What term describes the brain's processing of foreign language as gibberish?
April 9, 2008 8:13 PM   Subscribe

Help me remember this linguistic term. It refers to the phenomena of people hearing a foreign language as gibberish; something to do with their literally not registering the specific sounds made, just a "blur" of general sounds. Furthermore, does that word apply to this specific context?

I know there is a term for this because I encountered it years ago in an undergraduate linguistic class. I think it has something to do with the brain processing the sounds by trying to connect it to sounds in their native language. So, for example, if something sounds kinda like an English vowel, their brain will tell them that is the vowel that was used... when in reality that language might have three varieties of that same vowel that are quite different, but all "sound" the same to an English speaker. I believe this is why people can't immediately have perfect accents; they literally aren't hearing everything they're supposed to imitate. The idea that goes along with this is that someone who is more familiar with a language will hear more specific sounds in that language than someone who is not. I hope I've gotten the specifics correct and I'm not adding lots of baggage to the single word that's actually covered by other terms. (If there are multiple terms that describe different pieces of this, I want to know all of them please.)

This has actually been bothering me for months. Read on for a background story, because I'm not entirely sure that the word would have been correct to use in this situation.

I've studied Japanese since I was 11 years old (I'm now 23) and have been told my pronunciation is very good, near-native. Now, I have a friend online whose boyfriend goes by the online name of an anime character. One day she told me that I was pronouncing his name incorrectly. I was taken aback by this, because they absolutely butcher the pronunciation of the name; they add a whole extra syllable, divide into syllables at the wrong points, use English diphthongs in place of the Japanese vowel sounds, etc. In other words, it sounds stereotypically "white." [NOT RACIST -- When I try to pronounce Chinese words, my Chinese friends laugh and tell me I sound "white." Like it or not, people best understand what I mean when I describe it as sounding "white."] Add to this that I'm certain I pronounce it correctly.

I never cared that they pronounced his name wrong, since I don't like to be a snob about that sort of thing. After all, it's pretty common for "fanboys" and "fangirls" to butcher Japanese, and I wouldn't expect otherwise since not everyone can be bothered to learn the language. I butcher words in languages I don't know, too. I told her patiently that it's okay to pronounce it however they want, but it's another thing to tell me my pronunciation is wrong, completely unprovoked, especially when my pronunciation is not wrong.

But this wasn't enough for her, and she insisted that her pronunciation is right. I told her I had studied the language for over ten years, and that unlike English, Japanese pronunciation is rather straightforward and doesn't really change from word to word. I told her that her pronunciation is impossible in Japanese because it lacks those sounds, but this did not sway her. Plus our Korean friend who had grown up bilingual in Japanese confirmed that I was pronouncing it correctly, and that she and her boyfriend were pronouncing it in a technically wrong way. She, too, was quick to assure her that she can pronounce it however she wants, just that she shouldn't tell other people they're wrong when they pronounce it correctly.

But she refused to believe us. Why? She said she had seen the anime hundreds of times and "that's how they say it." She linked me YouTube videos where she claimed they pronounce it like she and her boyfriend do. Of course, they weren't; they were pronouncing it just like my friend and I were pronouncing it. My friend and I were at a loss for what to tell her, because she was literally hearing it incorrectly.

This showed me it wasn't just that her pronunciation was bad, but that she was literally hearing very general sounds and nothing else. When she pronounces the name, her mind provides her that approximation of what she heard, which gets some things wrong -- "simplifying" (as far as her brain is concerned) the sounds to a more English pronunciation -- and leaves other things out. (Hence the "sounding white" phenomena.) When I repeated her pronunciation back to her, she thought that was how they said it.

At first I was puzzled why my pronunciation would sound wrong to her, then; why wouldn't she only hear the same "general sounds" in what I was saying? I think, though, that maybe when she watches the anime she doesn't really think about it. She derived her pronunciation from it and it's reinforced when she and her boyfriend talk about it; hearing the pronunciation from a source that isn't the anime, and moreso one that, like her and her boyfriend, typically speaks English, is why mine stood out to her as "wrong." Or at least I think that's why. That's just speculation, though.

Anyway, I wanted to recall the linguistic term for this because I thought it would make her less defensive; she was taking it personally, like we were telling her she was stupid or something, when we were making every effort not to do that. I thought the linguistic term would depersonalize it because it would show that it happens to everyone, but I couldn't think of it. I think she still would have been somewhat defensive just because she had started the argument when she was wrong, but I think it would have helped her save face.

So, on top of wanting to know the term, I want to be sure it actually would have been proper to use in that context. If there's a different term or idea to describe what she was doing, I'd like to know that too.
posted by Nattie to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You're thinking of phonemes — which are, roughly, the basic meaningful sounds used in a language. Different languages have different sets of phonemes; if you're listening to a language that uses phonemes you're not accustomed to, odds are you'll map them onto the ones used in your native language.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:16 PM on April 9, 2008

Response by poster: I think maybe I've worded this poorly. It's not phonemes; that's an actual piece of language. I'm looking for a word that describes a linguistic phenomena of hearing those phonemes incorrectly or imprecisely because they're in a foreign language. So, for example, a word like "glossolalia" describes a linguistic phenomena.
posted by Nattie at 8:26 PM on April 9, 2008

Well aphasia would be for the native language, and this article looked interesting, but I realize I have not found the exact word you were searching for. Sorry.
posted by forthright at 8:35 PM on April 9, 2008

An inability to distinguish discrete phonemes equals an inability to distinguish language from noise. If there's a word for that (other than "the basis of dyslexia"), though, I've never seen it.
posted by rokusan at 8:37 PM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: I think maybe I've worded this poorly. It's not phonemes; that's an actual piece of language. I'm looking for a word that describes a linguistic phenomena of hearing those phonemes incorrectly or imprecisely because they're in a foreign language. So, for example, a word like "glossolalia" describes a linguistic phenomena.

Ah! I've heard the phenomenon you're talking about called "perceptual assimilation" and "interference" — not sure if either of those is the word you're looking for.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:07 PM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Artw at 9:15 PM on April 9, 2008

What you describe is very interesting. The first time I came across a description of this phenomenon was in Steven Pinker's excellent book The Language Instinct, where he describes an experiment done with very young babies. They tested the babies to see what phonemes they could distinguish. New born babies could distinguish phonemes from all languages but they gradually lost the ability to make out phonemes that were not from their native languages as they got older. He does not give a name for this phenomenon as far as I recall, but it's been a while since I read the book. It might be worth buying this book showing this section to your friend. Apart from that it's well worth a read if you're interested in such issues.
posted by peacheater at 9:56 PM on April 9, 2008

An inability to distinguish discrete phonemes equals an inability to distinguish language from noise.

An inability to distinguish discrete phonemes in foreign languages does not equal an inability to distinguish language from noise.
posted by oaf at 10:03 PM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You are born with the ability to distinguish between many sounds, and during the first year or so of your life (possibly less time than that) you discard the ability to make distinctions for allophones of the same phoneme. So if you spend the first year of your life only hearing English, you end up not perceiving, say, aspirated and un-aspirated [p] as different sounds. This is because these sounds never appear in the same environment, and they don't "make a difference" when it comes to word meaning. In Hindi, for example, those two sounds are different phonemes, and substituting one for the other would change the meaning of the word. If you were a speaker of English and not of Hindi, you would not perceive these as different sounds.

I teach undergraduate linguistics courses, and I don't know a specific term for this loss of ability to discern allophonic variants of phonemes in a foreign language (which is not to say that such a term doesn't exist). I also suspect that this situation is further complicated by the notion of mora, which has to do with syllable weight and timing, and which is important in Japanese, and less so in English, which is stress-timed -- see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timing_(linguistics)

But it's clear that speakers of different languages have different perceptual abilities, and there's tons of research that demonstrates this (for example here and here).
posted by tractorfeed at 10:09 PM on April 9, 2008

Response by poster: I'm not sure if nebulawindphone's answers are the exact word(s) I heard before -- I'm not sure that I'd necessarily "know it when I hear it" -- but they do seem to describe what I'm talking about. Thank you so much!

Also, thank you for the timing link tractorfeed! I never knew the term "mora;" I understood how it works in Japanese but I always just talked about it in terms of their "syllables" being constructed differently. I agree that moras have a lot to do with English speakers mishearing and mispronouncing Japanese words; they always seem to add syllables, or shorten or combine syllables (especially with the singular "n" sound)... just basically break the words into strange pieces. Now that I read through the wiki stuff the contrast stands out much more; it's easier to see why it would be so alien to an English-speaking brain.

It's cool to know the word for it, too, because moras are one of the things I like best about Japanese and it's easier to express that now. Mora-timing seems so much easier to me than syllable- or stress-timing.
posted by Nattie at 11:03 PM on April 9, 2008

If they're hearing as identical phones that are phonemically distinct in Japanese, I guess you could call it neutralization. If they're hearing as distinct phones that belong to the same phoneme in Japanese, you could say they're misconstruing some kind of variation (free variation or allophonic).
posted by eritain at 11:24 PM on April 9, 2008

So if you spend the first year of your life only hearing English, you end up not perceiving, say, aspirated and un-aspirated [p] as different sounds.

My daughter spent the first year of her life hearing Cantonese and probably some Mandarin. You can't now differentiate her spoken English from that of a native speaker, which is the proof that she hears English phonemes and signifying differences in the same way as I (also a native speaker) do. Which would suggest to me that this theory is mistaken, although I may be misunderstanding here.
posted by Wolof at 11:45 PM on April 9, 2008

Response by poster: Wolof: I'm not certain of this, but I think the idea is that a very young child naturally perceives the differences, whereas older people must perceive the differences purposefully. Once you reach about the one year mark, your brain starts bundling similar sounding phonemes together and mapping them all to whichever ones occur most in your native language. However, this doesn't mean you can't ever distinguish those phonemes again. You just go around "mishearing" things in other languages until someone points out the difference, at which point you learn to distinguish the differences when you hear and speak the new language. With practice this can become natural.

So your daughter was around English long enough that she distinguished the differences, but when she first started learning English her brain probably had to do some rearranging to realize how it was different than Mandarin and Cantonese, what distinctions made a difference, etc.

Or at least I would think that has to be the case, otherwise no one would ever learn other languages later in life.
posted by Nattie at 12:10 AM on April 10, 2008

Obviously she realised we were speaking different languages and had to rewire to a degree; it just seems to me that the age limit of one year is way low. All I am saying is that we now have an absolutely bona fide native speaker of English, which if I am reading your argument correctly should not be the case — there has to be some difference, however infinitesimal, or the theory makes no odds.

Anyway, feel free to enlighten me. All I am saying is that this is my experience.
posted by Wolof at 12:31 AM on April 10, 2008

I am not amazingly convinced by the argument I just put forward, but could somebody show me this child who has miraculously learned the language and its phonic system without instruction or effort? This is a large part of what parenting is about, is it not?
posted by Wolof at 12:36 AM on April 10, 2008

Response by poster: I think you're misunderstanding what the study describes. It doesn't go so far as to say a child, or anyone for that matter, learns a language with no effort. All it's saying is that they hear the differences between similar phonemes. Once their brain becomes accustomed to one language, around the one year mark, it processes sounds in the framework of that language. That doesn't have anything to do with sentences or grammar or even words, just the tiny bits of sounds that make up the words.

Simply hearing the differences between phonemes is nowhere near the scale of knowing a language, just like being able to see subtle differences between two very similar colors doesn't make anyone an artist. It is what it is, and nothing more.
posted by Nattie at 1:52 AM on April 10, 2008

I wonder if you could link to this study?
posted by Wolof at 2:17 AM on April 10, 2008

Response by poster: Also, that your daughter or other people are indistinguishable from native speakers isn't evidence that the age of one year is "way too low;" the fact that someone relearns the distinctions between phonemes has no bearing on the age that they first lost the ability to distinguish them as readily. Even very old people can learn to speak a language without an accent, it just takes more effort than it does for a younger person. It might help to keep this in mind: at the age where your daughter was simultaneously accustomed with the phonemes of Cantonese, Mandarin, and then English, she was still hearing phonemes in other languages as indistinct so long as they "didn't matter" in the three languages she knew. I grew up speaking English and learned the differences in Japanese phonemes when I was eleven, but I still don't hear important distinctions in other languages until they're pointed out to me.

So, like tractorfeed was saying, before about a year of age, a child will recognizes that there's a difference between an aspirated sound and a non-aspirated sound. After that age, if they have become accustomed to hearing English they no longer notice the difference because it doesn't mean anything in English. If that child were to go on to learn Hindi, it would be pointed out to them that there is a difference between the sounds that changes the meaning of words. The child then hears the difference because it was demonstrated to them, and can distinguish between the phonemes again.

Even if there is no formal instruction and the child is just immersed in the second language, they come to learn which sounds matter and which don't through speaking it; people will either not understand what they're saying if the sound is very different, which signals to the child that there is a difference, or else others will comment that they say a word strangely, etc. People with regional accents within the same language even experience this growing up, or I know I did when I said things "too Southern." I didn't hear a difference between what the way we said the same words until it was pointed out to me, and then I would "correct" my speech. Basically, the difference in phonemes has to be brought to their attention in some way, because they no longer hear the differences naturally.
posted by Nattie at 2:18 AM on April 10, 2008

Response by poster: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v1/n5/full/nn0998_351.html
posted by Nattie at 2:21 AM on April 10, 2008

Wolof and Nattle, y'all are talking about the distinction between actively learning a language (as an adult) and language acquisition.

In a nutshell, people who are exposed to a (or multiple) languages regularly and interactively (as opposed to from the TV, for example) from a very early age are able to acquire spoken language as a native speaker without conscious intent. This doesn't end at age one, but rather later. There's not a specific age after which you can't acquire language as a native speaker, but there's definitely a break somewhere around ages 3-6 and then somewhere around puberty onset. Check out information about the critical period hypothesis for the details. Also, look at the research on second language acquisition.
posted by Stewriffic at 4:19 AM on April 10, 2008

Our data indicate that language-dependent memory traces in the human brain emerge before the age of 12 months. To our knowledge, this is the first definite neurophysiological evidence for the development of brain memory traces for speech sounds in infants. Our results show that by the age of one year, the MMN amplitude increases for native phonemes and decreases for non-native phonemes. Thus, during their cognitive development, the ability of infants to discriminate native speech sounds improves, while at the same time they seem to lose some of their ability to discriminate non-native speech sounds

This to me is completely non-controversial and a pretty decent achievement. It is not, however, the same thing you said above:
I'm not certain of this, but I think the idea is that a very young child naturally perceives the differences, whereas older people must perceive the differences purposefully.
posted by Wolof at 4:24 AM on April 10, 2008

Perhaps I could also mention that I'm a language teacher, and that the hundreds and thousands of hours of instruction in English I have given my child — as would any parent — are a bit different in kind, content, adjustment to level and detail to the type circumstances occasionally permit me to offer older students.
posted by Wolof at 4:42 AM on April 10, 2008

it just seems to me that the age limit of one year is way low

Obviously kids develop at different rates, but I think what Nattie said is correct. (And thanks for this great AskMe!)
posted by languagehat at 6:54 AM on April 10, 2008

Response by poster: Wolof, I'm sorry, but I fail to see how what you quoted and what I said aren't the same thing. The children don't notice a difference between similar phonemes after that point, and the only way they become aware of the differences is for it to be brought to their attention -- for them to realize that in another language, the distinctions "make a difference" in some way. What I'm saying is completely non-controversial, which is why I'm puzzled that you seem to think I'm saying people can't learn a language or something. No one has said that.

For example, until high school or something I said "nekkid" instead of "naked" and I honestly thought I was saying the same thing as everyone else. It wasn't until a friend teased me for sounding very Texan that I realized I wasn't. I had to ask her how to say it how I was saying, then how I was supposed to say it. Then, bam, I realized there's a difference in the phonemes I hadn't noticed before. "ay" isn't the same as "eh" and it made a difference in me sounding too country. Since then I hear the difference.

The difference between me and a kid that's not quite a year old yet, is that they don't need anyone to point out that "ay" isn't the same as "eh." They hear the difference automatically, naturally, effortlessly, whatever you want to call it. It's not something they have to think about. If, like me, they grow up with Texan-sounding relatives, they might lose that ability because using one phoneme or the other doesn't appear to "make a difference." And, like me, they might have someone correct them later in life; they have to perceive the difference purposefully, or in other words, they have to actively, consciously make an effort to hear the difference for the sake of hearing the difference. It's not immediately obvious to them, it's not automatic, natural, effortless, whatever you want to call it. If they don't make that effort, their mind continues to bundle the phonemes together.

I really can't explain it any better than that.
posted by Nattie at 2:06 PM on April 10, 2008

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