Some people hear languages better than others

General discussion about learning languages
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mentecuerpo
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Some people hear languages better than others

Postby mentecuerpo » Mon Sep 09, 2019 7:05 pm

I believe that anyone can learn a new language, there in no question about that in my mind.

I think that if you were able to acquired your native language, you have the inherited ability to learn to understand and speak a second language, regardless of your age. As long as your cognitive capacities allow you to learn new things (old people with dementia will be excluded as well as those with very low IQ or cognitive decline related to traumatic brain injures, stroke, etc). But the average person has the natural ability to learn a new language.

However, I think there are people who have a better predisposition or facility to learn languages. I think those people are naturally gifted, the sad thing is that many don’t even know it.

I think psychologist should develop a standardized test to rate the natural ability of a person for leaning a new language. Who knows, maybe it has already developed and I am not just aware of that.

I can tell you, I am not one of them, for me it requires hard work to learn a languages. But let me write my observations.

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I met a girl who was hired to babysit and do house chores for a family. Remember, in El Salvador 40 years ago, middle class families had people working for them living in their houses. The point is that this teenage girl was not well educated and had left school to work. One day as the radio was playing and English song, I could not help but noticed that she sang the song from beginning to end in what I thought it was a very good English. She not only had a good memory and had memorized the Lyrics of the song, but her pronunciation was really good. She was parroting the sounds of the words naturally, not even trying.

Years later, I met a young woman from Jordan, who asked me to please translate for her from Spanish to English a few songs that she liked: to my astonishment, she started to sing a few songs of old singer, Julio Iglesias (the old one, not the new pop singer), and her pronunciation was Spanish from Spain. She did not understand a single word she was singing, but again, she was perfectly copying all the sounds of the singer. She spoke Arabic and English, and her English accent was pretty good.

I am sure there are people like that, I don’t know how many, maybe 1 in 100, maybe 1 in 50, maybe 1 in 20 persons. I don’t know, all I can say is that I think these people have a natural inclination to hear sounds of a foreign language, and internalize it and mimic it, much easier than the average person. The problem is that these people are not aware of their talent, and many are not even interested in learning languages.

I am not a musician, but I heard of people gifted with a “perfect pitch” my mother is one of them. In Spanish it is called, “oido absoluto” they hear a note and they can tell which note it is and reproduce it. Maybe, there is an equivalent of the “oido absoluto” for languages.

That’s all folks.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby tungemål » Mon Sep 09, 2019 8:41 pm

Yes, I have also wondered about this. Some people are amazingly good at imitating accents and dialects. And what is more: they seem to do it subconsciously. Whereas I feel inescapably trapped by my native accent.

In my attempt to improve my german:
https://forum.language-learners.org/vie ... 15&t=10882
... I work very consciously on analysing the speech melody and speech sounds and trying to imitate them. It is by no means automatic or subconscious. We will see if I manage to internalize it.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby sporedandroid » Mon Sep 09, 2019 10:07 pm

I think I’m gifted at knowing how my speech or other people’s speech differs from others. Growing up this has been a curse. I felt inadequate in English, so even as a kid I had no confidence pronouncing foreign languages. It doesn’t help that in Canada you pretty much automatically get categorized as ESL if you speak another language at home or even have an ethnic name. When I first visited Ecuador at ten years old I could immediately tell that the way my parents spoke differed from standard Ecuadorian Spanish. So I altered my accent and word choice to fit in better. I still sometimes feel like I have an accent when I speak English even though people say I have a standard Canadian accent. I don’t know if I’m gifted at pronunciation or not.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby Iversen » Mon Sep 09, 2019 11:33 pm

I have seen tests for linguistic aptitude on the internet, but as far as I remember they were mostly about semantic and grammatical problem solving, not so much about the ability to hear sounds, let alone copy them. Imagine you are doing field work in a village in the middle of nowehere (or somewhere). You don't know the language, and nobody knows any of your languages. So what do you do? Well, collect words and expressions and search for syntactical patterns. And to do this you are supposed to reason your way through the language until you can write a grammar and a dictionary for the local language and travel home and get a decent job at a university. Or maybe not.

Anyway, the typical language learner today is not in that situation. We have dictionaries, grammars, language teachers and bilingual texts so we don't have to do much hardcore riddle solving to learn a foreign language. So the tests I have seen might be relevant if you want to send something into the rain forest to save some indigenous languages, and the Bloomfield school in American linguistics probably inspired the way they look, but I wouldn't expect them to say much about your chances of learning your next foreign language while living in a normal modern society.

By the way, I have (reasonably) perfect pitch, and that's very useful when I listen to music - but I don't think it has helped me to learn languages.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby mentecuerpo » Tue Sep 10, 2019 12:54 am

Iversen wrote:Imagine you are doing field work in a village in the middle of nowehere (or somewhere). You don't know the language, and nobody knows any of your languages. So what do you do? Well, collect words and expressions and search for syntactical patterns. And to do this you are supposed to reason your way through the language until you can write a grammar and a dictionary for the local language and travel home and get a decent job at a university. Or maybe not.

Anyway, the typical language learner today is not in that situation. We have dictionaries, grammars, language teachers and bilingual texts so we don't have to do much hardcore riddle solving to learn a foreign language. So the tests I have seen might be relevant if you want to send something into the rain forest to save some indigenous languages, and the Bloomfield school in American linguistics probably inspired the way they look, but I wouldn't expect them to say much about your chances of learning your next foreign language while living in a normal modern society.

By the way, I have (reasonably) perfect pitch, and that's very useful when I listen to music - but I don't think it has helped me to learn languages.


I can imagine in the 19th century, linguists exploring the corners of the world studying the local languages, working on the ipa as they go alone. Cultural explores.

Thanks for your comments, as well for mentioning the perfect pitch, maybe it has helped you after all, you can hear the sounds like you do with music notes. It is one aspect of language learning, an important one, pronouncing words close to the original source. I know language is more complicated than that, and that you can be fluent in a language despite a very strong foreign accent. It just doesn't sound right.
Last edited by mentecuerpo on Mon Sep 16, 2019 3:26 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby Adrianslont » Tue Sep 10, 2019 3:57 am

SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London) was running language aptitude tests in the 1940s that included the testing of listening skills.

One of the most important linguists of the 20th century, Michael Halliday, talked about it in an interview. He was being trained to be a military linguist and later taught Chinese to other military. And then moved into linguistics. By the by, a Singaporean acquaintance told me Halliday was staggeringly impressive in a number of Chinese languages.

Halliday’s words:

“The first thing I encountered was a language aptitude test designed by Firth. So when we went from school we were all called up to London for two or three days and we were given these tests and interviews. This test had two parts: one was a general language aptitude, to find out if you could code made up languages and it was very, very good. Then, there was part of it which was language specific. There were four languages in the program: Chinese, Japanese, Turkish and Persian. I remember one of the things you had to do was to recite from memory an increasingly long list of monosyllables on different tones.

Now I had in fact wanted to do Chinese anyway and I came out alright on the ones which favoured Chinese so I got my choice. But I presume that if somebody had put Chinese first and it turned out that they couldn't hear a falling tone from a rising tone, they'd have switched them into Persian or some other language.”

In relation to music, someone else told me Halliday was a fine piano player.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby Vero » Tue Sep 10, 2019 7:09 am

That's interesting. But I'm convinced that there's nothing like a talent to acquire a new language.

There are, indeed, abilities that can help you with that - that "oído absoluto" you mentioned, good memory, ability to see and apply logical links between grammar patterns etc. But if that young girl able to copy a song she heard for the first time was placed in front of a grammar textbook, she would probably struggle more than some other person that has a different type of abilities - e.g. to sit and stay there memorizing verb patterns :)
There's so much difference between say something that sounds good and the real control of L2...
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby tarvos » Tue Sep 10, 2019 8:00 am

People say I have a gift for accents and all that, but the funny thing is that I definitely do not have perfect pitch (I have played and studied music in the past). I think it's a lot of phonetic training that does the trick-ah.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby AnthonyLauder » Tue Sep 10, 2019 8:12 am

There is plenty of evidence that some people learn languages better than others. There is mountains of research on it, and plenty of papers and books. My presentation at the first polyglot conference summed up much of the research that good language learners have better short term memories, which makes them better are guessing, and it turns out guessing is essential to being "good at languages".

There isn't much research on how to improve your short term memory (most memory courses focus on long term memory, which is a different skill). The most promising is the N-Back game (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N-back) and there are several smartphone apps for the Dual-N-Back variant, that help your short term memory improve, which will then help you improve your guessing skills.

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).

What this means in practical terms is: if you cannot hear the sounds of a language, start listening to songs in the language, and sing along with them if you can. It doesn't matter so much early on that you don't understand the lyrics: you are training your brain to stop rejecting the sounds of the language, and (like when baby babbles) your singing is helping you produce the basic sounds of the language.
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Re: Some people hear languages better than others

Postby Iversen » Tue Sep 10, 2019 9:09 am

I still remember Lauder's first lecture in Budapest as one of the wittiest and most thought provoking I have ever witnessed, but he also raises some questions about music versus sound perception and filters where I have to assume that people just are different.

As I wrote above I don't feel that I have profited from having like an anchor on my note perception. Maybe if I had studied tonal languages, but I haven't. The big advantage of having that 'oído' is that I can see music I hear as written notes in my mind, and that I know the tonality of things I hear.

There is one point where the degree of overlap between music and language almost becomes a measurable feature, namely how much music disturbs you when you study languages - or just listen to speech. And I know that I can listen to music while studying written language because that's what I'm doing all day long (listening to both speech and music at the same time is more of a problem, but so would listening to speech and a highway outside your door). I have a fairly large music collection, roughly sorted according to composer names, and right now I'm in the middle of the Viennese Strauss family and it me will take several months to reach film composer Zimmer (and some of his collegues). If I should alternate between studying and listening to music then I would need 48 hours a day instead of 24. But - and this is an important point, considering Lauder's second lecture (the one in Thessaloniki): my collection is entirely instrumental. I don't want to listen to songs, and if I can't avoid it I would definitely not try to understand the words. Words and music are like oil and water in my mind - they don't mix willingly.

So then I shouldn't be able to hear new distinctions in speech sounds? Well, I may not have the abilities of a toddler, but I do hear 'new' sounds in languages which I only have learnt late. In another thread we discuss the benefits of having several languages sounding around you (even some you don't understand), and because Danish TV doesn't dub much we get not only English, but also German and Swedish for free while we grow up - and maybe that serves to keep a little flicker of sound discrimination ability alive in us. Ah dunno.. but the fact is that I can hear differences between for instances the infamous Polish swishing sounds, but I just don't remember where to apply them (and I don't spend much time on pronunciation training, which is stupid of me). So maybe there is some link between the ability to distinguish different instrumental sounds and spot 'new' sounds in language, but in my opinion that's all there is to it. I honestly don't think that music is more important for my language learning than painting or doing sudokus or eating pizza.

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