Lost in Translation: Why some languages are confused for others

Lost in Translation: Why some languages are confused for others

Why might some languages be easier to identify than others? Are some languages more often confused for others? Researchers sought to investigate these questions by analyzing data from The Great Language Game, a popular online game where players listen to an audio speech sample and guess which language they think they are hearing, selecting from two or more options.

It turned out that cultural and linguistic factors influenced whether a language was identified correctly. The researchers found that participants were better able to distinguish between languages that were geographically farther apart and had different associated sounds. Additionally, if the language was the official language in more countries, had a name associated with its geographical location, and was spoken by many people, then it was more likely to be identified correctly.

“We didn’t expect these results,” says first author Hedvig Skirgård, “but we found that people were probably listening for distinctive sounds, and perhaps they were hearing something in these languages that linguists have yet to discover.”

While the current game only contains 78 languages, mostly from European countries, it does provide insight into why some languages might be confused for others. In their future research, Skirgård and colleagues hope to expand their analysis to lesser-known languages.

Reference: Skirgård H, Roberts SG, Yencken L (2017) Why are some languages confused for others? Investigating data from the Great Language Game. PLoS ONE 12(4): e0165934. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0165934

Image Credit: Skirgård et al (2017)

Author

Tessa is the Journal Media Manager at PLOS. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in Rhetoric and Music. She can be reached by email at tgregory@plos.org and on Twitter at @tessagregs.

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