Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sound discrimination training: perceived "phon-haptic" distance

Clip art: Clker
Clip art: Clker
Ask any Japanese EFL student how they managed to perceive and later produce the distinction between [i] and [I] or [u] and [U] in English and they'll probably tell you that it was difficult . . . or impossible. The same goes, of course, for L1/L2 phoneme mismatches for most learners, at least initially. The problem, of course, is the "competition" between phonetic or articulatory distance, that is how different, physically it is to produce two sounds, and phonemic categorical distance. If the brain "decides" that two sounds represent the same phoneme, regardless of how different it "feels" to produce them--case closed. At least that is what most research suggests. A 2004 study by Gerrits and Schouten of Utrecht University (linked here at the University of Rochester) suggests that the task used in the discrimination process can significantly impact perception of phonemic categories.

In plain English, what does that mean? Basically this: The method you use to assist learners in hearing or producing a phonemic distinction in their L2 can, itself, affect whether they get it or not. Really? Well, maybe . . .  So how do you usually do that? Do a class listening discrimination task of some kind? Give them an audio to listen to? Show them line drawings and have them repeat after you? Sit down with the learner and use a Starbucks coffee stir to get their articulators realigned?

 As described in earlier blogposts, the EHIEP approach is to establish points in the visual field where the hands touch as the sound is articulated, what we term "phon-haptically." Those points, or nodes, are strategically placed so that distinctions such as those above are experienced as being both physically distant from each other and somatically have very distinct texture or type of touch involved (tapping, pushing, scratching, brushing, twisting, etc.) The touch-type is chosen to "imitate" the felt sense of producing the vowel in the the vocal tract in some way, if only metaphorically. Does it work? Try it and let us know. Keep in touch. 

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