Study: New Ear Device May Help in Foreign Language Learning

Category: Education/Family


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. cranial / ˈkreɪ ni əl / (adj) – referring to the skull or the bones of the head covering the brain

    A bad fall may result in a serious cranial injury.

  2. distinguish / dɪˈstɪŋ gwɪʃ / (v) – to identify or recognize a difference between people, things, or ideas

    The baby can already distinguish colors very well.

  3. pitch / pɪtʃ / (n) – the highness or lowness of a sound

    The pitch of her voice becomes high when she’s excited.

  4. pulse / pʌls / (n) – a brief increase in the amount of electricity, light, or sound

    The scientists recorded pulses of radio waves from outer space.

  5. imperceptible / ˌɪm pərˈsɛp tə bəl / (adj) – cannot be seen or noticed

    The two colors are so similar that the difference is imperceptible to most people.


Read the text below.

A recent study has found that a newly developed earbud-like device may help in learning a foreign language.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Pittsburgh created an ear device that can boost a person’s ability to learn the sounds of a foreign language. The device stimulated the vagus [VEY-guhs] nerve, the longest cranial nerve that carries signals from most of the organs to the brain.

In a study, they found that the device helped native English speakers distinguish Mandarin Chinese tones. Mandarin Chinese is deemed as one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn because the meanings of words change depending on the speaker’s pitch.

For the study, 36 native adult English speakers were recruited and trained to identify four Mandarin Chinese tones used in natural speech. The scientists used the transcutaneous [trans-kyoo-TEY-nee-uhs] vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) method, a technique in which the ear device is positioned in the outer ear. This method activates the vagus nerve using electrical pulses.

All participants wore the device, but only 18 received imperceptible tVNS. The participants were asked to distinguish 4 Mandarin tones categorized into easy and hard pairs. Results showed that participants who received tVNS displayed faster progress in distinguishing the easy tones than those who wore the device but did not receive any stimulation.

Currently, the scientists are conducting tests to find out if longer tVNS sessions can have an impact on the participants’ ability to distinguish tones that are more difficult for native English speakers to recognize.

According to Matthew Leonard, one of the scientists, the team would also like to determine if it is possible to enhance a person’s ability to produce, and not just perceive, sounds of non-native speech.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

• Do you think the device can also be used to learn other languages? Why or why not?
• Would you like to use this device for learning English? Why or why not?

Discussion B

• Aside from tone, what other aspects of a foreign language are difficult to learn (e.g. grammar, writing system)? Explain.
• What do you think is the best way to learn those aspects (e.g. using apps)? Discuss.