It is an accepted fact that the younger the child, the easier it is for them to learn a second language. Children are able to understand words and hear small sound differences that adults often miss making understanding more difficult for adults. For example, Polish students of English have difficulty differentiating between vowels such as "pen" and "pan" while German students must learn to hear a difference between the v in "vest" and the w in "west".
Scientists used to believe that the adult brain could not be retrained later in life to distinguish between these sounds: in other words the brain's plasticity (or ability to change) was set.
Dr Iverson shows that adults can retune their brains to hear these differences again. Scientists now believe that the difficulties are caused by our experience which teaches us to ignore certain sounds so that we are able to give our full attention to the sounds that (in our native language) matter most to understanding a sentence.
Two studies jointly worked on by Dr Paul Iverson and Dr Valerie Hazan, UCL's Department of Phonetics and Linguistics, have examined whether it is possible to retune how the brain processes speech sounds, and hope that their findings will help make language learning easier for adults. In one study, Japanese subjects were retrained to hear the difference between r's and l's (something that Japanese students of English tend to find particularly difficult). The study tested 6
Contact: Alex Brew
University College London