How Do We Identify Spoken Language?
Updated: Feb 27
This blog post was inspired by "Name that Language", a game on Lingo Boingo where users listen to short audio clips and try to guess what language is spoken from a series of choices. To play, click here.
Have you ever listened to somebody speaking in another language and knew immediately what language it was? Maybe you’ve heard that language before, taken classes in it, or even know how to speak it. Have you ever had the opposite experience, where you listen to somebody speaking in a language and you just couldn’t identify it? Did it leave you curious and encourage you to figure it out? Maybe after that experience, you pulled out Google Translate and started typing sounds that you heard. Identifying languages is sometimes very difficult, but is it a skill we can get better at? Can we consistently be able to tell what language someone is speaking just by hearing a short snippet of conversation? Is identifying languages quickly and accurately something we as humans can train ourselves to do?
To answer these questions, there are some things we want to consider about languages. For example, what sounds or phonetic features are common? Does the language sound like it might be related to another language or belong to a particular family of languages? What are common words we might hear?
Defining Sounds in Different Languages
Listening to linguistically diverse media can help us train our ears to listen for defining phonetic features that occur in particular languages. For example, when listening to a French speaker you’ll notice that more or less equal emphasis is given to each syllable (This is called a syllable-timed language). In Mandarin, you’ll hear different tones. In English, you’ll hear a wide variety of ways to pronounce vowels, depending on the word. Japanese consonants are tied with vowels and make up a single syllable when combined. In Russian, r’s are rolled and there are many cases where several consonants appear without a vowel in sight. Vietnamese is tonal with a consonant-vowel-consonant structure that makes up syllables. This is just a small sample of many phonetic features in languages out there- try to listen to audio clips of different languages and identify a sound or defining feature you hear!
Language Families and Groupings
Additionally, we can group languages together based on what proto-language they evolved from and what family they belong to. We can note similarities between languages in the same family or even a smaller grouping within a family. This can help us narrow down our choices when trying to identify a language. Below are some examples of language families and a selection of languages they contain.
Romance: Spanish, Italian, French…
Indo-Iranian: Hindi, Urdu, Farsi…
Baltic-Slavic: Russian, Polish, Lithuanian…
Germanic: English, German, Dutch…
Sino-Tibetan: Burmese, Thai, Mandarin…
Afro-Asiatic: Hausa, Hebrew, Somali…
And there are many more! Linguists estimate that there are about 147 language families, but this is only a proposed number because there are still languages that do not have sufficient linguistic research to accurately classify them into families or groups.
Jack Lynch, Rutgers University, 2014
Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2014
Another way we can identify spoken language is to listen for filler words, words that often occur in natural, unscripted conversation when someone is thinking of what to say or stalling their speech. Examples of English filler words are: "um", "well", and "you see". It’s a safe bet that if you hear someone speaking conversationally or naturally, they will frequently use these kinds of words. Below are examples of filler words in a variety of languages.
Arabic: يعني (yaʿni), وﷲ (wallāh(i))
French: euh, quoi, bah, ben, tu vois
German: äh, hm, so, tja, halt
Hindi: हूँ (hoon), अ (a),आ (aa)
Japanese: ええと (ēto), あの (ano), ま (ma)
Korean: 응 (eung), 어 (eo), 그 (geu), 음 (eum)
Mandarin: 那個; 那个 (nàge/nèige), 就(jiù), 好像 (hǎoxiàng)
Persian, ببین (bebin), چیز (chiz), مثلا (masalan)
Russian: э-э (è-è), вот (vot), это (èto)
Spanish: em, este, e, vale
Hindi: मतलब (matlab), वो ना (woh na), ऐसा है। (aisā hai)
Vietnamese: ơ, à, ý là
There are, of course, many other languages with filler words. If you speak a language that is not on the above list, what are filler words you frequently use?
By consuming linguistically diverse media, researching phonetic and grammatical aspects of a different languages, and utilizing the methods mentioned in this blog post, you will be well equipped to identify many spoken languages quickly and efficiently.
Encyclopedia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Afro-Asiatic Languages. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Lynch, J. (n.d.). The Indo-European Language Family Tree. Indo-European Language