts to foreign sounds, you can start to re-create the successful research results at home. Many language textbooks begin with a list of hard-to-hear words—the rocks and locks you can expect to encounter along the way to fluency. With a handful of recordings of those words (freely accessible through Web sites such as Rhinospike.com and Forvo.com) and with testing software such as Anki (ankisrs.net), you can build powerful ear-training tools for yourself. These are tools that, after just a few hours of use, will make foreign words easier to hear and easier to remember, and they may give you the edge you need to finally learn the languages you've always wanted to learn.