Ideophones, or words that sound like what they mean—words whose sound evokes the sensory experience they describe, like swish or twinkle—are easier to learn than other words, a new study finds. The paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, finds that something about these words makes them easier to identify in a foreign language. 

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University in the Netherlands tested Dutch students’ abilities to learn Japanese ideophones like bokiboki, a term that means the cracking sound of tree branches or knuckles, and fuwafuwa, a word that means fluffy. First, they tested whether 26 native Dutch speakers could guess the translations of Japanese ideophones. The students guessed correctly more than 63 percent of the time—above what would be expected with random chance. In subsequent tests, the researchers only used the ideophones that had been guessed correctly most often in this first trial. 

In one experiment, 32 participants took repeated quizzes to learn the meanings of 38 Japanese ideophones—19 real translations, and 19 fake translations that were the opposite of the true meanings. Volunteers had more trouble remembering words whose incorrect (opposite) meaning they learned than words they learned with their correct translations. They also responded faster to the questions with the words and their correct meaning, and got better at the ideophone translations over several practice rounds. 

In another test, a new group of 30 participants guessed the meanings of unknown Japanese adjectives (not ideophones). Though they guessed the correct meanings with slightly better than chance accuracy, they didn’t improve after several learning rounds. 

Our results suggest that sound-symbolism in ideophones is universally perceivable to at least some extent, and that not only children but also adults can use sound-symbolic cues to bootstrap word learning,” the researchers write.