New Insights Unveiled in Language Study: Guessing the Meaning of Foreign Words Based on Sound

When you’re learning a new language, it can be tricky to get the hang of new vocabulary words — reading can feel like a bit of a slog at the beginning as you encounter unfamiliar word after unfamiliar word. When learners come across unknown words, they often rush for the dictionary — but according to a new study, your natural intuition just might be able to help you guess your way to the definition of a new word.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications Psychology, Sayuri Hayakawa, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Oklahoma State University and Viorica Marian, a professor at Northwestern University, have challenged conventional assumptions about the relationship between the sounds and meanings of words in different languages. Hayakawa and Marian’s recently published study, “Sound-meaning associations allow listeners to infer the meaning of foreign language words,” sheds light on how individuals, particularly native English speakers, can infer the meanings of foreign words based solely on their sound.

Native English speakers were tasked with mapping pairs of antonym words in nine different foreign languages, including Japanese, Mandarin, Thai, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, French, Romanian, and Spanish, to their English translations. The participants displayed strong accuracy in their attempts to decipher their meanings, suggesting a link between the sounds of words and their meanings, contrary to the belief in arbitrary associations in language.

Hayakawa explained, “Our research challenges the key assumptions of language that believes there is an arbitrary association between the sounds and the meaning of words. This study shows that people can guess the meanings of unfamiliar foreign language words based only on how they sound.”

The study builds upon foundational research in the field, including the “kiki/bouba effect,” named after a study in which participants consistently associated specific sounds with certain visual characteristics. Marian emphasized the importance of studying the relationship between the form and meaning of words to gain insights into the broader connection between language and thought.

“We found that the guesses of the monolingual English participants were above chance in each language tested. A follow-up experiment with Spanish speakers replicated those findings, and this suggests that form and meaning are not completely independent of each other,” Marian added.

Marian and Hayakawa’s findings provide valuable insight into the processes underlying language processing, with potential applications in language learning. Hayakawa said she’s eagerness to explore whether prior language experience — for example, whether or not somebody is multilingual — influences the ability to extract meaning from the sounds of language.

“These findings suggest that the capacity to form perceptual associations between words and their referents may play a key role in shaping not only the words that exist in a language, but also how those words are subsequently learned,” the researchers write in their paper.

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