Learning a second language alters sensory perception, study finds

May 14, 2018 by Erin Karter, Northwestern University
Learning a second language alters sensory perception, study finds
Bilingual and monolingual people listening to the same speaker can hear two completely different sounds. Credit: Northwestern University

Learning a second language can change the way our senses work together to interpret speech, according to a new Northwestern University study.

In the study, published today in the journal Brain Sciences, researchers found that bilingual people are better at integrating sight and hearing to make of speech.

"We find that experience can change ," said Viorica Marian, a professor of communication sciences and disorders and psychology at Northwestern University. "Our discovery is that bilinguals are more likely to integrate across auditory and visual senses."

Specifically, when people hear a speech sound (e.g. "ba") that conflicts with what they see (e.g. "ga"), they will often perceive a completely different sound (e.g. "da"). This illusion is called the "McGurk Effect," and researchers found it is more likely to occur if you speak more than one language. This demonstrates that language experience can change the way we perceive the world around us.

A video demonstration of the "McGurk Effect" is available on the Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Research Group website.

"A bilingual and monolingual listening to the same speaker can hear two completely different sounds, showing that language experience affects even the most basic cognitive processes," said Sayuri Hayakawa, study co-author and post-doctoral research scientist.

Previous research demonstrated that multiple languages compete with each other in the brain, making it more difficult for bilinguals to process what they hear. As a result and out of necessity, they may rely more heavily on visual input to make sense of sound.

Bilingual experience can impact domains ranging from memory to decision making, to cognitive control, but these findings suggest that learning a second language can even change our basic sensory .

Given that more than half of the world's population is bilingual, educators and clinicians working with bilinguals should be aware of how language experience can change the way people process speech. This effect of bilingualism is also relevant for developers of technology related to recognition such as Siri and Alexa, as well as animators of CGI.

Explore further: Bilingual babies are better at detecting musical sounds, research shows

More information: Viorica Marian et al. Language Experience Changes Audiovisual Perception, Brain Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.3390/brainsci8050085

Related Stories

Bilingual babies are better at detecting musical sounds, research shows

November 17, 2016
Exposure to multiple languages may sharpen infants' music sensitivity in the first year after birth, new research has found.

Language juggling rewires bilingual brain

February 13, 2016
Bilinguals use and learn language in ways that change their minds and brains, which has consequences—many positive, according to Judith F. Kroll, a Penn State cognitive scientist.

Bilingualism fine-tunes hearing, enhances attention

April 30, 2012
A Northwestern University study that will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) provides the first biological evidence that bilinguals' rich experience with language in essence "fine-tunes" ...

Study finds potential key to learning a new language

November 20, 2013
A new study by University of Houston (UH) researchers may lead to dramatic changes in the way language is taught and learned – especially a second language. These findings are important because statistics show 60 percent ...

If your child is bilingual, learning additional languages later might be easier

October 2, 2017
It is often claimed that people who are bilingual are better than monolinguals at learning languages. Now, the first study to examine bilingual and monolingual brains as they learn an additional language offers new evidence ...

Bilingual children are better at recognizing voices

June 12, 2017
Bilingual children are better than their monolingual peers at perceiving information about who is talking, including recognizing voices, according to a study by NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Recommended for you

Can we really tell if it's love at first sight?

May 25, 2018
Long-term and short-term relationships are obviously different from each other. Some people are the type you'd want to marry; others are good primarily for the sex.

People with family history of alcoholism release more dopamine in expectation of alcohol

May 23, 2018
People with a family history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) release more dopamine in the brain's main reward center in response to the expectation of alcohol than people diagnosed with the disorder, or healthy people without ...

Why we fail to understand our smartphone use

May 23, 2018
Checking your phone dozens of times a day indicates unconscious behaviour, which is "extremely repetitive" say psychologists.

Study confirms that men and women tend to adopt different navigation strategies

May 23, 2018
When navigating in a known environment, men prefer to take shortcuts to reach their destination more quickly, while women tend to use routes they know. This is according to Alexander Boone of UC Santa Barbara in the US who ...

Early life trauma in men associated with reduced levels of sperm microRNAs

May 22, 2018
Exposure to early life trauma can lead to poor physical and mental health in some individuals, which can be passed on to their children. Studies in mice show that at least some of the effects of stress can be transmitted ...

Training compassion 'muscle' may boost brain's resilience to others' suffering

May 22, 2018
It can be distressing to witness the pain of family, friends or even strangers going through a hard time. But what if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

LaPortaMA
not rated yet May 14, 2018
Look back and let us know HOW LONG AGO this was known. Centuries? Lifetimes? 2012?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.