Some people hear languages better than others

General discussion about learning languages
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby tungemål » Tue Sep 10, 2019 10:00 am

Absolute pitch/perfect pitch is a special skill where you can identify exactly what note an instrument plays. This is not a skill you need for languages, even for "tonal" languages (relative pitch is what you need).

A "musical ear" is harder to define, but I'd say if you are able to sing from memory a song that you've heard, you've got a musical ear (that is, almost everyone). And if you can do this you have a good ear for languages.

However, there is a difference in being able to "hear" the prosody of a languages, and being able to reproduce/imitate it. I can easily tell apart and identify different dialects and accents of different languages, but I can't imitate them (perfectly).

AnthonyLauder wrote:...Curiously, the brain filters out foreign SPOKEN sounds, but this filtering mechanism is switched off when the foreign sounds are sung. Neuroscientists even know why this "magic" happens (but that is not a topic for here).

Could you point me to the paper where you read about this? sounds interesting. I have never used songs for language learning but maybe I should.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby Neurotip » Fri Sep 13, 2019 6:02 pm

Clearly there are many, many skills that adults use when they learn languages, some of them specific to language-learning, others not, some of them trainable, others less so.

I've come across a couple of relevant ways in which people differ. Some children have much better memory for sequences of phonemes than others, and this ability (as measured by the ability to echo nonsense words) predicts the rate of vocabulary acquisition in a child's native language (Gathercole and Baddeley 1989). People also differ greatly in their ability to segment words into phonemes (wikipedia). There's also the ability to not hear two sounds as the same even though they map to the same phoneme in one's native language (e.g. the PIT and PEAT vowels for many learners of English) - this is a phoneme-specific thing, I believe, rather than a generic skill, and young children are able to learn these distinctions much more easily than adults.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby Iversen » Fri Sep 13, 2019 10:55 pm

Right now I'm too occupied with my music collection to do listening exercises in a systematic fashion, but several years ago I often did small transcription exercises where I tried to notate in homegrown notations what people REALLY said in some of my target languages. Of course it would have been useful to know IPA, but my own systems - which differed from language to -language did the job well enough for the purpose, and nobody else would be asked to judge the results. I didn't notate phonemes, but the sounds themselves (phones) - and I found not only that different individuals differed noticeably, but also that the native speakers didn't pronounce the words as they were expected to do according to my books.

I understand why people might want to listen for phonemes - which after all are the building blocks for language as a meaningful construct - but the real goodies are at the phonic level, because there you don't have to do the usual standardizing job where most distinctions are thrown into the gutter. And grown-ups can do these exercises too - they aren't reserved for kids.

PS: I just found an example at HTLAL dating from as far back as 2012 where I put some Dutch sentences into the Acapela synthethizer and analysed the output from its four voices. I quote:

U kunt tegenwoordig een combi-kaart voor Burgers' Zoo en het Nederlands Openluchtmuseum kopen

/e könt teχəvo·Rdeχ e·n kɔmbikαRRt fo·R BöRhɔrs so· æn ət ne·dɔlansə-öpənleχtmyseåm kåubə /
/y könt teχəvo·RRdeχ e·n kɔmbikαRRt fo·R BöRgɔs so· æn-ət ne·dɔla·Rns opɔlöχtmyseöm ko·pə /
/y könt teχəvo·Rdeχ en kɔmbikαRt fo·R BøRgɔs so· æn (h)ət ne·dɔlansə opɔ(R)löRχtmyzæöm kåbə/
/y könt teχəvɔ·Rdeχ e·n kɔmbikαRRt fo·R BøRχɔRs so· æn ət ne·dɔla(R)ns opɔ(R)löRχtmyzæjöm kåupə/

PS: I use R here to indicate the backtongue r of Dutch - RR if there is even the slightest tendency to roll. I use /α/ (alpha) to indicate an open a before R and /a/ for the closed one before n - but maybe it would be better to switch these two because /a/ is the one with an opening in the written sign. I vaguely remember having done something like this during my study time long ago, but with prescribed signs - this time I'm just trying to find out how to write something which I as a Dane with a certain past automatically will 'hear' as something close to the real McCoy.

At this point it should also be stressed that this is a speech synthesizer based on sampled sounds and not naturally flowing speech. However I have some time ago done a special study of Dutch diphtongs, where I noted down variations in the pronunciations of ui, ei etc. in podcasts from Dutch Zoos, and I also found enormous differences in that experiment (where I didn't go into extreme details as I have done here).
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby mentecuerpo » Mon Sep 16, 2019 3:41 am

AnthonyLauder wrote:In terms of hearing languages, there is lots of research on why some people hear languages better than others, and why this helps them learn languages more easily. Recently, several researchers have focused on the realisation that when we learn languages through masses of exposure (as we learn our native language) it builds up a statistical "map" of the language which helps us "feel" the language (as opposed to learning explicit language rules). This is true for both the grammatical patterns (which structures are more likely to be correct) and the sounds (which are more likely to be meaningful speech, and which are noise).

In short, our brains filter out noises so we can focus on what really matters: meaningful speech. Babies are born without any such filters, and the more speech they hear, the better their statistical map of the language becomes, and the better they become at filtering out noise and focusing in on speech sounds. This is why it is really important for parents to talk to and read to their little children. Saying "why bother, they don't understand what you are saying" misses the point that you are helping their brain build up a statistical filter.

The downside of this statistical filter is that is makes our brain see foreign sounds as noise to be filtered out. Exposing a child to foreign languages is a wonderful gift to them, since they will not see foreign sounds as noise, and their brains will then welcome foreign sounds later in life, and find them pleasant and agreeable, rather than finding them unpleasant, and rejecting them as unwanted.

When our brain automatically rejects these foriegn sounds, we can no longer "hear" the foreign language. Is there a way around this for adults? It turns out (this was the topic of my presentation at the 2016 polyglot conference in Greece) listening to songs in the foreign language is a massive help. Curiously, the brain filters out foreign SPOKEN sounds, but this filtering mechanism is switched off when the foreign sounds are sung. Neuroscientists even know why this "magic" happens (but that is not a topic for here).

Thanks AnthonyLauder for your educational comment, really interesting.
If my two subjects of my observation were exposed to massive English songs and Spanish songs as babies just by their caretakers having a preference for these language songs, then they will incorporated the language sounds in there blank slate statistical map, which would explained why they were able to reproduce the sounds of the language, while singing it so accurately. I never thought that they had probably been exposed to the language as very young children, but it makes a lot of sense.
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