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When is a “p” really a “p” or a “b” really a “b”? According to
a new Concordia study, it depends on how you hear it and, if you are
bilingual, the language you’re listening to.
In a paper published in the journal
, researcher Krista
Byers-Heinlein and her co-authors write that bilinguals perceive speech
differently, depending on the language they think they are hearing.
A “p” sound, for instance, will be heard differently by a native English
speaker than it will by a native French speaker. Same goes for the “b”
sound. Pronunciation, even of a same syllable common to both languages,
can vary, and that is where the research begins.
“French and English speakers hear the exact same sound differently,”
says Byers-Heinlein, an associate professor of psychology in the Faculty
of Arts and Science and Concordia University Research Chair in
“An English speaker can hear some sounds as a ‘b’ but a French speaker
would hear the exact same sound as a ‘p.’ That’s how language works.
Our question was, what happens when you are bilingual, as so many people
Byers-Heinlein recruited bilingual undergraduates from Concordia’s
Department of Psychology for her study. The students were placed in front
a computer and told they were going to hear a sound either in English or
in French. The sound they heard was either “pah” or “bah” syllables
that were essentially meaningless without any further context.
“They could have been in English or in French. They could have been
neither or both,” she says.
Switching ear filters
The researchers asked the students which sound they heard and they would
click either a “p” sound or a “b” sound. The sounds would vary, from
being very clearly a “b” or a “p” to ones that were intermediate.
The researchers discovered that the students would change their answers
depending on which language they thought they were hearing. If they were
told that they were hearing English, they were more likely to choose one
sound; if they were told they were hearing French, they would be more
inclined to pick the other. But the sound was the same in all cases.
The same was found of Spanish-English bilinguals as well, thanks to a
concurrent study at the University of Arizona.
“We think that bilinguals have a bit of a different brain configuration
when they are using English and when they are using French,”
Byers-Heinlein explains. “It’s almost like there is a setting they can
set to activate their English configuration and filter it through English
ears versus a French configuration where they would filter it through
French ears. And we think they can switch configurations very quickly.”
She notes that the subjects they tested were expertly bilingual, and they
were able to switch “ears” with ease. She believes bilinguals develop
this ability over time, and that this kind of switching wouldn’t be
possible for less successful students who had only learned a second
language relatively recently.
Byers-Heinlein says she is struck by the brain’s ability to so quickly
identify and switch language filters.
“There’s nothing you need to do,” she says. “You do not need to make
a special effort to listen in a certain way as you become proficient in
your learned language. Your mind is automatically going to do it, which
is pretty cool.”
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the
University of Arizona Graduate Diversity Fellowship supported the
Read the full study, How bilinguals perceive speech depends on which
language they think they’re hearing.
News story webpage:
Bilinguals hear sounds differently based on the
language they think they're listening to,new study shows
Patrick Lejtenyi
Public Affairs
514-848-2424, ext. 5068

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