Making Adult Language Learning Child's Play

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 11 18:19:26 UTC 2006

Making Adult Language Learning Child's Play
10 May 2006

Mobility within the European Union offers great prospects for both
individuals and companies - but doing business in another country only
makes sense if you can speak (or quickly learn) the local language.
Unfortunately, recent statistics have shown that 51 per cent of EU
citizens cannot speak a European language other than their mother tongue -
a surprisingly low number given that over 90 per cent of Europeans learn a
second language at school.

"The problem is that today's typical approach to language learning is too
intellectual," explains Ralph Warnke, the coordinator of the IST
programme-funded FLIC project behind the courses. Slavishly learning the
grammar of a language along 'la plume de ma tante' lines does not enable
us to speak it, as all too many of us can testify. "Based on our
observation of how bilingual children learn languages, we decided to find
an easier way for adults to pick up a second tongue," says Warnke.

Warnke is Managing Director and President of MediTECH, a German company
that devised Brain-Boy, a kind of portable game computer that is a highly
effective, technology-enabled way of improving the language abilities of
dyslexic children, by training them in eight basic language functions such
as pitch discrimination and spatial hearing. "For dyslexics, their own
language is like a foreign language," explains Warnke. "So that got me
thinking, why shouldn't the same approach work with adult language

FLIC uses a feedback system, equipping learners with a headset (earphones)
and microphone, plus a black box (or programme, in the case of the home
version), which mixes the sound. When learners begin a FLIC course, they
start by reading text while listening to it being pronounced by a model
voice in the earphones. Next, they mouth the text while listening to the
words ("The brain is working although the voice is silent," explains
Warnke). Step three is actually speaking the words out loud.

Then - and this is the clever part - the system plays back the learner's
efforts in one ear, and the model voice in the other ear. "And it doesn't
stay in the same ear, but moves from ear to ear, so that inter-hemispheric
contact is enhanced," explains Warnke. "Both hemispheres are very
important for language learning. The left hemisphere is involved in word
recognition, it's the word processor of the brain; but the right
hemisphere rules prosody - a vital decoding process that uncovers
non-explicit shades of meaning."

Using the learner's own voice aids learning, because research shows that
we pay most attention to voices like our own. So, in the next stage, FLIC
uses this fact by modifying the model voice, blending it with the
learner's voice, which has been divided into bands and analysed for speed,
pitch, and so on using software developed by Stockholm's KTH, one of the
FLIC project's partners. The resulting voice mimics the learner's own, yet
has the superior pronunciation of the model voice. "When learners hear
this, they experience themselves speaking a foreign language much better
than they expected," says Warnke. "They are then happy to keep practising
and speaking." An innovative use of voice techniques is also used to
improve vocabulary retention. Learners hear a word in the target language
in one ear, and its meaning in their own language in the other ear,
simultaneously. "Again, the words and translations switch between the
ears, and so the hemispheres," says Warnke.

Learners listen and participate in dialogues, picking up the structure of
the language by example, without ever having to endure a grammar lesson.
"They absorb the rules naturally, which is exactly how small children
learn languages," says Warnke. "FLIC gives people an internal pattern of a
language that they don't get with other systems." After three years in
development and testing, the FLIC trials are currently being evaluated by
the University of Sheffield, UK, and full results are expected in May.

"The testing phase took place in five different sites in three countries:
France, Germany and Italy," explains Warnke. "Beginners, intermediate and
advanced groups took courses of between 24 and 48 total hours, while
control groups took conventional courses. Preliminary findings indicate
that FLIC cuts language learning time by 50 per cent." Acceptance of the
method was high, among both students and teachers. So far, FLIC offers
courses in English, German, and Italian, but other languages can easily be
added. Warnke hopes to commercialise the product in the near future,
pointing out that its availability as both software and hardware make it
suitable for individuals (home users) as well as groups (language

Contact: Ralph Warnke MediTECH Electronic GmbH Wedemark Germany

Source: Based on information from FLIC

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list