Hearing is believing

Covid has changed the way we hear language

Scientists studying language have found big shifts in our comprehension of certain words.
Covid has changed the way we hear language
Photo: Kai Pfanffenbach (Reuters)
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Before the covid-19 pandemic, if you were to overhear someone at a nearby café table or on a train talking about “knockdown prices,” you’d have been likely to understand what they were saying. Now, you’re more likely to mishear them, and believe they’re talking about lockdown prices. That’s because, say scientists who study language, we have actually begun to hear words differently as a result of the world-changing event we’re living through.

The languages we speak and write change all the time, both subtly and suddenly. But it’s rare to have an opportunity to study changes wrought by a specific event. Some changes—like brand new words coming into the lexicon, or words changing meaning—are easier to spot and measure than shifts in how we understand the language we hear around us. And that understanding might impact how we feel, and even our perception of reality.

What do you hear in these audio samples?

Scientists already are hypothesizing how our comprehension of language might change as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.

In a recent experiment, a team of researchers from Haskins Laboratories, a Yale-affiliated center for language research, as well as IBM Research, NYU School of Medicine, and Central European University, checked a huge dataset of news media to see how often certain words were used before the pandemic (“knockdown” was used about as often as “lockdown,” for example). They then recorded 28 words, but obscured parts of them with a “cough” or other sound, simulating the experience of hearing something spoken in a busy environment.

What do you hear in these samples?

Covid Language

The words spoken are “tempting,” “knockdown,” and “injection,” but after living through two and a half years of covid-19 it’s likely you heard “testing,” “lockdown,” and “infection.”

Over the course of a year, they tried out the recordings on about 900 subjects, each of whom took part in a 10-minute test. The results, the researchers wrote in a blog, amounted to “drastic, long-lasting cognitive effects in the way our brains understand these words,” which came about in the wake of the pandemic.

The word “mask” for example, has become vastly more common since the onset of the pandemic. That means we’re more likely to hear it, even when the word actually spoken and partly obscured was “task.”

When the research subjects heard the ambiguous recording of the word “task,” in fact, they were three times more likely to mishear it as “mask” than they were to mishear the word “tap” as “map.”

AI applications?

Repeated exposure to certain words, even over a short time period, led to “dramatic and persistent” changes to the language way we comprehend language, they wrote in the paper, published in PLOS ONE in June 2022.

What do the results mean? One useful application of the findings, said the researchers headed by Daniel Kleinman at Haskins Laboratories, could be in artificial intelligence, for example to help build language-learning models that better simulate our brains.