Can foreign languages drive you crazy?

Richard Lemon Memorial at Lemon Hill, TAS

On The Science Show they recently had a program about how unfamiliar sounds, rhythms and tonalities can drive people crazy. I learnt that neuroscientists have been experimenting with the idea that when confronted with unfamiliar musical patterns the brain releases dopamine, which in large quantities can cause schizophrenia (in small quantities it makes you happy). As a striking example they cited Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which when first performed in 1913, led to violent reactions in the audience and rioting in Paris. In a book called Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer in 2007 first proposed that the reason for the violence was that Stravinsky’s use of asymmetrical rhythms, percussive dissonances, polyrhythms and polytonality was so new at the time that no one at the opera had ever heard anything like it. Consequently, the neurons in the listeners’ brains started to fire all at the same time and their brains got flooded with dopamine and as a result of that little old ladies started to hit each other with their canes. This was the first time I ever heard any of this but when you look up “classical music riot” on Wikipedia, you get a list of 12 such events of mass violence following a musical premiere.

The good news is that the brain is of course our most flexible organ and within a short time we get used to new rhythms, tonalities and chords. Nowadays, most people think of Disney when they hear the kinds of asymmetries and dissonances that turned Stravinsky’s bourgeois audience into rioters: “the music that was so fierce, so new and so disturbing on Monday [had] become kiddie music on Thursday,” as they put it on The Science Show.

What does all that have to do with foreign languages? I have for a long time been collecting anecdotes of interpersonal violence between speakers of different languages. Stories such as this tidbit of Australian bushranger lore about a gang of three men operating in early 19th century Tasmania: the bushranger gang consisted of two Irishmen, Scanlan and Brown, and and Englishman, Richard Lemon.

Lemon did not like Brown and Scanlan talking in Gaelic, of which he understood not a word. One morning when Brown was out hunting ‘roos, Lemon crept up on Scanlan at the campfire, put a pistol to the back of his head and pulled the trigger. He then strung up the corpse by the heels on a gum tree, as if he were hanging a ‘boomer’ (big kangaroo) for skinning. “Now, Brown,” he laconically observed when his partner returned, “as there are only two of us, we shall understand one another better for the future.” (Hughes, R., The Fatal Shore, p. 227)

These were violent criminals and outlaws but I’m intrigued that they would turn against each other for something as comparatively trivial as linguistic choice. It’s entirely possible, too, that they suffered from schizophrenia or some other mental disorder, seeing that they were stuck in the cruel and terrifying gulag that was colonial Tasmania.

So, can the sound of a foreign language act as a trigger for violence? Could it, in extreme situations, lead to a reaction in the brain that serves to remove inhibitions against violence? I don’t know, of course, and am only speculating here. But dopamine might just be one little piece in a puzzle that has long intrigued me and that I’m addressing in more detail in my new book: why is intercultural communication so often a story of cruelty, abuse and hatred rather than solidarity, compassion and kindness?

I’d love to hear from anyone who has stories to share about physical reactions they may have experienced on the sound of a foreign language. Lehrer, Jonah (2007). Proust was a neuroscientist Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Now, there is something really interesting to think about. I learned German survivor-method (move there and learn it!), and I would come home from the grocery store, at first, so stressed out. Hearing voices, reading labels, trying to translate. I would imagine that some hostile situations arise from our natural inclinations to be suspicious, and that being one person in a room that doesnt speak the language, brings about suspicions of whether the others are talking about you or your ways, or a feeling of 2 to 1, and that if a major situation arose, you would have no say in your own survival. It is really fascinating to think of this as a chemical reaction. We know the relaxing affects of Music, or even, Mother-ese, for example, and that familiar rhythms and tones can produce calming effects. Why not the other way around? It makes sense to me that, in order to best survive, our natural instincts would be to be defensive toward the unfamiliar, including a foreign language.

  • LiLi M’leaux

    Oh my- this is a very interesting article! I work for a large global corporation and work on cross-functional teams made up of employees from all over the world. On two of these teams, I am the only native English speaker.

    Regardless of the home language, the real-time parsing of non-native speech is a significant cognitive burden on its own. Add the facts that the subject matter is very technical, the concepts quite abstract, AND the paycheck depends, in part, on your being able to assimilate the information, and you have quite the potential for all kinds of crazy-making.

  • Jean Cho

    Can foreign languages drive you craze? Yes – English drives kids crazy in Korea. I’ve read a news report that Korean kids suffer from hair loss, social phobia, gastritis, child video syndrome, and speech disorder due to excessive focus on English. It’s particularly serious in wealthy parts of Seoul, where parents push their kids to attend English learning institutes that cost around 1000 dollars per month, watch English videos all the time, and speak English only at home. I guess it’s parental pressures rather than certain hormones such as dopamine that have driven them crazy, but believe that it definitely shows how much negative impacts foreign languages can have on your brain.

  • Thanks, Jean! Have you seen the reports about the KAIST suicides? e.g., this one in Korean Times? They blame the student suicides (and even one professor) inter alia on the added pressure to study in English … all very sad!

  • Jean Cho

    Yes Ingrid. I am writing an article about the KAIST tragedy at the moment – a slight deviation from my PhD but I believe that it is a story that should be told 🙂

  • Catherine L.

    This brings back memories from my childhood in Canada. I must have been about five. My brother and I did not speak English at the time, only French. Friends of my parents were visiting, with a daughter my age who spoke only English. My mother was entertaining the kids, getting us to sing songs. She was singing songs in English that my brother and I didnt know. I remember feeling slightly disoriented. But I understood that we were being polite to our guest. Then, after several songs, my mother started singing one song in French. While my brother and I were happy to recognize the song, the other little girl totally panicked. She started crying and screaming. So we reverted to English. I remember finding it unfair.

  • As the director of a translation agency I am passionate about languages. My kids are half French and half English – they spent the first half of their life immersed in French and now we live in the UK, they are surrounded by English. They speak French but have let it drop to second place as they were so focused on being able to read, write and speak English at school and generally keep up with everything. Even though I am the English parent, I still speak with them in French as I do not want them to lose this wonderful ability. However, it inevitably invokes reactions from downcast faces, huffs, puffs and the odd groan. “Here she goes again, talking to us in French.” It gets worse if I dig out the French dvds, books or heaven forbid, put on French radio! I can not say that they are disturbed by it but they sure get fed up of it. Sometimes, when I say something they do not understand then anger mounts and strops ensue. But, I will persevere in the hope that one day – they will thank me!

  • The flip side is the beneficial effect of hearing more than one language as you grow up. My siblings and I heard my mother and grandmother speaking German often in our home in Tasmania. We only learned a few phrases (especially table manners – just a game) but because my father was not German-speaking despite his Hannoverian surname, we did not acquire German. But I have never found the living use of any other languages threatening or negative. I learned French and Latin at secondary school (with mother and grandmother nodding approval all the way: “educated people speak other languages”). I did French and Indonesian at university and have a lifelong hobby of picking up more German. Attitude, ear and flexibility can be positively cultivated in childhood to like and appreciate difference, to be curious about what it all means, to understand the world. Monolingual-cultural ears and minds are cultivated by narrowness, laziness, fear & sometimes nasty, false, patriotism. Now that’s crazy!

  • Ho sentito spesso parlare di musico terapia. Ammetto che la musica influisca positivamente,o negativamente sulla nostra psiche,ovviamente non in maniera uniforme,ne univoca..alcuni ritmi o suoni possono esaltare o prostrare alcuni soggetti, la stessa musica può rattristare alcuni,e rendere felici altri….ne deduco che non è la musica in se , ma l’autore ed il ricevente ;che interpreta i suoni in base ad un suo personale modo di relazionarsi ed interagire con i suoni, e la loro fonte ed influiscono reagenti biologici oltre che psichici ..Sappiamo sempre troppo poco per arrivare a conclusioni affrettate ,tutto influisce su tutto; cassa di risonanza, qualità,e tonalità ,stimolano la nostra struttura neurologica,in base alla presenza maggiore o minore di sostanze biologiche,predisposizioni naturali e non ;sviluppatesi in ambiti di un vissuto interpretativo delle realtà circostanziali. .Musiche suoni parole rumori,e quel qual cosa in Più che rende il timbro della nostra voce,gradevole o meno, l’interpretazione soggettiva di determinate sequenze di suoni. Tutto è collegato a tutto ed i fattori reagenti sono molteplici,come molteplici sono le sostanze che reagiscono a determinate sollecitazioni in base alla loro personale conformazione neurologica,e biologica..suoni rumori uditi o percepiti in base a sensibilità latenti che sollecitano questi o quei neuroni,.Non è la lingua in se ma colui che la parla,e chi ascolta,nel contesto in cui vive che crea sollecitazioni

  • I’ve heard a lot about music therapy. I admit that the music affects positively or negatively on our psyche, obviously not in a uniform manner, it unique .. some rhythms or sounds can enhance or prostrate some subjects, the same music may sadden some, and make others happy …. I i assume that is not the music itself, but the author and the recipient, who plays the sounds on the basis of his own personal way of relating and interacting with the sounds, and their source and affect biological reagents as well as psychic .. We always too short to reach any conclusions, everything affects everything sounding, quality, and tone, stimulate our neurological structure, according to the greater or lesser presence of biological substances, preparations of natural and non-developed areas in a interpretation of the lived reality circumstantial. . Music sounds noise words, and that what thing more which makes the pitch of our voice, pleasant or not, the subjective interpretation of specific sequences of sounds. Everything is connected to everything and reagents factors are as diverse as they are substances which react to certain stresses according to their personal neurological conformation, and biological .. sounds sounds heard or perceived on the basis of sensitivity latent which urge these or those neurons ,.’s not the language itself but the one who speaks and who listens, social environment that creates stress

  • foreign languages drive me crazy

  • I have experienced frustration about my inability to become fluent in Portuguese even after ten years of living in Brazil. I can generally make myself understood ordering in restaurants and can read signs and generally understand most written text. But I cannot understand native speakers unless they speak slowly and do not use idioms or uncommon words.

    When I lived in Quebec, I reached a better level of fluency in Canadian French far more quickly.

    Perhaps it is I did not come to Brazil until I was 60 and advancing age has taken its toll?

    I have not been moved to adverse reaction, but the frustration level isn’t getting any better.

  • Alejandra Ting Yin Yu

    Totally hear you! Kids in Asia nowadays have to suffer English. The English language has taken over all of their playtime! I teach English @ school and I have realised that most educators think very high of the English education; however, only few noticed that there should be a balance in the young people’s lives too~

  • Ben

    I have been thinking about this subject recently. I do think that being immerser in another language can be extremely stressful in many ways. I have lived in Mexico and had a boyfriend there for three years with whom I maibly spoke in Spanish. There I was able to really immerse myself in Spanish to the extent that English started to seem a sort of artificial construct that I knew. Now I live in Italy and have had a boyfriend here for quite some time who didn’t speak much English. This time however, English was much more ‘present’ to me, in part due to the proximity of my own country and the fact that other English people live here. I also made much more of a consciois effort to learn vocabulary here and my Italian is perhaps now better than my Spanish, but sometimes I get the feeling “these are just sounds; just meaningless combinations of letters” which aren’t used all that much. I have to say that it does affect my mind… I think I’m going a little bit potty. :s