Listen, Speak, See, Feel:

Boosting Language Learning Through Ultrasound

A story that uncovers teaching innovations at UBC — driven by faculty, backed by research and squarely aimed at leading new thinking.

Sometimes incredible advances arise from combining familiar practices in new ways. Such is the case for eNunciate, a web-based biovisual tool that uses ultrasound layering to let language learners see, feel and compare pronunciations as they practice their new vocabulary. It’s a powerful multimodal approach to improving pronunciation that boosts learning, breaks down language barriers and preserves dying languages.

If you’ve ever struggled to master the correct pronunciation of a second language, you know that getting the words to sound right can be a challenge. Did I say ‘salute’? I meant ‘luggage’. How does she curl her tongue to make that sound? Why can’t I seem to make that little clicking noise at the back of my throat?

The world of pronunciation can be mystifying for many of us. UBC researchers set out to make it a little less so when they created eNunciate, an innovative program that blends the best of linguistics and language teaching with ultrasound imaging. Using eNunciate, new language learners can actually see how their tongues should move when producing a given sound — and that takes language acquisition to a whole new level.

Historically, pronunciation training has been one of the most challenging aspects of language teaching. It works well when instruction includes one-on-one interaction, repetition and feedback. However, in larger classes all that specificity in instruction is diminished.

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Did I say ‘salute’? I meant ‘luggage’. How does she curl her tongue to make that sound? Why can’t I seem to make that little clicking noise at the back of my throat?

The W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation use eNunciate to help reclaim their language​​.

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The W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation use eNunciate to help reclaim their language​​.

UBC linguistics professor Dr. Bryan Gick, postdoctoral fellow Heather Bliss and their colleagues recognized the gap and set out to bridge it. They knew they needed the expertise of language teachers, so they reached out across department lines to create a multidisciplinary team comprising faculty in linguistics, language sciences, computer science and Asian studies, giving rise to an integrated group working across UBC to improve student learning.

Backed by language research and supported by the UBC Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) and a flexible learning grant, the group layered audio recordings with ultrasound technology to create the first-ever way to literally get inside a native language speaker’s head. With the accompanying prosody visualizer — similar in appearance to a graphic equalizer — learners can record their own voices and compare them to that of a model speaker, pairing the visual and aural modalities for maximum learning.

The results have been astonishing.

Not only did the tool deliver on its promise on improving learners’ pronunciation, it proved useful for speech therapists and language teachers as well. But what no one saw coming was how powerful the program is at reviving languages that are on the verge of extinction.

Take, for example, the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation of Vancouver Island, who have just a few remaining first-language speakers. With eNunciate and the tongue visualizer as tools, the W̱SÁNEĆ are now able to create accessible programming for children and adults alike to reclaim and reintegrate their language. The Upriver Halq’emeylem peoples of the Lower Mainland also are using the technology, recording and preserving the language as it is spoken by their last native speaker.

The program helps learners get their pronunciations right — a challenge given that many sounds in First Nations’ languages come from far back in the vocal tract, which until now has been difficult to visualize and replicate. The eNunciate project is doing even more than that, however. It’s helping Aboriginal learners reconnect with their languages in a way that is reflective of a deeper connection with nature and a stronger sense of culture — indeed in a way that represents an entirely different worldview.

The work continues, with Dr. Bliss and her colleagues travelling to Aboriginal communities throughout western Canada, tongue visualizer and recording kit in hand, ready to teach users how to use the tools to develop their own language libraries — for now, and for generations from now.

Whether it’s empowering BC’s Aboriginal groups to preserve their cultures in the field, or helping students master Cantonese and Spanish back on campus, the eNunciate project represents an innovative and powerful way to connect cultures, bridge generations and create a more inclusive world.

Enunciate Team

The eNunciate project is a collaboration between three groups: (i) researchers in the Department of Linguistics, who understand the mechanisms behind speech and pronunciation; (ii) language instructors from across campus, who understand the specific challenges surrounding pronunciation training, and (iii) technical experts in the Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and the Faculty of Arts Instructional Support and Information Technology unit, who understand how to implement the technology and deliver it to students effectively. As a team, we are all excited by and committed to developing tools and resources to revolutionize the way students face the hurdle of pronunciation in language learning.

Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners:

eNunciate team: Dr. Bryan Gick, Principal Investigator and Professor and Head of the Department of Linguistics; Heather Bliss, Research Coordinator and SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Linguistics and the rest of the eNunciate team; Sonya Bird, Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria.

ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School participants & TSARTLIP Community Language Apprentices: Urijah Williams, Kloe Wilson, Tiffany Joseph, Katia Olsen, Ashley Cooper, Josephine Henry, Nick Henry.

Team credits: Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Mark Pilon, Communication Designer; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Alex Van Tol, Writer; David Leidl, Copy Editor.

Published: September 2016