News Release: Research

Jun. 22,  2009

Sound Symbolism Aids Language Learning, Emory Study Finds

News Article ImagePsychologists Lynne Nygaard, left, and Laura Namy are pioneering the study of sound symbolism and language.

From eScienceCommons

Does the Japanese word "akurai" (ah-cure-eye) mean bright? Or does it mean catch?

When native English speakers who are unfamiliar with Japanese are taught the correct meaning – bright –they learn and remember the translation more easily than people who are taught a randomly chosen meaning, an Emory study has found. The study results, which included 21 Japanese words, were published recently by the journal Cognition.

"Our research provides one of the first demonstrations that learners can use sound symbolism to derive meaning during spoken language processing," says Lynne Nygaard, associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study.

"These results are part of the accumulating evidence challenging the arbitrariness of language," adds Laura Namy, associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study.

Beyond onomatopoeia

For years, Nygaard has explored the relationship between the way something is said – such as tone of voice – and the meaning of words. Namy's work has focused on how children learn language. The two scientists have combined their expertise to help pioneer the field of sound symbolism and language – an emerging domain in psychology.

While onomatopoeia is well known, new research is showing that a subtle class of sound symbolism may be more pervasive in language, going beyond obvious words such as "moo" and "meow" and extending across languages and cultures.

"Sound symbolism seems to be a basic property of how our brains map sound to meaning," Nygaard says, noting that she and Namy have studied sound-symbolism traits in 14 different languages.

Deriving meaning from sound

Their latest Emory study used a list of words recorded by a native speaker of Japanese. Groups of monolingual English speakers were either taught the correct meanings for the words, their antonyms, or randomly chosen meanings while listening to the recording. For example, one group was taught the correct meaning of "bright" for  "akurai." Another group was taught that it meant "dark" while a third group was taught that it meant "catch."

When tested, those who learned the correct meaning responded faster, and had more accurate recall, than learners in the other two groups.

"People appear to be actively recruiting sound symbolism to understand and to learn language," Namy says.

Tracking neural responses

Emory, a leader in the field of grounded cognition, is one of a handful of universities that is exploring in depth the psychological and neurological aspects of sound symbolism in language. Nygaard and Namy are now beginning studies that use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track neural responses to the sounds of words.

"Language is considered a hallmark of what makes us different from other species," Namy says. "We want to understand how the brain evolved to process language and to use it so fluently."

"The importance of arbitrariness in language has long been recognized," Nygaard adds. "But why do languages appear to have preserved non-arbitrary mappings of sound and meaning? Is it a fundamental characteristic of the way we perceive, think and learn about the world? We would argue, yes."


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