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Time to tune-out public static?

  Tags: Listening
 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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Zwlth
Super Polyglot
Senior Member
United States
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 Message 1 of 13
19 March 2012 at 5:35am | IP Logged 
Does anyone else sometimes need time to tune-out the static of large open spaces before you can identify what language you are overhearing by chance?

Often when I am in a public area (store, bus, plane), my ears will suddenly lock on to the fact that others are speaking a foreign language. However, I may be unable to identify it initially, even though it often turns out to be a language that I know so well that, once I have identified it, I can often understand everything that is being said, and indeed, if the mood and circumstances permit, I can go up to the people and begin conversing with them in it.

The cause of this is clearly the background noise of the open space, as I have no similar difficulties, for example, surfing radio waves. But, in big areas, my foreign language radar will pick up a blip, I may spend a few minutes wondering whether it is Estonian or Euskara or something else I know not a word of, then I'll suddenly register that it is just Danish or something like that and, once I've identified it, I'll be able to follow it quite well.

It doesn't necessarily have to be a foreign language, either. Once, on a train in central Europe, I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out what obscure Germanic dialect the people opposite me were speaking, whether it was Frisian or Low German or Swiss German, and in the end it just turned out to be a regional accent from Northern England. Same experience: I understood nothing until I realized what it was, but once I did, I got (almost) everything.

Edited by Zwlth on 19 March 2012 at 7:13am

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Budz
Octoglot
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Australia
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 Message 2 of 13
19 March 2012 at 6:44am | IP Logged 
Yes, it's a phenomenon I've come across. Basically if you're expecting it to be a certain language you try to tune in to those sounds. Clearly it only happens when it's a bit noisy and you can't hear it properly.
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Volte
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Switzerland
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 Message 3 of 13
19 March 2012 at 12:36pm | IP Logged 
I wouldn't call it "time to tune out static", but it's a very familiar phenomenon. It's happened to me a fair number of times with various English accents, as well as in my other languages.


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Zwlth
Super Polyglot
Senior Member
United States
Joined 3657 days ago

154 posts - 319 votes 
Speaks: English*, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic (Written), Dutch, Swedish, Portuguese, Latin, French, Persian, Greek

 
 Message 4 of 13
20 March 2012 at 4:41am | IP Logged 
I'm glad I'm not the only one to experience this.

But I don't think it is due to "if you are expecting it to be a certain language, you try to tune in to those sounds" because it happens when you are not expecting anything at all, when you hear something foreign-sounding in a loud setting with lots of others sounds as well.

In any case, I can't think of any reason why languages you understand quite well (even variants of your own language) should come across as gibberish and then suddenly become crystal clear. But, this is what happens. Odd, isn't it?
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s0fist
Diglot
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 Message 5 of 13
21 March 2012 at 7:06am | IP Logged 
A while ago I came across a statement in some (reasonably scientific) article that
basically said that polyglots (or I think it was bilinguals specifically) take more time
to process statements than monolinguals. Obviously they were talking on the microsecond
scale, otherwise polyglots wouldn't be able to follow along live speech.
Here's how I make sense of that.

Case 1: Suppose I knew only English, then no matter what language I'm addressed in, I can
only interpret it as English.
Even if someone's speaking to me in another language, my brain can only process the
sentence as if it were English, if it's not then I mark it down as gibberish.

Case 2: Suppose I knew 2 languages, equally well or reasonably fluently.
This time when I hear speech my brain has to devote more resources to figure out what
language it is. This takes some time, a few syllables before things fall into place. But
such is a polyglot's price it seems.

If you look at a phonetics text or even just the IPA you realize that the sounds coming
out of and consequently heard by human beings fall fairly predictably in the same range,
very much like all/most eyes see the same ranges of colors.
Languages, being greedy, use up all the sounds they can get their hands on.
And it's not like there's ever going to be some kind of linguistic marker (Klingon prefix
or an English prefix) before speaking, people just come out swinging and only in the
process do you realize which language they chose.

For my own part, I experience this fairly often. The Russian diaspora in NYC is fairly
large, and even though most of the time I can predict whether the person is Russian and
vice versa most of the time I'm correctly identified, it still catches me off guard for a
split second when a stranger suddenly addresses me unexpectedly, be it in Russian or
English. It doesn't happen often, but it happens, especially if and when my expectations
are broken.

I wonder sometimes, whether there is an additional penalty for each additional language.
(I think yes.) And whether that penalty is linear. (I think not.)
If anyone has any hard data on that, please enlighten me. I'm sure some people on this
forum of all places may have come across something interesting in this regard.
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Gg
Diglot
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Canada
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 Message 6 of 13
07 August 2012 at 1:25am | IP Logged 
This reminds me of a time I was on a street car - heard some ladies speaking what I thought was an Asian language, but I could understand what they were saying. Thought I was losing my mind! The Tower of Babel had fallen! It took me a minute to realize they were speaking French with a strong accent (Vietnamese I am guessing, although in Canada, they could have been visiting from Quebec).    
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montmorency
Diglot
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United Kingdom
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 Message 7 of 13
07 August 2012 at 1:57am | IP Logged 
Maybe not quite the same (thinking of Gg's post), but I've heard that truly bilingual
people can get into a situation where they are not conscious of which language they are
speaking.

(Not sure if this is an urban myth though).
1 person has voted this message useful





emk
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 Message 8 of 13
07 August 2012 at 4:28am | IP Logged 
s0fist's theory makes perfect sense: A short utterance can be phonetically ambiguous,
and the brain will have trouble decoding it for a couple of seconds, especially if
there are conflicting signals.

montmorency wrote:
Maybe not quite the same (thinking of Gg's post), but I've heard
that truly bilingual people can get into a situation where they are not conscious of
which language they are speaking.

(Not sure if this is an urban myth though).


I'm not bilingual, but I've experienced similar phenomena with French. Back when my
wife and I spoke both French and English at home, she'd say something to me, I'd
understand it, and 10 seconds later I'd say, "Wait, what language were you just
speaking to me in?" And if I'm speaking to bilingual English/French speakers, I will
occasionally lose track of what language I just used.

If I'm feeling really sick or tired, and I'm in a bilingual environment, I can really
get my wires crossed, and start using random English words in French sentences, and
vice versa. This feels different than ordinary code switching—code switching is almost
a virtuoso performance at times, while randomly saying "Can you close the porte?" is
just embarrassing.

Another strange thing that may be related to the subject of this thread: When I was
heavily immersed and trying to think exclusively in French, I could keep my English
"turned off" for hours or even a day at a stretch. (This was somewhere around B1, B1+.)
During this time period, I would occasionally overhear somebody speaking heavily
accented English, and I couldn't understand them at all. My brain didn't want to
reactivate my English, and the parts of my brain that compensate for accents were
already busy compensating for French…

The brain is a weird place. When you learn more languages, some of that weirdness is
easier to see, I think.


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