Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Use it or lose it or feel good about it: myths, habits and pronunciation

Clipart by
*Tigger warning: Research on rats generalized to people who appear to be losing it!

Two fascinating studies which challenge two "sacred cows" of behavior change and skill development (especially as related to pronunciation teaching!)

(A) Use it or lose it (forever)!
(B) Habit change requires some positive reinforcement (or good feelings)
Study A, by Schwartz of University of Massachusetts, short version: Found that you don't lose it (muscle memory), not really; it can be reawakened faster than learning it first time.
     Details: Studies with "rodents and insects" establish that (from the Neurosciencenews summary) " . . . nuclei are not lost from atrophying muscle fibers, and even remain after muscle death has been initiated . . .This suggests that once a nucleus has been acquired by a muscle fiber, it belongs to the muscle syncytium — probably for life."
     Implications for (pronunciation) teaching: If learners can pronounce a sound right sometimes, even if only in oral reading carefully, they can be guided into using it spontaneously . . . believe it or not! The muscle "memory" for the action is nearly permanent; you just have to get back to it. There are a myriad of ways to do that, regular, disciplined practice being one!

Study B by Ludvig of Warwick University and colleagues, short version: Found that establishing a good habit depends more on how often you do the action rather than any inherent satisfaction you might get from it.
     Details: Another study with (digital) rodents, established that (from the Neurosciencenews summary) " . . . habits themselves are a product of our previous actions, but in certain situations those habits can be supplanted by our desire to get the best outcome.”
      Implications for (pronunciation) teaching: Regular drill and practice, done rationally and with strong "felt sense" (focused awareness on what it feels like to say the targeted words or processes.), develops effective habits and improvement, NOT whether or not it feels good prior to when the habits are firmly established. In other words, trust the method or instructor, at least temporarily, until sitting down (or standing up in haptic work) is nearly automatic, something you are just committed to.

How long does it take to establish a habit? Generally about a month in fitness training (See James Clear!), maybe a little less in pronunciation work, but not much . . . trust me.

Learners need to be motivated to practice, in part by being informed about and understanding this and related research--and practicing what you assign them--all the way to progress and the satisfaction and warm feeling that comes with it. 


Frontiers (2019, January 25). Muscle Memory Discovery Ends ‘Use It or Lose It’ Dogma. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 25, 2019 from

University of Warwick (2019, January 28). Train the Brain to Form Good Habits Through Repetition. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 28, 2019 from

*On this blog, "Tigger warning" refers to "paper tigers", such as the Tigger of Winnie the Pooh!

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Differences in pronunciation: Better felt than seen or heard?
This feels like a "bigger" study, maybe even a new movement! (Speaking of new "movements", be sure to sign on for the February haptic webinars by the end of the month!)

There are any number of studies in various fields exploring the impact of racial, age or ethnic "physical presence" (what you look like) on perception of accent or intelligibility. In effect, what you see is what you "get!" Visual will often override audio, what the learner actually sounds like. Actually, that may be a good thing at times . . .

Haptic pronunciation teaching and similar movement-based methods use visual-signalling techniques, such as gesture, to communicate with learners concerning status of sounds, words and phrases. Exactly how that works has always been a question.

Research by Collegio, Nah, Scotti and Shomstein of George Washington University, summarized by“Attention scales according to inferred real-world object size", points to something of the underlying mechanism involved: perception of relative object size. The study compared subjects' reaction or processing time when attempting to identify the relative size of objects (as opposed to the size of the image of the object presented on the screen). What they discovered is that, regardless of the size of the images on the screen, the objects that were in reality larger consistently occupied more processing time or attention.

In other words, the brain accesses a spatial model or template of the object, not just the size of the visual image itself in "deciding" if it is bigger than an adjacent object in the visual field. A key element of that process is the longer processing time tied to the actual size of the object.

 How does this relate to gesture-based pronunciation teaching? In a couple of ways potentially. If students have "simply" seen the gestures provided by instructors (e.g., Chan, 2018) and, for example, in effect have just been commanded to make some kind of adjustment, that is one thing.The gesture is, in essence, a mnemonic, a symbol, similar to a grapheme, a letter. The same applies to such superficial signalling systems such as color, numbers or finger contortions.

If, on the other hand, the learner has been initially trained in using or experiencing the sign, itself, as in sign language, there is a different embodied referent or mapping, one of experienced physical action across space.

In haptic work, adjacent sounds in the conceptual and visual field are first embodied experientially. Students are briefly trained in using three different gesture types, distinctive lengths and speeds, accompanied by three distinctive types of touch. In initial instruction, students do exercises where they experience physically combinations of those different parameters as they say the sounds, etc.

For example, the contrastive, gestural patterns (done as the sound is articulated) for  [I], [i], [i:],and [iy] are progressively longer and more complex: (See linked video models.)
a. Lax vowels, e.g., [I] ("it')- Middle finger of the left hand quickly and lightly taps the palm of the right hand.
b. Tense vowels, e.g., [i] ("happy")- Left hand and right hands touch lightly with finger tips momentarily.
c. Vowel before voiced consonant, e.g., [i:] ("dean") - Left hand pushes right hand, with palms touching, firmly 5 centimeters to the right.
d. Tense vowel, plus off glide, e.g., [iy] ("see") - Finger nails of the left hand drag across the palm of the right hand  and, staying in contact then slide up about 10 centimeters and pause.

The same principle applies to most sets of contrastive structures and processes, such as intonation, rhythm and consonants. See what I mean, why embodied gesture for signalling pronunciation differences is much more effective? If not, go here, do a few haptic pedagogical movement patterns (PMPs) just to get the feel of them and then reconsider!