New research conducted at the Aix-Marseille University in France shows that baboons have the ability to identify words. By using different combinations of four letters, the primates are showing signs of being able to recognise which combinations of letters are real words and which aren’t.
They are “actually reading words much like we identify any kind of visual object, like we identify chairs and tables,” says the study’s lead research author Jonathan Grainger.
A testing area was installed into the baboon’s play area, with four touch screen computers. A mixture of real words and nonsense words were displayed on the screen, and the baboons had to touch either a green oval signs on the screen for the real words, or a blue cross to signal the nonsense words. The baboons were free to choose when they used the computers and for how long, but were given treats when they correctly identified the real words. The study concluded that the baboons identified the correct words three times out of four.
The researchers now believe that the ability to recognise words is related to object identification rather than spoken language skills.
Source: Science Journal
One of the things which holds us back when practising a new language is making mistakes. We’ve all done it! Everyone makes mistakes when they’re learning, and (less often) even when they are fluent. The most notorious example is mixing up the Spanish word for “embarrassing” and saying “estoy embarazada” (I’m pregnant!) instead of “estoy avergonzada.”
My most cringe-worthy story is from when I was on holiday in Venice, Italy. I needed to send some postcards so asked the cutest guy I could find “Dov’è l’ufficio postale più vicino?” (Where is the nearest post office?) He raised his eyebrows and pointed behind me! Even though I’d made sure I had the phrase and even the pronunciation correct, I was standing in front of the post office!
The important things to note are that:
- Each mistake is a learning process. Often, you can remember words because of a mistake you’ve made and the subsequent correction that your audience has given you.
- People are very likely to understand and forgive you for a mistake, as long as you try!
- Laughter is a universal language. If you make a huge mistake, at least the person talking to you will have a great story to tell their friends!
What’s the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in when speaking another language?
What happens to the language capabilities of children who are moved from one language environment to another when they are in their adolescence or teenage years? Can you have two native languages in this case, or will one language (or both) suffer?
I have a good friend who was raised in a Cantonese-speaking environment, but moved to Australia when he was 11 years old. His English sounds native and he speaks with an Australian accent, but occasionally he uses phrases or words completely incorrectly (and sensibly laughs it off when I correct him). Because his English is quite advanced (though not native), the errors that he does make are with difficult words or idioms that most students wouldn’t know.
Last night he came up with a gem that had the rest of us guessing for ages what he was talking about. He said that a place was full of chocolate box people. I wondered if Chocolate Box was a shop, and maybe their workers were everywhere. It turns out that he meant that the place was chock-a-block.
I find these misuses both entertaining and fascinating. The more advanced you become in a language, the more complicated or obscure your mistakes are going to be. I’m not sure how his Cantonese scrubs up, but I would be interested to find out. I also think that chocolate box people is brilliant and I will probably use it in the future.
Do you have any funny misuses of English (or any other language) to share?
I was catching up on some of the Dr Karl podcasts on the ABC the other day (I love that man), and he mentioned something about babies crying in their native language.
A smallish study was done with babies born into French and German families, and it was found that the babies’ cry melodies matched up with the intonations found in their parents’ languages, even from the very early days. French babies have a rising cry melody, and German babies tend to cry with a falling tone, both of which match up with characteristics from their mother tongue.
Apparently babies can distinguish voices in the last three months in the womb, and matching their cries to their parents’ voices is a way to communicate and increase bonding with their mothers. The parents may not even notice (didn’t you always think that all babies crying sounded the same?), but I wonder if parents would notice the difference between babies ‘speaking’ their own language, and a foreign one.
Source: Reuters. Image: nateOne.