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

The connection between alcoholism and depression

September 21, 2018
Alcoholism and depression often go hand-in-hand.

Even toddlers weigh risks, rewards when making choices

September 21, 2018
Every day, adults conduct cost-benefit analyses in some form for decisions large and small, economic and personal: Bring a lunch or go out? Buy or rent? Remain single or start a family? All are balances of risk and reward.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

In depression the brain region for stress control is larger

September 20, 2018
Although depression is one of the leading psychiatric disorders in Germany, its cause remains unclear. A recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, found ...

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

American girls read and write better than boys

September 20, 2018
As early as the fourth grade, girls perform better than boys on standardized tests in reading and writing, and as they get older that achievement gap widens even more, according to research published by the American Psychological ...

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.