Auroville Today, April 2003

 Earobic language training
- By Carel

Problems associated with learning a foreign language may soon be overcome by the efforts of Auroville's language laboratory and their Electronic Ear

The Auroville Language Laboratory plans to import an "Electronic Ear," a machine devised by the late French scientist Dr. Tomatis, to facilitate language learning. The function of this machine is to train a language learner to hear and reproduce the sounds of the selected language accurately before the normal learning of a language begins. "You could say that we'll introduce an adult kindergarten for language studies," says Indian Mita Radhakrishnan smilingly. Together with French Tapas Desrousseaux, she is the driving force behind the research and development activities of the Auroville Language Laboratory.

Dr. Alfred Tomatis was a French ear, nose and throat specialist, who, along with his wife, Léna Tomatis, conducted research in audiology, phonology and psychology for over 50 years. Focusing on the ear as a primary organ of the body, his approach integrated the study of hearing, voice, speech, language, social-emotional functioning and behavior. The interaction between hearing and the production of sound is called the "Tomatis Effect", for which he was honored by the French Academy of Science and Medicine in 1957.

"The voice can only produce what the ear hears," is a major axiom of Tomatis' work. If the ear hears properly, the voice is properly produced. Especially during infancy and childhood, an intense and continuous learning process occurs on both listening and movement levels. But these processes can be disturbed by numerous factors, for example by ear infections, emotional difficulties such as distress, sensory-motor deprivation etc. He discovered that the reduced ability to neuro-cognitively process sound and to listen well is one of the leading causes of learning disorders such as dyslexia, or in related challenges such as autism. He devised a machine called 'the electronic ear' to help solve these problems. This machine helps a person to hear again properly.
But the machine has more than only medical applications. We know today that during the first half of pregnancy the foetus already begins to experience and learn both through listening to its mother's voice, and through her and its movement. Tomatis has shown in his experiments how, while already in the womb, we incorporate the rhythm and melody of our mother's language into our developing body's movement and respond to them. This influences our later language skills. Tomatis also discovered that every language has a particular range of sound frequencies and that a person's ears are gradually 'set' to that particular set of frequencies. With the growth of the body, the ear tends to become closed to other frequencies, making the process of learning a foreign language more difficult.

Tomatis' research led him to discover the frequency ranges of all the European languages, as well as of some non-European languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese. He has installed these frequencies in the 'electronic ear.' Using this machine one undergoes a kind of "earobics", whereby the ear is trained to actually hear the frequencies that one is not used to hearing.

Mita explains, "There is a passive and an active phase when one undergoes 'language ear training' using the electronic ear. In the first passive phase, one listens to the filtered sounds of the language one wants to learn. You don't hear fully discernible words. The machine replicates the sounds that a baby hears in the mother's womb. When Tomatis did studies with pregnant women, he found that the amniotic fluid that surrounds the embryo acts as a filter. The filters in the machine perform the same function. Through the Electronic Ear one is bathed in the language as a baby would be in its mother's womb. In the active part there is a repetition of the words by the individual. There is a kind of voice control which helps you to gradually come closer to the correct pronunciation of the language you want to learn. So the machine gives an ear training which precedes the language class. Once the ear is open to the frequencies of a particular language, it is a lot easier to learn that language. It has been found that in some cases the learning time was reduced by nearly half.

"We had been trying to get in touch with Dr. Tomatis since 1998," continues Mita. "Finally, in December 2001 we had an opportunity to meet him and his wife, Léna. When we arrived, he had just been admitted to a hospital, where we had a truly incredible meeting with them. It appeared that he very much knew and respected Sri Aurobindo's work, and was very open to our proposal that the machine would be set to include Indian languages and that the Auroville Language Laboratory would bring the method to India. Dr. Tomatis passed away a few days after our meeting."

The Tomatis project will be of great importance to the work of the language laboratory. Says Mita, "Mother has called us to build Auroville and one of the crucial steps is to become a multi-lingual society. She has given four languages to be taught here, namely Tamil, French, simplified Sanskrit to replace Hindi as the language of India, and English as the international language. Our role is to help in this process, for it would be a tremendous step if all Aurovilians would become multi-lingual, speaking these four languages, apart from their mother tongue."

The work of the language laboratory is now to select the texts to be recorded, make audio-recordings and send them to Belgium where the sound frequency analyses and the adjustments of the Electronic Ear will be done. "We aim for the time being at three languages: Tamil, Sanskrit and Hindi," says Mita. "For the Tamil recordings we have been selecting Ramana Maharshi's hymns to Arunachala, Sri Ramalingam's poems, and some works from Thirukural, Periya Puranam as well as Subramania Bharati; for Sanskrit it will be selected passages from the Bhagavad Gita, Vedic hymns, stories from the Panchatantra; Hindi we have not yet decided. After the analysis has been done, we'll both go for an extensive training period to Belgium. Hopefully, the machine will be operational in Auroville by the beginning of 2004. It will help those who want to study any of these three Indian languages, as well as the other languages in which Dr. Tomatis has done research. As ten users at a time can be connected to the machine, we expect that the machine will be tremendously helpful for future language teaching."

Though enjoying a high priority, the Tomatis project is not the sole preoccupation of the Language Laboratory. "We have just moved into our new location in the Last School compound, which offers great potential. We are setting up a modern media centre which will give access to audio-visual materials in various languages through computer workstations. Each workstation will be equipped with headphones to enable guided and self-study, in addition to re-organizing the teaching schedule for different languages. We are also engaged in producing material such as the Spoken Tamil Book and CD. Then there are other language research projects such as the 'super-learning' system of the Bulgarian Ivanov, and our software programme for Tamil and Sanskrit which combines sound and colour frequencies. But," concludes Mita, "that's for another article."