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You have to try this – Understand a new language in minutes

December 27, 2011

No, I am not promising to teach you Chinese in five minutes. But if you try what I suggest in this post, you will be able to understand a new form of language within the next few minutes.

I have decided to start a series of posts which I am going to call my ‘You have to try this’ series. From my undergraduate degree focused on cognitive psychology, my research into neuropsychology, and my teaching work in psycholinguistics, I like to think that I know about some pretty cool demonstrations of how the brain works.

I am starting off today with one of my very favorite demonstrations, which a fellow teaching assistant showed me (thanks Holly!), and which I used when I was helping to teach a psycholinguistics course. It still blows my mind each time I try it.

Now, whatever you do, don’t cheat! It is really worth doing this properly or else you won’t see the interesting effect.

To start off, try listening to this nursery rhyme. Can you understand it? Probably not unless you have done this demonstration before, so don’t worry about it. We will come back to it and see if you can understand it at the end.

Now, click on ‘Demo sentence 1’ and see if you can understand it. Then once you have listened to the sound clip a few times (really do it a few times!), click on ‘De-coded sentence 1’. Once you have heard the de-coded sentence a couple of times, try the corresponding demo sentence again and see if you can understand it after hearing it de-coded. Listen again to the demo sentence a few times, and hopefully you will understand that it is saying the same thing the de-coded sentence was saying. Once you have done this, move on to the next sentence and do the same thing, starting with the demo sentence several times, then the de-coded sentence a couple of times, then the demo sentence several times again. Carry on doing this with sentences two, three, four, five, and six. As you move along, keep trying to understand the demo sentence before you move on to the de-coded sentence. As you practice, it should become easier to understand the demo sentence without hearing the de-coded sentence.

On sentences four, five, and six, listen to the demo sentence a few extra times if you don’t initially understand. It should be getting easier.

Okay, by demo sentence 6, were you able to understand without hearing the de-coded sentence first? Hopefully you at least understood some of the words. Now try this nursery rhyme again. You may have to listen to it a few (or many) times, but hopefully you can understand some of it.

Want a hint about which nursery rhyme this is?…..scroll down.

The nursery rhyme is Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and this is an excerpt from that story. Now try listening again and see if you can understand any more of it. If you want to check your understanding, I will post the full text at the bottom of this post.

You have now learned to understand sine-wave speech. From now on, you can find other demonstrations of sine-wave speech online, and you should be able to understand them without hearing the de-coded sentence first. I used this demonstration several times in a class I helped teach, six months or a year apart, and each time, the sine-wave speech sounded nearly as clear as normal speech to me, even though I am not exposed to sine-wave speech in my daily life. If you don’t believe me and you think the sentences just got easier to understand, ask someone who wasn’t listening to try to understand the sentences which you thought were easy. And remember, you probably weren’t able to understand the nursery rhyme initially. If you do a search for sine-wave speech online, you can try out more examples. And if you come back to this post in a week or two, you will be able to understand all of the demo sentences and the nursery rhyme.

Want to know what’s going on? This is a demonstration of sine-wave speech (all examples were taken from here). Sine-wave speech is normal speech, which has been stripped of some of its properties. The frequency and amplitude of the speech are retained, but acoustic properties of natural speech have been removed using a computer program.Therefore, the sentences which I refer to above as ‘de-coded’ are actually just the original sentences before they were stripped of their acoustic properties.

Sine-wave speech has been used in many cognitive psychology experiments looking at how humans perceive language. Demonstrations of sine-wave speech show that perception depends on more than just the stimulus which you encounter (in this case, the noise which you hear). When you know what you should be hearing (i.e., after listening to the ‘de-coded’ version), then you can understand the sine-wave speech which was previously unintelligible. This is called top-down perception.

In addition, I think this relates to how we learn language. We are exposed to speech from the moment we are born, but this speech does not occur in a bubble. As people are speaking (perhaps especially to babies and young children), they are pointing at pictures and objects, demonstrating movements, and acting on what is said. Babies are able to learn the statistical regularities of speech and also relate what is said to other cues in the environment. They may learn that each time someone says ‘Daddy’ they are also seeing a particular person. And each time they hear ‘bottle’ they get fed. So they can use this top-down information to learn language rather than relying solely on the sounds they hear. And once they have learned to relate the word ‘bottle’ to a particular item, they begin to form a concept of what a bottle is, and they can understand and use the words they have learned even when the item is not present.

This is kind of like what happened as you listened to more of the sine-wave speech sentences. You learned to understand what was being said based on the sine-wave speech rather than relying completely on knowing what to listen for. Most researchers still believe that people rely on top-down perception to some degree throughout their lives in order to understand language, but it may be particularly important when first learning a language.This is obviously a simplified version of what it is like to learn language, because sine-wave speech is just normal speech stripped of certain properties, but I still think it is a very interesting demonstration. I hope you do too!

Answer for the nursery rhyme: ‘Once upon a time there were three bears. A daddy bear, a mummy bear, and a little baby bear. And they all lived together in a big house in the woods.’ If you didn’t understand it before, go back and listen again and it should be clear.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2011 10:34 pm

    I’ll have to try this- sounds interesting!

  2. Tangerine11 permalink
    November 25, 2012 6:14 pm

    Wow, fascinating! I was just looking for a recipe, but this was an amazing find. I went to the Haskins Laboratories website ( and was able to understand most of the examples! Your blog is a really interesting combination of things. Thank you!

    • January 15, 2013 6:27 pm

      Hi Deborah,

      I am sorry for the incredibly long delay in replying, but thank you very much for your lovely comment! I am so glad you enjoyed my blog. I think this sine-wave speech demonstrations is one of the coolest things I got to teach. 🙂



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