What does having a good ear for languages really mean?

Where do language skills come from? What happens in our brain when we first hear a word in a foreign language? Why is it easy for one person to learn a language, and others have to suffer through it? Dr. Marta Marecka from the Jagiellonian University is looking for answers to these questions.

Sensitivity to changes in volume and pitch, getting used to the sounds of a given language, and even … the ability to ignore irrelevant information – all this affects our language skills. These factors are being examined by Dr. Marta Marecka from the Institute of Psychology of the Jagiellonian University.

“For a long time I have been fascinated by the statement that someone has +a good ear for languages+” – Dr. Marecka told PAP. “I was always interested in what this ear for languages was, and if one could identify something that could be recognized as exactly that”.

“Od dłuższego czasu fascynuje mnie stwierdzenie, że ktoś ma +ucho do języka+ albo że ktoś ma +słuch językowy+” – opowiada PAP dr Marecka. – “Zawsze interesowało mnie, czym jest ten słuch językowy i czy dałoby się ustalić jakąś konkretną rzecz, która mogłaby zostać za niego uznana”.


In her research work, Dr. Marecka looks for factors that influence the effectiveness of foreign language learning. Her previous findings show that at the beginning of learning a language, a person’s ability to perceive changes in volume and pitch may be important for memorizing new words.

“Speech can be +broken down+ into smaller bits, taking into account, for example, changes in sound volume or frequency” – the researcher noted. And although in our first language dividing speech into words, voices or syllables appears completely natural – that impression is illusory.

“Phones overlap, and the acoustic spectrum of speech shows it as a +wall of sound+” – said Dr. Marecka. “In our native tongue we are taught to deal with this wall of sound. But if you listen, for example, to recordings in a completely foreign language – French, Chinese or Japanese – the sounds merge”.

According to the theory of Dr. Marecka and the research team working on the project “Individual Cognitive Abilities and the Acquisition of Second Language Vocabulary”, when learning a foreign language, at first we “break down” the speech we hear using very simple mechanisms. “When we have very little information about a new language, we use very simple acoustic cues to divide it into smaller pieces, such as pitch or amplitude” – explained the researcher. “They have the role of a specific +hammer+ that allows us to get to that language. These very simple perception skills +harden+ us at the initial stage of language learning”.

Dr. Marecka is interested in the question of whether people more sensitive to differences in volume and frequency of sound find it easier to start learning a foreign language. Preliminary research conducted by the researcher as part of her doctoral dissertation suggests that there is a correlation between the ability to divide a language into smaller units and the ability to learn new words in the beginning of learning new languages.

Over time, however, these differences become blurred, and other factors come to the fore.

“As we learn the structure of a new language, we become sensitive to the distinctive acoustic differences: we recognize sounds that are spoken in a particular language, as well as the phones and their sequences that occur in it” – the researcher told PAP.

“Getting used to the sounds of a given language helps us learn the words, because it allows us to divide words into smaller fragments – and that makes it easier to memorize them” – she added.


At the beginning stages of learning a foreign language, a big problem often turns out to be something that is difficult to escape: the rules of one’s own language. “If we already have habits associated with the first language, we are sensitive to its specific aspects – we have already learnt very different rules, for example, one set of consonants is acceptable to us, but another is not” – explained Dr Marecka.

As it turns out, the ability to ignore irrelevant information is quite helpful.

“When we learn a different language, with completely different rules, it may be difficult to ignore the rules of the first language” – the researcher said. “This is the reason for the transfer phenomenon, that is, borrowing such things as vocabulary, grammatical structures, accent placement from our first language. It is very difficult to cut off from these rules and knowledge. In our research we want to determine whether the ability to ignore unnecessary stimuli facilitates learning a new language, as it helps to ignore the rules of the first language” – she added.

Dr. Marta Marecka is the leader of the project Individual Cognitive Abilities and the Acquisition of Second Language Vocabulary, financed by the FUGA grant of the National Science Centre and implemented in cooperation with Dr. Zofia Wodniecka (Laboratory of Language Psychology and Bilingualism at the Jagiellonian University) and Dr. Tim Fosker (Language Learning and Literacy Lab, Queens University Belfast).

PAP – Science and Scholarship in Poland, Katarzyna Florencka

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