Donders Wonders

Auditory illusions: When your mother tongue plays tricks on your ears

This post is also available in Dutch.

When trying to speak a foreign language, your native language can influence your pronunciation, but did you know it can also make you hear things that aren’t there?

In a previous blog we discussed how accents are the result of both the speaker and listener’s experience, but today we’ll discuss how non-native speakers can actually hear with an accent. This happens especially when the word sounds very different from what words in our mother tongue sound like. Our brains try to fix this by changing what we hear, sometimes making us hear sounds that aren’t even there.

“Illegal” sound orders

Every language has rules about what sounds can go together and where in a word they can appear. For example, in Dutch, words cannot end with a ‘z’ sound, which is also reflected in the spelling: the singular of “huizen” is not “huiz” but “huis.” Spanish doesn’t allow words to start with ‘s’ and another consonant, which is why the words “special” and “stupid” are “especial” and “estúpido” in Spanish. When words with these “illegal” sound sequences are adopted into a language, they often undergo transformations to make them acceptable for that language. This is why, as the classic song goes, “Mele Kalikimaka” is “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian which, in addition to not having the letters ‘r’ or ‘s,’ doesn’t allow consonant clusters (e.g., ‘chr’) or consonants at the end of syllables (e.g., ‘mas’).

As the Hawaiian phrase “Mele Kalikimaka” (“Merry Christmas”) demonstrates, words borrowed from another language are often adapted to fit the language’s sound sequence rules.


Hearing with an accent
Many times , speakers can apply these rules when speaking another languages making them sound like they have an accent but, what’s even more remarkable, is that these rules can also change what they hear. For example, studies have shown that Spanish speakers often hear an illusory ‘e’ before words that start with illegal ’s’ + consonant clusters, even when there is none. For instance, in one study Spanish and French speakers listened to made-up words such as “sfid” and indicated whether they heard an ‘e’ at the beginning. Spanish speakers heard an ‘e’ about 55% of the time, compared to 0% for the French speakers.

A similar study was done with speakers of Japanese, where words like “ebzo” are not allowed and are repaired as “ebuzo.” In this study, the researchers didn’t even have to ask the participants what they heard, but directly measured it from their brain signals while they listened to sequences of words like “ebuzo, ebuzo, ebuzo… ebzo”. Upon hearing the last word, the French speakers’ brains showed a pattern characteristic of detection of a change, whereas the Japanese speakers didn’t, suggesting that, for them, “ebuzo” and “ebzo” sounded the same.

Together these findings point to the intricately complex nature of accent. It’s very hard to shake traces of your mother tongue when speaking a non-native language. One reason for that may be that learning a language changes how we hear things, so that we hear through the filter of our mother tongue.


Written by Mónica Wagner and edited by Lara Todorova.

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