Video Game Training With Mock Alien Language Suggests Mechanisms of Language Learning

Article ID: 576903

Released: 18-May-2011 6:00 AM EDT

Source Newsroom: American Institute of Physics (AIP)

Newswise — College Park, Md. (May 18, 2011) -- How do babies decode all the spoken sounds they hear to learn words and their meanings? An “alien” language may provide a clue, according to new research to be presented at the 161st annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Seattle, Wash.

A team from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Sweden’s Stockholm University designed a video game narrated in what amounts to an alien language due to deliberately distorted acoustics. The soundtrack is unintelligible in any language, and in the study, was the only source of instruction for 49 adult players. Yet with just two hours of play, they could reliably extract word-length sound categories from continuous alien sounds and apply that learning to advance through the game.

Results suggest this approach is a promising new way to explore language learning. Notes Francisco Lacerda, Ph.D., of Stockholm University, a specialist in language acquisition: “This is a wonderful opportunity to approximate the task facing infants by creating a setting where adults are forced to infer what the meaning of different sound elements might be, and to do it in a functional way.”

Adds his Carnegie Mellon University collaborator, Lori Holt, Ph.D., a specialist in auditory cognitive neuroscience: “Traditionally, when we study adult learning in the lab, it’s nothing like how infants learn language. This video game training builds a bridge between the two populations—babies and adults—by modeling for adults the challenge language learning poses to infants.”

Their results have broad implications. For example, identifying functional sound units in language is a problem in dyslexia, so this work may one day have clinical applications. And Carnegie Mellon graduate student, Sung-Joo Lim, has used the game to improve adult second-language learning. “Native speakers of Japanese can use this type of training to learn English consonants they have difficulty distinguishing,” she says.

Intriguingly, results suggest the video game and its alien soundtrack may engage different areas of the brain in rapid and robust learning. The next step is to investigate this by observing players with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to view their real-time brain reactions to the video game.

Presentation 5aSC26, “Learning acoustically complex word-like units within a video game training paradigm,” in on Friday morning, May 27 in Metropolitan Room B. Abstract:


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The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) is the premier international scientific society in acoustics devoted to the science and technology of sound. Its 7,000 members worldwide represent a broad spectrum of the study of acoustics. ASA publications include The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (the world's leading journal on acoustics), Acoustics Today magazine, books, and standards on acoustics. The society also holds two major scientific meetings each year. For more information about ASA, visit our website at


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