Fun with languages

by Eszter Hargittai on September 14, 2013

I’ve been enjoying this Great Language Game and wanted to recommend it to others. You listen to a clip in one of 80 languages and are given choices to decide which one it represents. At first you choose between two, but as you advance in the game, you are given an increasing number of choices making your job of picking the right one potentially harder. I say potentially, because if you’re certain of the language then it won’t make a difference, but if you are not then the guessing definitely gets much harder especially depending on the options. For example, I can certainly tell the difference between Cantonese and Japanese, but I cannot between Cantonese and Mandarin. Obviously, your personal experiences will help in various ways. I’m unlikely to be confused by languages I speak or have studied even for a little while (in my case a healthy variety: Hungarian, German, Russian, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish), but have not the first clue about how to identify languages such as Bangla, Dinka, Tagalog or Tongan, just to name a few on the list that are completely foreign to me. Some others fall in between in my experience (like Slavic and Germanic languages) where I’ve done a reasonably good job guessing even if I couldn’t have been sure.

The game’s author has shared some interesting stats about how people have been doing. I got a 750 my first round and wish I could say I have only improved since, but in fact I have not been able to maintain that throughout my attempts. I’ve found the experience interesting for thinking about what features of languages I look for in trying to identify them.



stubydoo 09.14.13 at 2:22 pm

Score 550. I was a bit surprised at my failure to recognize Yiddish. Naturally from living in the New York area I have absorbed several dozen words in that language, but I only ever hear those words inside English sentences. Meanwhile I had no trouble picking out several languages in which I literally know zero words, or at least recognized zero of the words in the sample (even with the French I understood precisely none of it, and that’s a language I once took in school).


Medrawt 09.14.13 at 3:09 pm

Score of 750, but I was either lucky or the game is weighted to be kind to Westerners; there are only a few languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, German) that I would be able to definitively identify as themselves (and only with the first three would I be confident across a wide variety of regional accents), but I have vague senses of what other languages sound like, and a decent knowledge of the relationships of language families, and proceeded accordingly: “This sounds like Mandarin, and Mandarin isn’t on the board, but between Tibetan and Lao, it’s probably Tibetan.” My last incorrect answer was when I went for Albanian vs. Macedonian, because I thought Albanian was Slavic and Macedonian wasn’t (incorrect on both counts!).

It does help to have clear recordings that let you pick out stray cognates though, as sometimes very dissimilar languages can have similar phonetic effects. I know a little Portuguese, and have heard a great deal of it in my life, but in situations where I can’t hear clearly enough to distinguish words I’ve been uncertain of whether I’m hearing Portuguese or Russian.


Nick 09.14.13 at 3:11 pm

850, but I got lucky because Arabic, Yiddish and French each came up at least twice, which I find highly distinctive.


Substance McGravitas 09.14.13 at 3:13 pm

850, cheated by playing with my genius daughter. Mistakes: Khmer, South Efate, Maori. The only thing that came up twice for us was Khmer.


R. Porrofatto 09.14.13 at 3:27 pm

Thanks for the link. I hit 650 once and then it stayed around 550. For languages completely unknown to me, picking the right answer seemed to depend more on how far afield the other choices were. But it’s interesting how much rhythmic, percussive and melodic attributes were the biggest clues to the few right answers I got for unfamiliar languages. To my surprise, Kannada doesn’t sound at all like what’s spoken in Winnipeg.


Andreas Moser 09.14.13 at 4:38 pm

Thanks for that! It’s really a great game.
I scored 750 as well, admittedly with some guessing: It depends a lot on the other choices you get. For example, I was able to identify Polish and Slovak because there were no other Slavic languages as an option, although if I hear them both I could never tell them apart.


Phil 09.14.13 at 5:28 pm

After playing it several times, it’s quicker to list the languages I do recognise – French, Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Arabic, Welsh and er, that’s it. There are a lot of languages out there – and apparently most of them are spoken in Australia. I wasn’t sure about listing Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian as separate languages, or Czech and Slovak – good luck telling them apart by ear.


Eszter Hargittai 09.14.13 at 7:36 pm

Some of it is definitely up to luck or some interesting tweaking of the algorithm. I agree that often you go by process of elimination. However, if several of the options are similar and you don’t really know any of them then that gets tricky quickly.


Z 09.14.13 at 8:32 pm

Great fun! I scored in the 700 on my second try with a bit of luck and a bit of bad luck (none of the 7/8 languages I can recognize confidently in any situation turned up).My first try was, hum, embarrassing. I thought my training in linguistics would help; turned out not so much: the only difference it made is that I recognized Shona by process of elimination because I knew it was an African language (according to the website, that’s the less recognized language).


Thomas Lumley 09.14.13 at 10:14 pm

It’s just asked me to distinguish Lao and Thai, which is not quite as bad as Serbian and Croatian, but is pretty close.


Witt 09.15.13 at 2:21 am

What terrific fun! I got 500 and was stymied by Serbian and a couple of others. I was intrigued to notice that I did perfectly on every language I’ve heard spoken for at least 30 minutes (cumulatively in my life, not continuously) but abysmally on those that I haven’t heard. I don’t think I have much in the way of instincts for how things “should” sound.


Ben Alpers 09.15.13 at 3:32 am

750 on my one and only try so far. Misses: Danish, Basque, Amharic (only a little embarrassed by the first, as I’ve certainly heard it many times before, though I don’t speak a word of it).

Thanks for the post…that _is_ fun!


nick s 09.15.13 at 3:53 am

850 first try, with misses on Kurdish, Hindi and Serbian. Much worse in subsequent tries: I wonder if that’s because you instinctively try to match a similar voice with the language from previous tries — like a game of Concentration — and mess up that way.

My wild guess to distinguish Norwegian from Icelandic and Swedish seemed to work, although admitting that means I should be deservedly shamed by Scandinavians.

There’s definitely an equivalent process to something like GeoGuessr where you hone in on a broad area and work from there. In that, it’s easy to make big longitudinal mistakes along similar latitudes: Sweden for Alaska, South Africa for Australia; same here.


A H 09.15.13 at 6:09 am

I got Danish and Icelandic on my first question. Not starting out easy…


Tim Worstall 09.15.13 at 9:08 am

” I know a little Portuguese, and have heard a great deal of it in my life, but in situations where I can’t hear clearly enough to distinguish words I’ve been uncertain of whether I’m hearing Portuguese or Russian.”

Russians are known to say that Portuguese is the easiest of the romance languages for them to learn. Given that all of the sounds (err, phonemes?) in Portuguese already exist in Russian. For example, the complicated X that becomes the Zh sound in Zhiguli is pretty much the same as the j in cerveja. As opposed to that j becoming a “th” in Spanish, a sound that Russian doesn’t really have. Having lived in both Russia and Portugal I generally say that the easy way to describe the sound of Portuguese is Spanish spoken by Russians but that’s a tad unkind.

As to my score, hopeless: my final fail was between Czech and Slovak. Which is worrying, given that I currently work in the Czech Republic. Nothing like the English for their awareness of other languages, eh?


Ben Alpers 09.15.13 at 1:44 pm

I lucked into an 1100 on my second game. The biggest challenges come from languages whose sound-system one simply has no idea about (I didn’t even know that South Efate–one of my misses–existed, let alone what it sounds like) and very close options, one of which is the right answer (I got lucky guessing that one sample was Croatian rather than Bosnian….of course, when I was a kid, I’m pretty sure both samples would have been called “Serbo-Croation”).


ajay 09.16.13 at 10:35 am

550. Distinguishing between Czech and Slovak, or worse between Serbian and Croatian, seems like the kind of thing that even a native speaker might muck up. As Ben notes, not long ago it was all Serbo-Croat.
Apart from that: good on the Slavics and other Europeans, understandably terrible on languages I’ve never even heard of (South Efate? Tigrinya?)


Bloix 09.16.13 at 5:42 pm

I did tolerably well – I can distinguish Slavic, Scandinavian, Romance, South Asian, and East Asian with a fair degree of accuracy, although not between languages in each group.

Have you ever heard Irish? that’s a language I wouldn’t be able to identify no matter what it was matched up against.


godoggo 09.16.13 at 5:52 pm

thank god for Irish weather reports


nick s 09.17.13 at 12:56 am

Have you ever heard Irish?

Very gutteral and so on?


ajay 09.19.13 at 9:49 am

Have you ever heard Irish? that’s a language I wouldn’t be able to identify no matter what it was matched up against.

That’s one of the easiest for me, because it sounds (unsurprisingly) like someone speaking Gaelic in an Irish accent, and I’m very familiar with Gaelic…


Phil 09.19.13 at 9:59 am

It’s very guttural, the Irish. Like German in that way.


Ronan(rf) 09.19.13 at 10:09 am


“His accent was from further north, and a shade east, pure Roscommon. It was designed for roaring over chainsaws and horsing out ballads to the fallen marytrs of Irish Republicanism but he had honed it, somehow, to a hoarse sounding, late night cool”


Ronan(rf) 09.19.13 at 10:13 am

Irish is now the language of love. Apparently

Comments on this entry are closed.