English DNA has been available for several months now, and a lot of people have used it. Many, including teachers who are considering the app for their students, ask questions. They want to find out more about how English DNA works and what using it will do.
To answer their most common questions and explain exactly what English DNA will do I've talked with Dr Paul Sulzberger. It's his scientific research that the app is based on.
My questions are in bold. Dr Paul Sulzberger's answers are beneath them.
Susan: People have asked if using English DNA will teach them English, help them lose their “foreign” accent and improve their pronunciation? Will it?
English DNA teaches students something much more fundamental and important than mere accent or pronunciation. Students get to internalize the very "DNA" of English words. Until students have intuitively mastered how English words are structured, learning new words is always difficult and slow.
Susan: So what does English DNA do?
English DNA helps learners master the underlying patterns (or sequences) of sounds which form the basic building blocks of English words. Once students have mastered these, learning any new word is as quick and easy as it is for young kids who speak English as a native language. English speaking kids can learn to recognize a new word on hearing it only once. Most foreign learners of English can't do this.
These patterns are like templates for English syllables – once students have internalized the templates, they can quickly learn thousands of new words built on these common patterns.
Intuitively knowing how English words are structured is profoundly important — although most people don't realize just how important. An intuitive understanding of how individual sounds combine to make words is fundamental to learning any foreign language. Each language has a unique set of complicated rules about how individual sounds can combine. But this is too complex to learn as "rules" – however it's easy to absorb by just listening.
Sometimes some rules are shared across languages.
For example the English word "mare" and the French word "mère" are pronounced slightly differently but both have the same sequence of sounds or the same underlying pattern, viz. /mer/. The pattern /m/ + /e/ + /r/ is found is dozens of English words such are "merry", "meridian" and "merit". French students learning English already know this pattern so learning English words containing this sequence is not a problem.
Susan: What happens when the sound pattern rules of a language you are trying to learn do not occur in your native language?
This presents a major difficulty. It's just not easy for your ear to pick up and remember words with unfamiliar sounding syllables. Your brain just doesn't process all the sounds quickly enough for you to "hear" them properly. People often say that foreigners speak their language too fast. Indeed, if you don't know the language well, your brain cannot process all those unfamiliar syllables quickly enough — and so it sounds "too fast". Too fast to absorb, learn and remember!
This is the problem that English DNA solves. Students practice recognizing unknown words containing the most frequently occurring sound patterns in English. As students hear each word again and again their brains will begin to adapt and they will start being able to recognize the words faster and faster. As the component syllables become more familiar, the student will then be able to "hear" new words they have never heard before — and remember them!
Susan: Is not knowing the rules which determine the sequential order of sounds the reason why foreign English learners find it very difficult to remember and retain vocabulary?
Yes! When a person meets a language where the rules for the sequential order of sounds differs from their own, the importance of the particular order of sounds becomes apparent. For example, for native English or French speakers remembering the syllable /mer/ is easy because it occurs in many different words in both languages. However for those same English and French speakers, words containing the sequence /zdr/ are difficult to remember because this sequence never occurs in their native languages. However, words containing /zdr/ do not present a problem for native speakers of Russian, Ukrainian or Serbo-Croatian and the other Slavic languages where this combination of sounds occurs frequently. If you want to learn Russian, you have no choice but to train your brain to process this common sequence so you can recognise it quickly in the middle of a new word.
Here's an example to illustrate the importance of order.
Consider the word "splat". If we're native English speakers we know this word well and can easily remember dozens of words incorporating that initial /spl/ sound (including those that are complete nonsense). For example - splutter, spliff, splot, split, splotch, splanch, splover and splendour.
But if we change the order of the sounds in "splat", the words become much more difficult to remember, e.g.
Splat: tpals, ptals, lspat, lapst, tplas, slatp, stlap
These are the same sounds – just in a different order. They may not be common in English but in another language they could occur quite frequently, and therefore could be remembered easily by a native speaker of that language.
Until the sound patterns of English have been mastered and "feel familiar", progress will be slow and English will sound like a "mush" of random noise because there is nothing to grasp on to, nothing familiar to recognize…
Susan: So in summary...
Practicing recognizing words with the most common patterns in English until they can be recognized quickly and fluently, establishes a secure foundation on which new English words can be learned quickly and easily.
Once students have absorbed these patterns intuitively, learning lots of new words is practically effortless. Using English DNA helps achieve this quickly.