Linguistics on Lifehacker

imagesLifehacker, one of the web’s most visited productivity blogs, regularly features articles on language learning. Most of them tend to be of the brainhack variety; they focus on how to use technology or other tricks to learn a language faster.

While catching up on the blog today, three articles related to language jumped out at me.

Learn a Foreign Accent By Watching Films With Subtitles

This is something I have always regularly advised my students to do, mostly based on my own language learning experiences, so it’s nice to have some research to back up the anecdotal recommendation. Once you obtain an intermediate level of proficiency, watching films in your target language with the target language subtitles (as opposed to subtitles in your mother tongue) has a positive influence on your acquisition of the target language accent. I also find it does wonders for your listening comprehension, as it closes the gap between the written language and what it sounds like in quick, connected, real-life speech. I’ve found that many of my students are surprised to be told that watching a movie with subtitles is beneficial, as they believe watching a movie in the target language without subtitles is the gold standard they’ve been striving for, even if the percentage of what they understand overall is quite low.

Use Text-to-Speech Functions for Better Proofreading

This is an interesting one that I’ve never tried before. It seems like it would be most useful for picking up on missing punctuation, as TTS engines use punctuation as cues to add pauses and intonation. I do wonder about how well this trick would work for learners who have yet to master the relationship between punctuation and intonation in English sentences. If an expert speaker of English writes a sentence that’s missing a comma and listens to a TTS engine read it, they are going to notice the missing downward intonation and pause before where the comma should be. If a lower-level learner listens to the same sentence, will they “hear” the incorrect sentence contour, and know how to fix it?

Pace your Speech By Slowing Down at the Vowels

This is really great advice. In general, for learners of English, it is rarely problems with the consonants of English that lead to misunderstandings; it is the vowels. (There are a few noteable exceptions to this, for example if someone has trouble with the /r/ vs /l/  or /z/ vs. /Z/ vs. /dZ/, etc., but we’re talking in generalities here.) And it does seem to be making the tense/lax distinction in the vowels of English, as well as fully realizing both tones in diphthongs to their full extent that poses a challenge for learners, so the advice for speakers to slow down, emphasize and draw out certain vowels could be quite helpful. The other advice given in the article for public speaking, is also solid.


3 thoughts on “Linguistics on Lifehacker

  1. On the question of subtitles and only tangentially related to what you say above: I recall my breakthrough moment with Spanish as suddenly realizing, while watching a Japanese Samurai movie, that the Spanish subtitles were going straight into my head, that I didn’t have to process them in English at all and that I therefore wasn’t missing any of them due to still being processing ones from a scene a second ago when new ones popped up on the screen.

    • Wow, learning Spanish via subtitled Japanese films! It is true that even without the matching audio, reading the subtitles in ones target language is an exercise in reading and vocab. Thanks for sharing!

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