UBC researchers use ultrasound technology to teach Cantonese
UBC researchers are partnering with the Cantonese-language program to pilot a technique that combines ultrasound imagery with follow-along video clips.
Getting the pronunciation just right when learning a new language can be frustrating, but UBC researchers say they have come up with an innovative way to help people learn new tongues.
The innovative technology allows students to see the placement and shape of the tongue during the pronunciation of different sounds. Researchers hope this will help students mimic the exact sounds themselves.
“Some of the tones in Cantonese are very difficult to pronounce,” said Holly Xing, a UBC student who is a native Mandarin speaker.
She is one of the students in UBC’s Cantonese program who tried the learning tool for the first time Wednesday.
Linguists say one of the biggest challenges of learning a new language is pronunciation because people’s tongues are not used to the different placements.
“Ultrasound is a really good tool because it makes speech sounds visible,” said Heather Bliss, the research-coordinator for the project.
This is the first time researchers have used this technology as a teaching tool.
“[The technology] has been picked up in the research sense but not so much in the applied sense and that’s where UBC has been quite ahead of the game – investing in this as a pedagogical tool,” said Bryan Gick, director of the interdisciplinary speech research lab at UBC.
Bliss and her team of researchers are also partnering with several First Nations in B.C. in hopes the technique can help language-revitalization efforts.
UBC’s linguistics team chose to pilot the technology using Cantonese because while it is widely spoken in Vancouver’s Chinese community, it is a language under threat.
“There is a lot of pressure right now to not speak Cantonese in some areas of the world,” said Gick, who is also head of UBC’s linguistics department.
Since Hong Kong was given back to China in 1997, schools in the region are increasingly teaching Putonghua (Mandarin), China’s official language, instead of Cantonese.
“If Cantonese is going to continue to thrive, one of the places where it is likely to thrive is populations outside of China,” said Gick.
Students in the class come from a diverse set of backgrounds, according to the instructor, Raymond Pai.
“We have students from Vietnam, from Japan, from as far as Germany and Nepal,” said Pai.
“Of course, a lot of them are Canadian-born Chinese.”
UBC started offering Cantonese-language classes in fall 2015 thanks to a $2 million donation from brothers Alex and Chi Shum Watt, Canadian businessmen who are originally from Hong Kong.