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

Greening vacant lots reduces feelings of depression in city dwellers, study finds

July 20, 2018
Greening vacant urban land significantly reduces feelings of depression and improves overall mental health for the surrounding residents, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts & Sciences ...

New study questions use of talking therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia

July 20, 2018
The findings of the first meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for psychosis (CBTp) on improving the quality of life and functioning and reducing distress of people diagnosed with schizophrenia ...

Perfectionism in young children may indicate OCD risk

July 19, 2018
Studying young children, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that kids who possess tendencies toward perfectionism and excessive self-control are twice as likely as other children to ...

Younger children tend to make more informed decisions

July 19, 2018
A new study from the University of Waterloo has found that in some ways, the older you get the worse your decision making becomes.

Finding well-being through an aerial, as opposed to ground-level, view of time

July 19, 2018
Do today and yesterday and tomorrow loom large in your thinking, with the more distant past and future barely visible on the horizon? That's not unusual in today's time-pressed world—and it seems a recipe for angst.

Are you prone to feeling guilty? Then you're probably more trustworthy, study shows

July 19, 2018
It turns out your mother was right: guilt is a powerful motivator.

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.