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Video Game Speeds Language Training

NSF Award:

Collaborative Research: Learning Complex Auditory Categories  (Carnegie-Mellon University)

Collaborative Research: Learning Complex Auditory Categories  (University of Arizona)

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A specially designed video game helps listeners learn to distinguish important differences between language sounds that do not exist in their native language. The learning that takes place during this simple game is similar to what has been demonstrated after 45 hours of intensive language training.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Arizona have developed a novel approach to language training based on their research into how humans learn new sounds. The resulting video game based on this work provides a potentially powerful way to train adults to acquire new languages or other complex sound systems.  

One of the most challenging aspects of learning a second language is learning to hear the differences between the sounds used in the new language. For example, native Japanese listeners learning English struggle with the distinction between "l" and "r," because these sounds are not used in Japanese. The current approach pairs each of the new language sounds with different visual creatures that require a response in the video game.

Despite the fact that players of the game are not explicitly trying to learn the sounds, they show impressive learning as the game progresses. The way the game maps the sounds to the creatures is very important for effective learning. The mappings are based on several previous studies examining the most effective ways to train humans to learn new non-speech sounds. The results demonstrate that humans have remarkable abilities to learn sound categories, even when they are not paying attention to these sounds.


  • screenshot from a video game that speeds language learning
Each alien emits sounds from a specific auditory category.
Lori Holt, Carnegie Mellon University

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