Monday, September 16, 2013

Famous "Alcohol/L2 pronunciation study" mystery solved: Here's (NOT) looking at you, kid!

Clip art: Clker
If you have done some formal study of second language pronunciation teaching and learning, you have almost certainly ran across the 1972 "Alcohol" study done by Guiora and colleagues. Explanations as to exactly why drinking about an ounce and half of alcohol seemed to improve subjects' ability to imitate an audio recording of Thai sentences have run from Guiora's theoretical construct of "enhanced ego permeability" to simply "muscle relaxation" (Brown 2006 and elsewhere.) If you have followed this blog some you are aware of the critical importance of limiting visual field distraction to effectiveness of haptic pronunciation teaching techniques. (That observation is backed up by any number of studies in general "haptic" learning that demonstrate how visual modality consistently overrides auditory and tactile engagement.)

In Guiora's study, subjects sat facing an experimenter who operated the tape recorder. I have long wondered what would have happened had the imitation phase been done in a lab, rather than face to  face. (In a 1980 attempt to replicate the alcohol study later--in which I was on the research team, the attractive "social presence" of one of the (female) experimenters appeared to demonstrate the added impact of a face on the effect.)

A new study by Gorka, Fitzgerald, King, and Phan at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, reported by Science DailyAlcohol attenuates amygdala–frontal cortex connectivity during processing social signals in heavy social drinkers, suggests another, related explanation for the improved performance of subjects on the imitation task: desensitization to "threatening" features in the visual field in front of them. In the current study, "heavy social drinkers." given an appropriate size drink, were significantly slower in reacting to pictures of "threatening" facial expressions. The bottom line: the alcohol served to somewhat disconnect the connection between the (emotion-related) amygdala and the pre-frontal (visual) cortex.

There are many ways to functionally do the same thing in pronunciation instruction, restricting the emotional/social/visual impact on learner's attention. The field (pronunciation teaching) has figured out how to deal with the social and emotion milieu reasonably well but generally does not focus on the potentially disruptive effect of what is going on, on an ongoing basis,  in the visual field. In our work, that is essential--a given. SEE what I mean?

Apologies to Bogart for the take off on his famous line from Casablanca in the post title.

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