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Geeky game turns into biggest linguistic experiment ever

Data from a popular online game is proving to be a treasure trove for linguists investigating what factors confuse people when it comes to language identification. The results, published in PLOS ONE, suggest that participants are more confused by languages that are closer together geographically or have similar phoneme inventories, the units of sound that distinguish one word from another.
Geeky game turns into biggest linguistic experiment ever

The game is called, The Great Language Game, and it’s played by people wanting to test their skill at matching audio clips to correct languages. Already the game has been played by over 1 million people from over 80 countries. The researchers working on the data believe the game has essentially turned into the biggest linguistic experiment ever conducted.

The game is grounded in one of the fundamental principles of linguistics which says that languages that are separated by time and space change and become different from each other. However, until now there has been no direct evidence that this applies to the way ordinary people perceive languages. 

Hedvig Skirgård, a PhD student at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language working at the Australian National University and Seán Roberts, of the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics, are working with the game’s creator Lars Yencken to look at player behaviour and trends.

Shared history

Skirgård says the game shows that confusion between languages is common, especially for languages that share a history of contact. “This reflects the fact that the languages we observe in the world today are a product of cultural evolution we may be tapping into shared history.” She says the data confirms that languages with wide ‘global reach’ such as French and Spanish are being more readily recognised by players compared to those languages with only regional reach, such as the African language Shona.

Recognised clusters of languages were quite problematic for game players to tease apart and identify correctly, with a good example being the Slavic group of languages. “On the whole, there is a lot of conflicting signal in the Slavic cluster, indicating that players confuse Slavic languages for each other,” says Skirgård. What was interesting, however, was that every Slavic language was more often confused with Russian than the other way around suggesting that Russian is seen as the ‘prototypical’ language, or at least the best-known language.

SplitsTree diagram Great Language Game

SplitsTree diagram for 78 languages as subway map of languages. This diagram shows a map for the way languages sound. The shortest route between two languages indicates how often they are confused for one another.

Portuguese or Romanian?

Some of the confusion was between much more distantly related languages.  For example, people confused Portuguese and Romanian or Burmese and Romanian.  Another strange result was that Danish, Hungarian and Turkish are between 5 and 6 times more likely to be confused for Vietnamese than the other way around. “We didn’t expect these results” says Skirgård, “but we found that people were probably listening for distinctive sounds, and perhaps they were hearing something in these languages that linguists have yet to discover.”

Using the IP address of players, the researchers also identified that Europeans were quite good at matching the audio clips to the correct language, particularly those from Luxembourg who came out on top. Less accurate were countries outside of Europe such as Mexico, India, Venezuela, Costa Rica and China. Out of 82 countries, people playing in Australia came in 35th place, getting 71% of guesses correct, just ahead of New Zealanders. 

Linguistic and cultural experience

Roberts says one of the most interesting findings was that people from different places made different mistakes. For example, players from the United States confused Yiddish with Hebrew.  These are languages that sound quite different, but are likely to be associated with the same group of people in the US.  However, players from Africa did not confuse these languages. Australians made judgements more similar to people from the United States than to people from the United Kingdom.  “These types of findings show that the way we hear language can be shaped by our cultural knowledge, and our linguistic experience.  Often, when we hear a language for the first time it sounds full of strange or impossible sounds.  But we have to remember that the people who speak those languages also find the way we speak strange,” says Roberts.

“What I really like about this game is that at first you’re confronted with very strange sounds, but the game makes you pay attention to the details. After a while, you’re able to pick out lots of differences – not just in sounds but in pitch and rhythm. It’s a simple demonstration that the more you immerse yourself in another culture, the less alien it seems.”

LingQuest app

The authors are also promoting a new game, an initiative of the Language in Interaction Consortium, designed to generate improved scientific data and programmed by Peter Withers. LingQuest, a data-generating smartphone app, promises to be just as addictive as The Great Language Game. What is unique about this new game is that it includes many more lesser-known languages, drawing on audio samples from language repositories such as PARADISEC.

For more information on this story, visit PLOS ONE.


Skirgard, H., Roberts, S.G. & Yencken, L. Why are some languages confused for others? Investigating data from the Great Language Game. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0165934

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