It’s all in the way you say it. When learning a second language, knowing the words isn’t enough; one has to be able to pronounce the words so that they’re understandable to others.
The most common way students learn is to listen to the instructor say the word and then repeat it back. But hearing one voice has its limitations for the student, says Professor of Applied Linguistics Ron Thomson.
Thomson’s online English Accent Coach program uses a variety of voices to say the same word as a method of “training the brain” to pick up new sounds. The technique, called High Variability Phonetic Training (HVPT), is different than other pronunciation programs because it integrates “the ‘fuzzy’ variance that comes with different speakers in different situations,” he says.
With a three-year Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Thomson will take a deeper look at how his HVPT program helps users refine their pronunciation, investigate the appeal of this technology to learners and teachers, and will make further improvements to the program based on users’ experiences.
“We are confident that our research will lead to an improved English pronunciation training tool, while simultaneously generating new scientific knowledge concerning how adults learn the pronunciation of new languages,” he says.
Thomson is one of seven researchers at Brock awarded nearly $650,000 in Insight Grants from SSHRC in 2020. In addition, 14 Brock University students were awarded $470,000 in SSHRC student grants for a total of $1.12 million.
This is in addition to the $2.5 million from SSHRC’s Partnership Grants program that Andrea Doucet, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Work and Care and Professor of Sociology was awarded for her international research team studying how childcare services, parental leave policies and employment policies impact diverse Canadian families.
“SSHRC funds research projects across the social sciences and humanities, which contributes to new understandings and supports the engagement of students across disciplines,” says Associate Vice-President, Research Michelle McGinn.
“The decisions of money managers, strategies for language learners, the influence of policy changes and the work of murals. The breadth of topics funded in this round and their contributions to enhanced policies and practices is impressive. I’m also pleased to note that several projects adopt a historical lens. The lessons of the past are interesting and critically important for charting the way forward to a strong future.”
For his part, Thomson says his Insight Grant funding will enable him to improve the “robustness” of his pronunciation program, which has already helped “tens of thousands” of English as a Second Language (ESL) learners worldwide.
“We are so pleased that SSHRC recognizes the value of this project for newcomers to Canada,” says Thomson. “The new Insight Grant will allow Canada, and Brock, to remain positioned at the forefront of second language pronunciation research and its application.”
The latest round of Insight Grant recipients includes:
- Antony Chum, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, “Social determinants of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual suicidality in Canada”
- Tim Heinmiller, Faculty of Social Sciences, “Major Policy Change in Canada”
- Phillip Mackintosh, Faculty of Social Sciences, “Neurasthenia and the Modern City: Mental Health and Laissez-Faire Capitalism in Toronto, 1879-1920”
- Cristina Santos, Faculty of Social Sciences, “(Re)appearing the Desaparecidos: Mural Art and Intergenerational Trauma of the Argentinean Dictatorship (1976-1983)
- Tatyana Sokolyk, Goodman School of Business, “Asset allocation decisions of professional money managers worldwide”
- Mark Spencer, Faculty of Humanities, “’To Seek Improvement’: John Beale Bordley’s American Enlightenment”
- Ronald Thomson, Faculty of Social Sciences, “Refining High Variability Phonetic Training for Learners and Teachers”
SSHRC’s Insight Grants program provides funding for three to five years for research that accomplishes a number of goals, including building knowledge and understanding, supporting new approaches to research and providing training experiences for students.