:Speaking the Language
Why do some people speak a language fluently while others struggle?
 / Angela Ney-Goldenberg and Debby Klieger
Jerusalem Post 04.06.2004


Is there really an "ear" for language?
We all want to learn and be fluent in Hebrew. Why then, is it so difficult for some of us, yet seemingly effortless for others?
Many of our Russian-speaking olim carry on a conversation in enviable Hebrew after only several months of ulpan. Yet many Anglos and old time yekkim struggle just to pick up the basics. A popular myth is that children pick up a new language out of thin air. What about those who don't?

One theory was posited in the 50's by Dr. Alfred Tomatis, a French ENT doctor and specialist in the field of listening related to the process of foreign language acquisition. According to Dr. Tomatis, speech production is founded upon accurate speech perception. He said that "the voice can produce only those sounds that the ear can perceive."
Known as the "Tomatis Effect," this has implications for foreign language learning.
Language learners may be confronted with sounds that they do not perceive correctly. It was Dr. Tomatis' belief that normally in early childhood, the human ear is capable of perceiving sounds present in any language. The ear gradually tunes out the speech sounds uncharacteristic of the native language and tunes into the familiar sounds of the native tongue. Our ears become closed to the unfamiliar sounds. Because we are unable to perceive them correctly we can't produce them properly. Even worse, we don't easily remember them.
Dr. Tomatis established what he called "ethnograms" of several major languages, showing auditory preference for the particular frequencies of each language.
Languages differ not only in frequency range but also in syllable length.
For example, an average American English syllable takes longer to pronounce than an average French syllable. The shorter French syllable length requires the ear to respond more quickly.
In other words, one language may be more or less "sound" compatible with another language. The Russian language, for example, is compatible with many other languages since it contains a broad sound frequency range, so that the ears of Russian language speakers are open, or tuned to many frequencies. This auditory flexibility enables them to acquire foreign languages, including Hebrew, relatively easily.

Another important aspect of Tomatis' theory of language acquisition is the distinction he makes between hearing and listening.
While hearing is a passive process in which sounds are merely received, listening is active and involves volition. Given this basic difference, motivation, or the
"desire to listen" becomes a key element in the language acquisition process.
Tomatis' theory of language acquisition assumes that there is a close link between speech perception and speech production; that the desire to listen is crucial to all language acquisition and that the ear can be re-educated to perceive and analyze sounds that it may have eliminated through an auditory selection process.

Tomatis believed that the right ear is best suited for the analysis of speech sounds. This belief is reflected in his program of sound perception training, which is accomplished by means of the Electronic Ear.
The Electronic Ear is a device designed and patented by Tomatis in 1963. It consists of filters, amplifiers and a sophisticated gating mechanism that work together so that users can perceive and accurately reproduce the sounds of a given language. The sound material used is specially recorded and may be either language or music.
It is transmitted through specially designed Tomatis headsets, which differ from ordinary earphones in that each is equipped with a transmitter that sits on the skull, allowing the user to perceive the sounds through bone as well as air conduction.

At the Israel Tomatis Listening Center in Kfar Saba (09-7668191), people wishing to learn or improve a foreign language are first given a diagnostic test known as the Tomatis Listening Test. This test gives a graphic display of an individual's auditory profile. The profile is the basis for a personal auditory training program which is designed to enhance sound perception.
The process tunes the ear to the sounds, the speed and the rhythm of the language to be learned and claims to significantly shorten the time it takes to learn a new language.

Jerusalem Post    4.6.2004