Why It’s Easier to Learn Words That Sound Like Their Meaning

What makes some words easier to learn than others? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University taught Japanese words to Dutch students and found that ideophones — words that sound like what they mean — are easier to learn than regular words. This suggests that some of our associations between sound and meaning may be universal.

Often, the sound of a word doesn’t say much about its meaning: none of the individual sounds in dog mean anything about having four legs or enjoying being scratched behind the ears. This is why a domesticated canine can be referred to as dog in English, hond in Dutch, and inu in Japanese — and why it takes hard work to learn any language. But not all words are like that. Many languages have words which use the sounds of language in a vivid way to show what the word means: ideophones like kibikibi ‘energetic’ or bukubuku ‘fat’.

Image shows a pigeon.
An unmistakeably bukubuku pigeon. Credit: Vernon Hyde.

Ideophones easier than adjectives

Language scientists Gwilym Lockwood, Mark Dingemanse and Peter Hagoort asked Dutch students with no knowledge of Japanese to pick the meaning of Japanese ideophones out of two alternatives. They were able to do so far more accurately than chance. For kibikibi, they chose the meaning ‘energetic’ much more often than ‘tired’. This suggests that we use similar sounds if we want to depict sensory information across languages and cultures.

Second, they asked another group of students to learn Japanese words. They learned half the Japanese ideophones with the real translations (e.g., bukubuku with ‘fat’), and the other half with their opposite translations (e.g., kibikibi with ‘tired’). These students recalled the ideophones they learned with the real translations far better than the other ones. To make sure this effect was due to the special nature of ideophones, they repeated the experiment with a third group of students using regular (non-ideophonic) adjectives like taisetsu ‘important’ and abunai ‘dangerous’. Now there was no difference in how well the students learned the words, regardless of whether they learned them with their real or with their opposite meaning.

Beyond onomatopoeia

Lockwood, lead author of the study: “An important aspect of our study is that we use real words as opposed to made-up ones like bouba and kiki. By comparing real Japanese ideophones and adjectives, we’ve shown that there is something special about ideophones that makes them easier to learn.” Ideophones are a bit like onomatopoeia (words that phonetically resembles the source of the sound they describe), except that they are used far more widely than in European languages. Many people may think of onomatopoeia as just making animal sounds for children, as in What does the fox say? Lockwood explains: “Ideophones do more than that: they are used to talk about intricate things like the feeling of moping over something trivial (kuyokuyo), or the unsteady way that a toddler walks (yochiyochi).”

The experiments suggest that we use similar sounds across languages and cultures to depict sensory information, and that these associations between sound and meaning actually help with word learning. The research by Lockwood and colleagues contributes to mounting evidence that languages are less arbitrary than has long been assumed.

About this neuroscience and memory research

Source: Gwilym Lockwood – Radboud University
Image Source: The image is adapted from the Radboud University press release and is credited to Vernon Hyde.
Original Research: Abstract for “Sound-Symbolism Boosts Novel Word Learning” by N Lockwood, Gwilym; Dingemanse, Mark; and Hagoort, Peter in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Published online February 4 2016 doi:10.1037/xlm0000235


Sound-Symbolism Boosts Novel Word Learning

The existence of sound-symbolism (or a non-arbitrary link between form and meaning) is well-attested. However, sound-symbolism has mostly been investigated with nonwords in forced choice tasks, neither of which are representative of natural language. This study uses ideophones, which are naturally occurring sound-symbolic words that depict sensory information, to investigate how sensitive Dutch speakers are to sound-symbolism in Japanese in a learning task. Participants were taught 2 sets of Japanese ideophones; 1 set with the ideophones’ real meanings in Dutch, the other set with their opposite meanings. In Experiment 1, participants learned the ideophones and their real meanings much better than the ideophones with their opposite meanings. Moreover, despite the learning rounds, participants were still able to guess the real meanings of the ideophones in a 2-alternative forced-choice test after they were informed of the manipulation. This shows that natural language sound-symbolism is robust beyond 2-alternative forced-choice paradigms and affects broader language processes such as word learning. In Experiment 2, participants learned regular Japanese adjectives with the same manipulation, and there was no difference between real and opposite conditions. This shows that natural language sound-symbolism is especially strong in ideophones, and that people learn words better when form and meaning match. The highlights of this study are as follows: (a) Dutch speakers learn real meanings of Japanese ideophones better than opposite meanings, (b) Dutch speakers accurately guess meanings of Japanese ideophones, (c) this sensitivity happens despite learning some opposite pairings, (d) no such learning effect exists for regular Japanese adjectives, and (e) this shows the importance of sound-symbolism in scaffolding language learning.

“Sound-Symbolism Boosts Novel Word Learning” by N Lockwood, Gwilym; Dingemanse, Mark; and Hagoort, Peter in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Published online February 4 2016 doi:10.1037/xlm0000235

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