KU News Release

Oct. 15, 2012
Contact: Mike Krings, KU News Service, 785-864-8860

Research can help language learners improve pronunciation

LAWRENCE — Everyone has heard it at some point in their lives, and anyone who has attempted to learn a second language has done it. Some words are simply difficult to understand when spoken by someone with an accent, and some sounds are difficult to pronounce in a new language. Research by a University of Kansas professor shows that even small differences in pronunciation can be perceptible, and with training, speakers can improve their pronunciation, leading to a less noticeable accent and improved understanding.

Manuela Gonzalez-Bueno, associate professor of curriculum and teaching, has published a series of articles and is continuing her research in pronunciation and spectrographic analysis of speech. Spectrographic software can record a person’s speech and show them the frequency, pitch and other acoustic aspects of their oral production.

“It allows you to see certain parts of the speech production you can’t perceive aurally,” Gonzalez-Bueno said of the spectrograph. “In a way it’s like looking at speech with a microscope.”

The technique has been widely used in linguistics and speech pathology work for years, but Gonzalez-Bueno has taken to using the technology to help students improve their pronunciation by being able to analyze their own speech. Her research has worked with native English speakers learning Spanish. Their speech is recorded and analyzed. The students then are given training in pronunciation and recorded again. Her findings have shown pronunciation, and therefore intelligibility, improve after the training.

“I realized spectrographic analysis can be used to help the speaker monitor their own improvement or lack thereof,” Gonzalez-Bueno said. “However, you have to train the ear before you train the mouth, so to speak.”

The ear, and not in fact the mouth, is the reason people have an accent in a new language. At birth, all infants have the same nerve endings in their inner ear that allow them to perceive a full range of spoken sounds. However, not all languages use the same phonetic repertoire, and as a child ages the nerves that are not used react like a muscle that does not get used – they atrophy.

“When we are adults and we want to learn a new language, we filter it through the sounds of our native language. I believe it is possible to retrain these nerve endings, but it is very hard to do,” Gonzalez-Bueno said.

One example of differing pronunciation in English and Spanish is the sound represented by the letter R. While native English speakers pronounce the sound like in the word “are,” Spanish speakers pronounce it by making the tongue repeatedly touch the bridge of the mouth, resulting in a trill. Although the difference is easily perceived, it is very hard for learners of Spanish to produce it. Spectrographic analysis makes the difference clear in a visual way, showing the breaks in the sound. When seeing the difference in that and many other sounds between the languages and undergoing pedagogical training developed by Gonzalez-Bueno and colleagues, students were able to improve their pronunciation, as shown in subsequent spectrographic recordings. Even in cases where the difference is too subtle to be noticed by the “naked ear,” the analysis shows improvement.

The software used for the recording and analysis is free, and students can use it on their own time to monitor and improve their pronunciation.

The improvement is valuable because of its potential to improve communication, Gonzalez-Bueno said. Sociolinguistic research has long shown that people perceive speakers with accents in a less favorable light than those without. Accented speakers have been reported to be perceived as less trustworthy, less understandable and associated with numerous other negative traits.

The goal is not to erase accents altogether but to improve communication and better educate speakers of a new language. Trends in language education have focused more on overall communication, and not common mistakes in grammar or pronunciation, which can interfere with efficient communication.

“What we argue is that there are errors and then there are errors,” Gonzalez-Bueno said. “When we teach pronunciation we’re not trying to get perfection, but intelligibility.”

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