New Worlds: Teach foreign language in listeners' accent

Haifa researchers find that perception of speech in a foreign language is easier when that language is spoken in the accent of the listener.

March 8, 2010 09:45
4 minute read.
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new worlds 88. (photo credit: )


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Many schools teaching adults second languages insist on exposing their students to the “original” accents. Yet University of Haifa researchers have found that perception of speech in a foreign language is easier when that language is spoken in the accent of the listener.

Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim and Dr. Mark Leikin of the university’s Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities, Prof. Zohar Eviatar of the psychology department and Prof. Shimon Sapir of the learning disabilities department published their study in the prestigious Journal of ycholinguistic Research.

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The research set out to reveal the level of phonological information that the adult learner needs to identify words in a second language that had been learned at a later age, and whether the level of phonological information that they require varies when the words are pronounced in different accents. The team recorded four Hebrew sentences in which the last word was a noun pronounced in different accents: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English. These sentences were electronically encoded on a computer system and applied to the “gating” paradigm, in which participants are exposed to increasing amounts of a speech stimulus (40 milliseconds) and at each “gate” are asked to identify the stimulus. This procedure allows the identification of the point at which a word is recognized.

The sentences were played back to 60 participants aged 18 to 26; 20 were native Hebrew speakers; 20 were adult immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union; and an equal number were Israeli Arabic speakers who began learning Hebrew between the age of seven and eight. The findings showed that there is no difference in the amount of phonological information the native Hebrew speakers needed to decipher the words, regardless of accent. With the Russian and Arabic speakers, on the other hand, less phonological information was needed in order to recognize the Hebrew word when it was pronounced in the accent of their native language.

“This research lays emphasis on the importance of continuing investigation into the cognitive perspectives of accent to gain a better understanding of how we learn languages other than our native tongue. In Israel and in other countries where the population is composed of many different language groups, this understanding holds great significance,” the researchers concluded.


Feeding “super-sexed” but sterile insects a “power breakfast” can improve pest control, according to Hebrew University of Jerusalem agricultural scientists who have developed this improved method of raising large number of insects who cannot produce progeny without harming the environment with bug-killing chemicals.

A variety of potentially dangerous chemicals such as DDT have been used since the early 1900s to kill crop pests or carriers of diseases. But this led to the evolution of resistance to pesticides and has a severely negative impact on human health and the environment. As an alternative,  Prof. Boaz Yuval at the HU Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment is working on upgrading an approach known as the sterile-insect technique. This method is currently used against several dozen species. The principle is to rear millions of individuals of the species one seeks to control, separate the sexes, sterilize the males and release them into the field. The sterile males will mate with wild females, who will then be unable to lay fertile eggs, thus reducing the pest populations.

But Yuval says the process of rearing millions of male insects, sterilizing them and transporting them to the release site can severely affect their sexual competitiveness. So his lab has focused on improving the technique as applied to fruit flies and mosquitoes.

He studied the behavioral and physiological elements that define the factors contributing to male bug sexiness and devised ways to confer these characteristics on sterile males. One of these is nutritional status. Yuval found that feeding males high-protein diets significantly improves their sexual performance. With his team, he also found that bacteria living in fruit flies are important, and that factory-reared flies lacked the bacteria found in wild insects.

With this information, Yuval and colleagues are formulating a high-protein, bacteria enhanced “breakfast of champions” that is fed to males before their release and significantly improves their sexual performance. Their work is described in the current issue of the ISME (International Society for Microbial Ecology) Journal. The team believe that their approach can be applied successfully to a variety of plant and animal pests, as well as to organisms that transmit human disease.


A new computer lab for Tel Aviv University undergraduates was recently dedicated in the geophysics and planetary sciences department in memory of Col. Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster seven years ago. His widow Rona was present at the ceremony along with university heads and Dr. Dianne Evans, a scientist from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration Jet Propulsion Lab, who lectured on the role of satellites in understanding the environment.

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