Research/studies on language recognition
July 19, 2012 9:59 PM   Subscribe

Is there a word or term for not being able to understand a word of a language, but still being able to correctly recognize it if you hear it? For example, if I hear someone speaking German, Italian, Portuguese, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, or Mongolian, I can probably correctly identify that they’re speaking said language they’re speaking EVEN THOUGH I can’t understand a thing they’re saying. Has this been studied before?

(FWIW I speak English (obviously...) and Spanish)

This concept of being able to recognize a language without any competence in the language fascinates me.

One time a friend of mine and I were hiking on a mountain and on the summit ended up resting next to a couple conversing in another language. After eavesdropping on listening to them for about fifteen minutes, we concluded they were speaking Yiddish—the fascinating Germanic/Hebraic mix gave it away. (It also helped that I when I cycled out loud through the Hebrew words for lands around the Mediterranean—Mizrah (the East), Sefarad (Iberia), & Ashkenaz (Europe)—and ended at Ashkenaz, the woman turned her face and stared at me, but said nothing.) Again, I know NOTHING of Yiddish, but listening to the sounds, rhythm, and words of the language allowed me and my friend to successfully conjecture that we were hearing Yiddish.

Also, I can distinguish from the tonal, SH-ridden beauty of Chinese from the Spanish-like pitter-patter of Japanese; similarly, the nasality and J/ZH/CH/SH sounds of Portuguese throw up big red flags whenever I hear it—I once got stuck behind a tour group in DC and found out they were Brazilian by their conversations. (It also helps that Portuguese is freakin’ similar to Spanish, but whatevz.)

But although I don’t speak any of these languages I can still tell them apart! This is so WEIRD.

Has this phenomenon ever been studied before? Would linguists classify it as a sort of pre-fluency or possibly an extremely initial level of language competency? I couldn’t for the life of me distinguish among the thousands of African (for lack of a better word) languages, but since I *can* distinguish between Chinese and Japanese, does that put me at some kind of step ahead in those languages?

Thanks for any insight into this topic y’all have.

(P.S. I’m not interested in gaining the ability to recognize *more* languages, just interested in the strange thing itself.)
posted by huxham to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
We do this all the time with other sounds. It's really no different from hearing a robin or starling and being able to tell which is which. Or a dog and a cricket for that matter.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:31 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If memory serves, one of the early stages of language acquisition in children is learning which sounds occur in the language they're trying to acquire and which do not. This can be observed, apparently, by studying how their babble changes — they gradually stop producing the sounds which do not occur in the target language and more reliably produce the ones that do. (I imagine that you could also observe them learning phonotactic constraints and the rules for conditioned variation among allophones at the same time, but here I am speculating.)

If memory serves again, there are also studies about children being able to recognize their native language before they can speak — as measured by how much they are surprised when hearing another language, which is inferred by observing how long they pay attention to the unfamiliar stimulus. (This might sound a little sketchy, but I gather that it's a standard method for studying the mental processes of preverbal children.)

Kids in such early stages cannot speak and do not know the meaning of any words (maybe), but they are certainly learning about the language, yes? In the same way, it seems to me, although you don't know enough about Yiddish to say anything or understand anything, you obviously do know something about the distribution and/or patterns of sounds that occur in it. So, I'm no expert, but I'd absolutely go with your suggestion of an extremely initial level of language competency.

(Anecdote: once upon a time, in an English class, the word fatuous came up in a text we were reading. The teacher asked me if I knew what it meant. I hesitated, and said no. But actually (I determined after later reflection), although I could not state a definition, I did know a little about the word. I knew it was pejorative, and I was pretty sure it was usually used in reference to speech or thoughts, and not so much for action. I had partial knowledge of the word, enough for some simple tasks involving the word but not enough for complete mastery of it. You have partial knowledge about Yiddish, etc.)
posted by stebulus at 10:45 PM on July 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Following up on stebelus's example, this isn't exactly what you're talking about, but my Master's advisor always brought up one example of this where infants can very rapidly learn what sound combinations are words and which aren't, even if both words and non-words have the same sounds. Check this paper, page six - after only two minutes exposure to nonsense words, infants react differently to words they've heard before as opposed to those they haven't.

Humans have very powerful innate capabilities for recognizing sound sequences.

Back to the original question, identifying languages is called, well, Language Identification, though it's generally only discussed when identifying how computers do it - it's how Google Translate auto-detects language on a page, for example.

As far as pre-fluency... In computing, identification and translation (which I'll lump into "understanding") are pretty unrelated since the problem of identification is a lot easier. However, going into a language you can't get far without the phonetic vocabulary, so it's a good start.
posted by 23 at 11:35 PM on July 19, 2012

You might enjoy this FPP on fake English. My favorite example was Prisencolinensinainciusol.
posted by XMLicious at 11:38 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think this is pretty normal if you have any interest in language. What weapons-grade said is a good analogy; I'd say it's like distinguishing Elvis from the Beatles, which is easy even if you can't sing or play an instrument.

I don't think those examples are tough - by elimination, you could probably guess Portuguese if you know Spanish and have some sense of its branch on the tree or Indo-European (it doesn't sound like French or Italian or Romanian, so aside from a minor language, would else could it be?), or Yiddish, for the simple reason that it sounds Germanic but has a lot of Hebraic words. I suspect most people probably can't identify more than a few very stereotyped languages - French, Spanish, and so on - but that's because most people only speak one or two languages and don't think about the others. Most people would probably be guessing when asked to differentiate Japanese from Chinese or Korean - I think they'd guess "something Asian," which is linguistically meaningless (for the most part), though accurate. So, while I don't think being able to do this gives you any real sort of head start, it might mean that you have a good ear or are a little more investigative in your perception and thinking, and those things would help you in learning a language.

This is on Wikipedia site, it's really for identifying written languages, but a lot of it can help in sharpening skills with differentiating them by sound, as well:

I think a good test is if you can identify some less-stereotyped but still accessible (European bias at work here) languages that don't offer as many overt clues to language families or maybe have less obvious differences. Could you identify Hungarian or Finnish or Albanian or Greek or Macedonian or Lithuanian? Could you tell Ukrainian from Russian or Danish from Icelandic or Czech from Slovak?

Try this test:

I saw a film once where they asked groups of kids (maybe 8-10 years old) from different countries to pretend to "speak" various languages of which they had no real knowledge. So you'd have French and Chinese and American kids all pretending to "speak" Japanese. Or Japanese and Swedish and Egyptian kids all pretending to "speak" English. The amazing thing about it was that there wasn't a whole lot of difference in their gibberish attempts. They avoided sounds that might be in the "target" language but not theirs - and that sort of thing - but basically, fake Chinese spoken by Hindi speakers sounds pretty much the same as fake Chinese spoken by English speakers (etc) - in that case the kids got the clipped, tonal aspect of it right.

To answer your question, I don't think there's a word for this in English. But the Germans have a word, sprachgefühl, which means "language feeling" . . . sort of an intuitive grasp of grammar and tone in a foreign language. But it might apply here.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:03 AM on July 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

I am not an expert in language acquisition, so this is just my lay opinion. I think it's fairly common to be able to distinguish between languages without speaking them, or to recognize different alphabets without writing them. People are good at pattern recognition. It just takes paying attention for a small amount of time. This small investment does not represent a significant leg up in learning to speak or write, which takes a very large effort. The desire to pay attention may indicate a level of interest that *would* be a leg up, though.

For instance, I am fluent only in English, although I studied Spanish for two years and Russian for 4 years. Nevertheless, I learned to recognize the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese in a few minutes. I have no hope of ever becoming fluent in either of these languages.

Similarly, I could recognize Spanish and Russian before studying those languages. If I had any advantage in becoming more fluent, that advantage was by far that I was a serious student who put in the hours. The big disadvantage was that I did not have native speakers to practice with.
posted by pizzazz at 1:14 AM on July 20, 2012

I think most people can do this - but that you obviously need exposure to the languages to develop a sense of the "sound" of a language.

Since moving to Europe I have become much better at this (compared with monoculctural Australia).

There are so many little clues in a language that are distinctive. from
- types of sounds
- Mouth Shape
- Rhythm
- Intonation (ie form of questioning intonation is actually quite particular)
- where in the mouth / throat it seems to come from (compare. dutch and spanish for example)
- tonal / non-tonal

I think we are quick to notice these things after a bit of exposure so its not that hard if you are well travelled or watch a lot of foreign films
posted by mary8nne at 5:44 AM on July 20, 2012

I saw a film once where they asked groups of kids (maybe 8-10 years old) from different countries to pretend to "speak" various languages of which they had no real knowledge.

Do you have any idea what that was? I would love to watch it.
posted by phunniemee at 5:54 AM on July 20, 2012

I can watch television the sound off and know if the talking head is speaking French or English by the mouth shapes. It's very obvious.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:33 AM on July 20, 2012

Mary8nne makes a good point about the intonation and cadence of the speech being as, or more, important in identifying different languages.
posted by gjc at 7:08 AM on July 20, 2012

> We do this all the time with other sounds.

First response is correct. This is not about language, it's about pattern recognition.

> After eavesdropping on listening to them for about fifteen minutes, we concluded they were speaking Yiddish [...] Again, I know NOTHING of Yiddish, but listening to the sounds, rhythm, and words of the language allowed me and my friend to successfully conjecture that we were hearing Yiddish.

I'm not clear on whether you know for a fact that they were speaking Yiddish (i.e., you asked and they confirmed it) or whether you're just sure about your conjecture. If the latter, you shouldn't be. I remember being absolutely sure a guy was speaking Spanish in a weird dialect I couldn't quite understand, only to have it turn out he was speaking Greek.
posted by languagehat at 7:59 AM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: His stuff is not really particularly scientific, and certainly not research-based, but the guy over at Tower of Babelfish has a "Method" which identifies pronunciation as his first step to language acquisition. I seem to have had a very similar experience to him - my language acquisition accelerated dramatically when I started learning how to make sounds and pronounce the languages that I was learning. (It just seems to help on all fronts: writing, reading, listening and speaking.)

One of the hyperpolyglots that has been discussed recently on MeFi even suggests that his method begins with "shadowing" a language. Listening to it and mimicking the sounds without any attempt at coherence or comprehension.
posted by jph at 9:05 AM on July 20, 2012

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