When you’re learning a new language, it can be tricky to get the hang of new vocabulary words — reading can feel like a bit of a slog at the beginning as you encounter unfamiliar word after unfamiliar word. When learners come across unknown words, they often rush for the dictionary — but according to a new study, your natural intuition just might be able to help you guess your way to the definition of a new word.
In a study published in the journal Nature Communications Psychology, Sayuri Hayakawa, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Oklahoma State University and Viorica Marian, a professor at Northwestern University, have challenged conventional assumptions about the relationship between the sounds and meanings of words in different languages. Hayakawa and Marian’s recently published study, “Sound-meaning associations allow listeners to infer the meaning of foreign language words,” sheds light on how individuals, particularly native English speakers, can infer the meanings of foreign words based solely on their sound.
Native English speakers were tasked with mapping pairs of antonym words in nine different foreign languages, including Japanese, Mandarin, Thai, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, French, Romanian, and Spanish, to their English translations. The participants displayed strong accuracy in their attempts to decipher their meanings, suggesting a link between the sounds of words and their meanings, contrary to the belief in arbitrary associations in language.