WHAT DO YOU HEAR

The languages people are worst at recognizing

Learning to recognize a language.
Learning to recognize a language.
Image: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
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What language do you think this song is in?

The answer is Kannada, a language spoken by around 40 million people in south India. If you guessed wrong, you’re not alone—Kannada was the least-recognizable language in a study of which languages people are most likely to confuse with others.

Released last year, the study draws on millions of answers from The Great Language Game, where players listen to a short audio clip of someone speaking, and try to identify the language. (Not unlike Quartz’s own guess-the-language game.) When people heard Kannada, they guessed right only about 40% of the time.

Least-recognized languages

Most-recognized languages

The main reason Kannada is so often misheard is not to do with the language itself. It’s because players confuse it for other Indian languages. In the analysis, Kannda being mistaken for Punjabi was the most common error of any two language combinations. Over half the time, when people heard an audio clip of Kannada, they chose Punjabi or Hindi instead. Many of the other pairs of languages that people mix up belong to the same language family.

While this shows people guessing wrong a lot of the time, they are surprisingly good at recognizing language groups, even if they are not the best at identifying particular languages. Great Language Game players might have confused Kannada for Hindi, but at least they guessed an Indian language. There are exceptions, however: Malay, for example, was often identified as Kurdish, and people frequently answered “Hebrew” after hearing Scottish Gaelic.

The most widely recognized language, meanwhile, was French. People guessed that one right 94% of the time.