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Psychology professor publishes new research on sound-meaning associations in foreign languages

Friday, January 26, 2024

Media Contact: Elizabeth Gosney | CAS Marketing and Communications Manager | 405-744-7497 |

Dr. Sayuri Hayakawa, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Oklahoma State University, recently published a novel-study in the journal Nature Communications Psychology titled, “Sound-meaning associations allow listeners to infer the meaning of foreign language words.”

In the study co-authored by Northwestern University professor Dr. Viorica Marian, native English speakers were presented with pairs of antonym words in a foreign language and asked to map them to their English translations. Participants exhibited above-average accuracy in nine different foreign languages, including Japanese, Mandarin, Thai, Polish, Russian, Ukranian, French, Romanian and Spanish. 

“Our research challenges the key assumptions of language that believes there is an arbitrary association between the sounds and the meaning of words,” Hayakawa said. “This study shows that people can guess the meanings of unfamiliar foreign language words based only on how they sound.” 

Hayakawa and Marian’s work builds on foundational studies such as the Kiki/Bouba Effect: When people are presented with two novel objects — for example, one with round edges and another with spiky edges — and asked to determine which is a “kiki” and which is a “bouba,” they consistently assign “kiki” to the spiky object and “bouba” to the rounded object. 

“Studying the relationship between the form and meaning of words helps us understand the relationship between language and thought and provides insight into the human language capacity,” Marian said. “We found that the guesses of the monolingual English participants were above chance in each language tested. A follow up experiment with Spanish speakers replicated those findings and this suggest that form and meaning are not completely independent of each other.” 

The researchers’ findings will provide insight into the processes that underlie language processing, with potential implications for language learning. 

Moving forward, Hayakawa reiterated her eagerness to investigate whether the ability to extract meaning from the sounds of language varies depending on prior language experience.  

“It will be exciting to determine, for instance, whether multilingual experience and prior knowledge of different types of languages predicts how well individuals are able to pick up on regularities in new languages,” Hayakawa said. 

Read more about Hayakawa and Marian’s work here. 

Try it Yourself

Identify which of these Japanese words mean “sharp” and which means “blunt” based on how they sound. 

  • nibui 
  • surudoi 
Dr. Sayuri Hayakwaw
Dr. Sayuri Hayakwaw
Dr. Viorica Marian
Dr. Viorica Marian



“Nibui” means blunt and “surudoi” means sharp. 

Story By: Adeola Favour, CAS Graduate Assistant |

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