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Bilingualism Can Alter Perception

Scott Schroeder, PhD, assistant professor of Speech, Language, Hearing Sciences in the School of Health Professions and Human Services, co-authored a new study that suggests that bilingual people interpret language in very different ways than people who speak only one language.  

People who speak two languages are more likely than monolingual people to use a combination of senses, particularly sight and hearing, to understand language, according to the report, published this month in the journal Brain Sciences. The researchers tested the theory using the McGurk effect, a phenomenon in which what people see changes what they hear.

“Suppose you hear a sound that conflicts with what you see – for example, you hear the sound ‘ba’ while seeing a face that is mouthing ‘ga,’” said Dr. Schroeder. “Bilingual people are more likely to combine what they hear with what they see and perceive a sound that is in between ‘ba’ and ‘ga’ – namely ‘da.’”

The researchers say that this means a bilingual person and a monolingual person can listen to the same speaker but perceive completely different sounds. Dr. Schroeder notes that people tend to think that our basic sensory abilities cannot be changed through our experiences, but he says the study’s findings suggest that the experience of acquiring a second language can affect cognitive function and how someone perceives the world.

The McGurk effect is an auditory illusion that has some similarities to the one behind the Yanny/Laurel debate currently raging on the internet. “Both show that two people can perceive the same thing very differently,” said Dr. Schroeder. “Further, some have speculated that bilinguals may differ from monolinguals in the Yanny/Laurel debate, with bilinguals on Team Yanny and monolinguals on Team Laurel, but a scientific study on this topic has not yet been done.”

News of the Brain Sciences study, which was conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, Loyola University and Hofstra University, was carried in the Daily Mail (U.K.), Neuroscience News, and ReliaWire.

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