Re-educating your brain
So, could the trick to true fluency lie in re-training your brain to neutralise your accent?
French ear, nose and throat doctor Alfred Tomatis discovered that each language has its own bandwidth; language schools like Sound Sense in Paris now use this method to help re-train busy French professionals to English frequencies using a device known as an electronic ear. This is a set of headphones that transmits sound through air and bone conduction by making small vibrations that pass through the skull into the inner ear, similar to a hearing aid.
Humans can hear from around 20Hz to 20,000 Hz, which explains why we can’t hear things like a dog whistle because it emits a much higher frequency; we simply don’t hear as well as dogs and other animals.
Language experts say that our speech is made up of a huge number of frequencies – base tones and overtones. According to the Tomatis method, every human language has a different range of overtones, with British English fluctuating considerably between 2,000 to 12,000 Hz and French much less so between 125 to 250 Hz and 1,000 to 2,000 Hz. Russian fluctuates between an incredible 125 to 12,000 Hz.
The Tomatis method aims to train the ear to the frequency of other languages. First, a trained practitioner performs a half-hour listening test to figure out how well a student can already hear different frequencies.
This is followed up by a two-hour tape recording of music, typically classical music like Mozart, which has been modified to filter out the frequencies that you can already hear well and plays those your ear cannot hear so well. These are switched on and off throughout the recording to wake up the tiny muscles in the middle ear and strengthen them – a form of exercise for the ears that can be done sitting at home.
Belot says, "We mix up music and specific programs in the language you want to learn. When working on a training method you want to educate the ears and mouth to be able to speak on the right wavelength."
Sound Sense combines the method with language classes, preferably face-to-face or on Skype.
Fabienne Billat works as a consultant in digital communications and strategy, which involves frequent travel from France to the United States for conferences. She’s found the method useful. “The focus of the training is really on understanding rhythm and accentuation,” she says. “The combination of classes and the training with the electronic ear is an engaging method. It's different."
Other companies that have used this method to help staff improve their language skills are IBM France, Renault and Cisco. A different technique called the Berard method also uses this form of auditory training to help with language development.
Some language schools claim that using this ear training method can reduce the time it takes to learn a language by up to 50%. The Polytechnic University of Valencia assessed the Tomatis method in a recent study, finding it an effective learning tool.