Phonetic training for learners of Arabic
Burnham, Kevin Robert
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This dissertation assesses a new technique intended to improve Arabic learning outcomes by enhancing the ability of learners to perceive a phoneme contrast in Arabic that is notoriously difficult for native speakers of English. Adopting a process approach to foreign language listening comprehension pedagogy, we identify and isolate an important listening subskill, phonemic identification, and develop a methodology for improving that skill. An online training system is implemented that is based upon known principles of speech perception and second language speech learning and has previously been used to improve phonemic perception in a laboratory setting. An empirical study investigating the efficacy of the training methodology was conducted with 24 2nd and 3rd year students of Arabic in several different intensive Arabic programs in American universities. The contrast under investigation was the Arabic pharyngeal (/h̄/) versus laryngeal (/h/) voiceless fricatives. Training participants completed 100 training modules, each consisting of a 24 item minimal pair test featuring the /h̄/-/h/ contrast in word initial position for a total of 2400 training trials over 4 weeks. The training website design was based on the high variability training protocol (Logan, Lively & Pisoni, 1991). The experiment finds significantly greater improvement (F₁,₂₂=8.89, p = .007, [mathematical symbol]₂ = .288) on a minimal pair test contrasting /h̄/ and /h/ for a group that received approximately 5 hours of phonetic training (n=10) compared to a control group (n=14) with no training. Critically, these perceptual improvements were measured with stimuli that were not part of the training set, suggesting language learning and not just stimulus learning. Qualitative data from participants suggested that these perceptual gains were not restricted to the simple minimal pair task, but carried over to listening activities and perhaps even pronunciation. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of phonemic perception and foreign language instruction and implementation of phonetic training within an Arabic curriculum.