I'd like to recognize more languages
May 19, 2010 9:44 PM   Subscribe

Okay, so I was waiting at the train station and I realized that two people a short distance away were speaking in a language I didn't recognize. And it got me thinking. I can probably recognize fewer then 10 languages by ear (note this doesn't necessarily mean I can understand what's being said, just that I know what language it's in). I'd like to be able to recognize many, many languages so when I hear people talking I'll know what language they're speaking even though I won't have a clue what they're actually saying.

I'm not even sure how I would go about doing this. I can recognize English (obviously), French, Colloquial Egyptian, Modern Standard Arabic, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese (probably), Russian (probably, although I might mistake it with Ukrainian and similar Slavic languages), Hebrew, maybe a couple of others.
posted by Deathalicious to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Maybe listening to online radio stations? I just googled "swahili radio online" and came up with some possibilities
posted by rtha at 9:55 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: I love recognising languages. I'm quite good at recognising SE Asian languages having spent a bit of time throughout the region but I was once awful at European languages as I have never been there. Then I began listening to a multi-cultural radio station and I picked up heaps.
posted by Kerasia at 9:57 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, after starting to learn Japanese I am easily able to pick up on that vs. Korean, which I couldn't at one point (neither one is pitched and they have some similar sounds...although the more I learn Japanese the more completely different Korean sounds to me), and I can generally tell when Chinese is being spoken (unspecified...I don't think I could tell the difference--yet--between Cantonese and Mandarin or any other dialects which I assume are quite different).

Going to Thailand and getting the "vibe" of the language means I can now hear what sort of sounds and intonations are Thai, even without understanding a lick of it. It sounds pretty distinct from Vietnamese (which before seemed similar) to me now.

So, uh, I guess all I'm saying is that familiarity is what does it. Watch some movies in the languages you want to be able to identify, and get a feel for the sounds used. Learn whether the languages are pitched or not, that can help too. Pitched languages, in my opinion, all have a certain "feeling" that non-pitched languages do not have.
posted by dubitable at 10:04 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: I can frequently recognize Portuguese because I can't make it be Spanish, Italian, or French. However, I'm sometimes fooled by South American (particularly Argentine) Spanish if I can't hear it very well.
Bavarian German sounded like English to me (a native English speaker) -- as if I would be able to understand it if I could just make out the words.

One way to develop some proficiency at this is to watch videos -- movies, of course, but even Youtube videos of people talking and popular songs -- in the target language. Knowing place names and common name structures also helps me make an educated guess (a cousin of mine claims most Lithuanian surnames sound like they end in "tinkus", which is probably not true but makes me laugh. However, I always remember Vilnius is in Lithuania because of that. Similarly, names that rhyme with Armenian usually are Armenian.)
posted by katemonster at 10:04 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: Go to www.omniglot.com. Profiles of lots and lots of languages, with links to radio stations in other languages. BBC radio is available in lots of languages too so you can listen, learn and distinguish among languages.
posted by foxjacket at 10:12 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, and off the top of my head, Veoh is a fantastic resource for getting material in a broad range of languages.
posted by dubitable at 10:12 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: You are doing better than a lot of people. I have had the surprising experience of being on a bus with someone speaking German, and overhearing a young woman asking her friend what "that nasty sounding language" was...

I think that the only way you will be able to cultivate this skill is if you seek out and actively listen to many languages being spoken.

You can try being systematic about it. Start with families of languages, and learn a bit about them. Pick a family, listen to the languages in it, and learn to distinguish that family from the others. Then pick a few languages from within each family and learn to distinguish between them. Go through the list in order, doing a few languages per family. Look for songs, "learn to speak" exercises, or fairy tales online that are using that language, and listen to them. Test yourself against random but identified sounds that you have saved in a folder. That should get you well on your way. Being disciplined and systematic might work for you.

Or you can try being spontaneous about it. Find online radio stations and listen to them randomly. Try to identify the language spoken only if you find it melodious and nice sounding. Focus on the sound first, so that you have some sort of connection to it, then work on identifying it.

If you live in a city, another way to do it would be to listen for languages wherever you go, and make it a point to try to identify any languages you hear. Simply ask people what language they are speaking if you don't recognize it. I'm a total introvert, except for this one thing - I often ask people what language they are using. Most people are happy to answer.
posted by gemmy at 10:14 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: Chinese and Korean have their own rhythms. For Korean, besides listening to the rhythm, also listen for a lot of m-nida's, ey-yo's, suh's, and that highly dramatized first syllable of a word when they're being sssssssssssssssssssssssssso serious.
posted by bam at 10:31 PM on May 19, 2010

or an aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawful actor.
posted by bam at 10:32 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: When I play the "what's that language" eavesdropping game, I listen until I hear a common word/phrase that confirm my guess. Especially useful are "yes", "no", and "well...".

For example:
- In Japanese, "ano...." is used while the speaker is thinking of the right word
- In Polish, "tak" is "yes"
- In Turkish, "misiniz/musunuz" is a common, and easily recognizable verb ending
posted by metaseeker at 10:38 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: Watch foreign movies, it's a great way to learn what various languages sound like, plus you get exposed to different cultures without having to travel!
posted by motown missile at 11:35 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: Learn to identify the phonemes that are peculiar to particular languages.
posted by holterbarbour at 12:36 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: Certain basic phrases are fairly universal, along the lines of:

"Thank you"
"Here" or "over here"
"What is it? or "What is that?"

You could probably get pretty far by memorizing some basic phrases for as many languages as possible. Maybe that's a little heavy-handed, but I'm willing to bet it might work for simply recognizing what language is being spoken.
posted by bardic at 1:23 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: - In Polish, "tak" is "yes"

Yeah, but you will then also have to think "Is it Polish? Czech? Slovak?" The vocabulary overlap for simple words is pretty high and may lead to some false positives. Also, the example you gave for japanese "ano" is how all three of those slavic languages I mentioned say yes as well.
posted by piratebowling at 5:45 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: 2nding Kerasia - listen, watch movies

(I actually used to work at SBS radio. My spoken and written language recognition skills are not too shabby at all, and come in handy all the time).
posted by wingless_angel at 6:25 AM on May 20, 2010

Response by poster: gemmy: Simply ask people what language they are speaking if you don't recognize it. I'm a total introvert, except for this one thing - I often ask people what language they are using. Most people are happy to answer.

I wondered about this at the train station. I desperately wanted to ask them what language they were speaking but feared it would be rude...
posted by Deathalicious at 7:14 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: I wondered about this at the train station. I desperately wanted to ask them what language they were speaking but feared it would be rude...

You know, I've done this a number of times, and I think that if you come across as genuinely curious and respectful (and if you are smiley too), it's fine. I think that if someone reacts negatively they probably aren't really a people person anyways, and in any case whoops better luck next time.
posted by dubitable at 8:05 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: Exposure. Really the only way. And I'd especially pay attention to languages which are similar. Very often people will guess wrong about a language simply because it's similar - Swedish/Norwegian, Ukrainian/Russian, Slovak/Polish, etc. You won't believe how often people will insist on guessing wrong about to my ears pretty different sounding languages (Dutch/German) - so dial down the guessing until you have a lot of exposure. The same with dialects - get a lot of exposure. Mandarin vs Cantonese is pretty easy to tell apart, but can you tell when a Cantonese person is speaking Mandarin? And so on, in endless variations - all with only one remedy: exposure.
posted by VikingSword at 10:59 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: Play the examples in the 'international section' of Voiceovers.
posted by unliteral at 11:17 PM on May 25, 2010

You could try to immerse yourself in learning/hearing the

- Pronouns (this could help you to distinguish Dutch from German, etc.)
- Conjugations of their most commonly used verbs such as "be", "have", "go", "see", "want" (this could help you to distinguish Spanish from Italian, etc.)
- Agglutinations of some agglutinative languages (this could help to distinguish Japanese from Korean, etc)
- Intonations/rhythms of the language (this is tricky, sometimes could help you to differentiate an accent from another, such as how you could tell European French from Canadian/Quebecer French, Latin American Spanish from European, etc)
- Basic words such as "sorry", "thank you", "bye", numbers, "hello" on the phone, etc.

It is even better to have some knowledge in Latin based languages (covers about 50%) and Sino-Tibetan languages (around 20% something). So you have 80% of the languages 'covered'.

And yes, like VikingSword said, exposure is the key!
posted by easilyconfused at 4:25 PM on December 19, 2010

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