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Learning a second language -- Is it all in your head?

h the same participants -- Wongs team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe brain areas that were activated when participants listened to different pitch tones. They found that the more successful second-language learners were those who showed activation in the auditory cortex (where HG resides).

The participants all were native American English speakers with no knowledge of tone languages. In tone languages (spoken by half the worlds population), the meaning of a word can change when delivered in a different pitch tone. In Mandarin, for example, the word mi in a level tone means to squint, in a rising tone means to bewilder and in a falling and then rising tone means rice.

For the study reported in Cerebral Cortex, Wongs 17 participants entered a sound booth after having their brains scanned. There they were trained to learn six one-syllable sounds (pesh, dree, ner, vece, nuck and fute). The sounds were originally produced by a speaker of American English and then re-synthesized at three different pitch tones, resulting in 18 different pseudo words.

The participants were repeatedly shown the 18 pseudo words and a black and white picture representing each words meaning. Pesh, for example, at one pitch meant glass, at another pitch meant pencil and at a third meant table. Dree, depending upon pitch, meant arm, cow or telephone.

As a group -- and sometimes in fewer than two or three sessions -- the nine participants predicted on the basis of left HG size to be more successful learners achieved an average of 97 percent accuracy in identifying the pseudo words. The less successful participants averaged 63 percent accuracy and sometimes required as many as 18 training sessions to correctly identify the words.

Whats important is that we are looking at the brain in a new way that may allow us to understand brain functions more comprehensively and that could help us more effectively teach foreign languages and possibly
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Contact: Pat Vaughan Tremmel
p-tremmel@northwestern.edu
847-491-4892
Northwestern University
25-Jul-2007


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