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Speak Stephen Colbert’s language? It could help you learn another

Stephen Colbert is graduate Northwestern University. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media

Stephen Colbert is a graduate of Northwestern University. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 12, 2012 6:26AM



Do you speak Colbertian?

If you do, it could help you learn a new language.

Or so conclude researchers at Northwestern University, the alma mater of Stephen Colbert — inventor of such words as “truthiness” — and the man the new language is named after.

In a new study on the website of the journal Cognitive Science, the researchers explain that they created the language in order to test whether knowing multiple tongues makes it easier to learn another one. It does, they concluded, just like knowing more than one real languages helps.

“We found that people who learned both English and Spanish at an early age and continued to speak them, better retained the words in Colbertian,” said James Bartolotti, a Northwestern Ph.D. candidate and co-author of the study.

Bartolotti worked on the study with Viorica Marian, associate professor of communication sciences at Northwestern. They tested 24 subjects — half monolinguals and half bilinguals — on 24 words from their fictitious language.

The researchers used some of Colbert’s words and made up some of their own, and then taught study participants to recognize invented nouns from the new language. They then had to match new words with images in two pictures. Each trial lasted about one hour or until participants could memorize 90 percent of the words.

The study found that those who speak more than one language “experience less interference from their native language when listening to speech in a newly learned language” than those who only speak a single tongue. Bilingual people have more practice separating languages and deploying them appropriately, which helps in learning yet another language.

“They switch between languages their whole lives. That’s why the bilingual participants learned Colbertian faster,” Bartolotti said.

Want to learn Colbertian? go to comm.soc.northwestern.edu/bilingualism-psycholinguistics/colbertian/.



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