It's a common problem for people learning a foreign language. You've mastered one dialect--say, the Norwegian spoken in Oslo or the Spanish spoken in Mexico--and then you go to Trondheim or Madrid and think, "What in the heck are these people speaking?" A new study offers a tip for learning to recognize unfamiliar dialects: Watch a foreign film with foreign subtitles.
Humans constantly need to work out unfamiliar sounds. We talk to new people, hear new accents, and listen to familiar people with stuffy noses. Previous experiments have found that we use what we already know about a language to decode new things we hear. For example, if someone hears a strange consonant that's somewhere between an "s" and an "f" in the word "horf," they hear "horse." In "girass," people usually hear "giraffe." Which of these words they've heard then dictates whether they'll hear the sound in "nife" as "nice" or "knife."
Psychologist Holger Mitterer of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, wanted to see whether this "lexically guided learning" would work in real-life situations in which the listener has to understand an accent. Mitterer, who is German, chose to design the study around movies partly because of his own experience as an English learner. "When I first got to the Netherlands, a couple of exchange students went to see Trainspotting"--a Scottish film about heroin addicts--"and all the others had trouble following the movie," says Mitterer. But he understood enough Dutch to get a little help from the Dutch subtitles. "By the end of the movie, I was quite comfortable in following Ewan McGregor," the star of the film.
For the study, Dutch students who were fluent in English watched either a 25-minute episode of the Australian sitcom Kath & Kim, whose characters speak in broad accents from the Melbourne suburbs, or a version of Trainspotting, which was edited down to the same length by taking out the offensive parts. "I felt a bit like a film editor from the '50s," says Mitterer. "Two people are getting in the cab, they start kissing, then I cut and it's breakfast." Some students saw video with English subtitles and some with Dutch subtitles. Then the students heard sound clips of words--some they'd heard already and some new words spoken by the same characters.
As the researchers report today in PLoS ONE, English and Dutch subtitles helped the students understand words that they'd already heard, but only English subtitles helped them understand new words in the same accent. "Let's take Australian English," says Mitterer. 'Straight away' is something like 'strite awye.' If you get that, you'll get 'kiveman,' which is supposed to mean 'caveman.' " But only if you saw the words "straight away" in English on the screen; the Dutch translation doesn't help.
This makes sense, says linguist Ann Bradlow of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. "When you read the Dutch words, you're bringing to the front of your mind the [Dutch] sound, even though you're not hearing the sounds, and that interferes with your ability to access the sound of English words." She recommends that the millions of non-native speakers of English in the United States put the results into action by turning on the closed-captioning for the hearing impaired on their televisions.
The rest of us need a lobbying campaign to get distributors to include foreign-language subtitles on the DVDs of foreign movies, says psycholinguist Cathi Best of the University of Western Sydney in Australia. "I like the study; it's clever," she says. "It's a good foot in the door to how second-language speakers can become more flexible in the way that they recognize words."