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Qur’an Memorizers Who Don’t Speak Arabic Learn Grammar from Statistics Alone

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How do we learn what a word is? How do we come to know the difference between words, and how they fit into the categories of grammar? Some of that knowledge comes from explicit instruction. The people around us point out things as we see them (“Doggie! Kitty!”), or name actions as we perform them (“Walk to Mama!”), but most of our learning isn’t so explicit. One theory suggests that we absorb grammar from the statistical probabilities in the speech around us, that over time, we learn what goes with what, or what can be swapped out for what, by simply hearing enough of it that we deduce the pattern.

Of course, that statistical learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We are also living and interacting in the world, where words have meaning. So how much learning is connected to meaning and how much comes from pattern recognition? Researchers have tried to separate the two processes in the lab by creating artificial grammars with made-up words, or even tones, and seeing how much of the pattern people can deduce without explicit instruction or any connection to meaning.

The answer is: quite a bit. People, even as babies, are good at pulling out grammatical structure from patterned data. But the artificial learning experiments are necessarily small and limited, so it’s unclear how much they can tell us about language learning in the real world.

As it turns out, there has been a large-scale natural test of statistical learning out there all along in the practice of Qur’anic memorization. There are Muslims all over the world who do not speak Arabic (in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, for example), but who as part of religious practice memorize the Qur’an for recitation, often starting as children and continuing memorization training for years. That training is often unaccompanied by any explicit Arabic instruction or direct translation of the memorized text. They get the statistics of the pattern without the meaning.

A recent paper in Cognition by Fathima Manaar Zuhurudeen and Yi Ting Huang takes advantage of this “natural experiment” to test whether simple exposure to the patterned properties of the Classical Arabic in the Qur’an results in implicit grammatical knowledge. They compared four groups: memorizers who also had classroom Arabic lessons, memorizers with no classroom exposure, non-memorizers with classroom exposure, and a group with no Arabic exposure of any kind.

The groups that had classroom experience had explicitly learned things like what the first person pronoun “I” looks like and how it attaches to verbs, or what the second person possessive pronoun “your” like looks like and how it attaches to nouns. The group without classroom experience but with memorization training had never had these things explained. Had they absorbed the rules of how they worked simply by hearing and repeating them in memorized text?

Yes. The memorizers without classroom Arabic did better than any of the other groups at demonstrating knowledge of the rules. This knowledge was not explicit; they could not explain how pronouns, verbs, and nouns worked, but they could judge whether a sentence they had not heard before was correct or not with accuracy.

Surprisingly, the memorizers with no classroom Arabic did better than those who had had lessons, suggesting that a “top-down approach” that explains the rules of language “may negatively impact learners’ sensitivity to the bottom-up statistics of a language.” Does that mean it’s time to ditch language classes altogether and just start memorizing? Not quite. The groups with no classroom lessons had a good subconscious grasp of Arabic grammar principles, but could not speak or understand Arabic. Still, the study shows we can absorb sophisticated patterns from language exposure without really knowing what we’re hearing. So go ahead and put on that Spanish radio station or memorize some Chinese poetry. It can’t hurt, and it just might help. In fact, it probably will.

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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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