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New study method helps people differentiate between English 'L' and 'R'

A new study method that improves people's ability to hear the difference between "R" and "L," -- an age-old issue in Japan -- has been developed by a research team, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

    Created through the joint efforts of the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, Osaka University and Hokkaido University, the method makes use of the ways people respond subliminally to sound, as well as the corresponding brain waves. Looking ahead, it is expected that the new technique can be used to assist English conversation school students, as well as corporate English teaching programs.

    The research team found that the brains of people who cannot hear the difference between the words "light" and "right" actually responded subliminally to the difference when hearing "light" followed by "right," or "right" followed by "light."

    Meanwhile, the brain waves of English language learners were measured at the point when they realized the difference, and then the extent to which the brain reacted was marked with a circle on a screen visible to the subjects. It was found that, if subjects trained themselves to visualize the circle becoming larger, then their brains became better at recognizing phonetic differences. This is thought to mean that one's ability to differentiate between pronunciations also becomes better.

    In the experiment, participants aged 20 to 39 listened to the words "light," and "right" being pronounced through earphones for one hour, and were asked to imagine the circle on the screen becoming larger. After the experiment, the participants were asked to read out text containing the letter "L" or "R." It was found that the percentage of correct answers rose to 90 percent, having been about 60 percent prior to the experiment.

    Inspired by these findings, the team is now planning to carry out a similar test for the letters "V" and "B" -- which are generally also quite challenging for Japanese people to differentiate.

    With regard to second language learning, it is thought that the ability to detect phonetic differences declines after childhood. With this in mind, Yasushi Naruse of the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology says, "Our new method is expected to help adults who are learning a second language."

    The equipment for this study method costs more than 1 million yen, placing it out of reach for many individual language learners. Therefore, it is expected that this equipment will mainly be used in English conversation schools and as part of corporate language teaching programs.

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