Apropos of nothing, here are some babies

How could one possibly know what sounds an infant can hear, and how could one possibly know that they’ve lost the ability to hear the differences between some of them, but not others?  

Differentiating between R and L sounds: American infants and Japanese infants at 6-8 months and at 10-12 months. American English differentiates between the R and L sounds, but Japanese doesn’t. At 6-8 months, the American and Japanese infants do equally well/poorly at telling the difference between R and L sounds. At 10-12 months, the American infants have improved, while the Japanese infants have gotten worse. Picture source: Kuhl et al. (2008), Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: new data and native language magnet theory expanded (NLM-e).
Apropos of nothing but my frustration with my inability to understand the French phrase à propos, here’s a couple of videos on how you do experiments to study how children learn language.  (Linguists use the verb to acquire to describe what you do when you learn your native language(s), which we call language acquisition–hence the title of the second video.)  You’ve probably heard things like this: humans are born capable of hearing the differences between the sounds of all of the languages of the world, but they lose that ability when they start learning their native language.  How could one possibly know what sounds an infant can hear, and how could one possibly know that they’ve lost the ability to hear (the differences between) some of them, but not others?  These videos show you.

I picked these specific videos in part because they’re subtitled, and if you’re not a native speaker of English, they’re great for listening practice.  They have some differences, namely:

  1. The first one, a TED talk by the pioneering child language acquisition researcher Patricia Kuhl, is a presentation by one of the giants of the field.  It has nice graphics, but her language is sometimes much more idiomatic than one might expect, and it might be more difficult for a non-native speaker—or a non-scientist—to understand than the second video.
  2. The second one, from the YouTube channel The Ling Space, features very clear explanations of how the experimental paradigms work, but lacks the great graphics of the Patricia Kuhl TED talk.

Enjoy, and see the English and French notes at the bottom of the post for my best shot at apropos in English and à propos in French.  No guarantees on the French stuff…

Shorter explanation of the experimental paradigms, without the nice graphs of the Patricia Kuhl video, but with very clear explanations.

English notes

Apropos: the dictionary actually doesn’t help much with this.  There are three uses of this that we need to talk about.  One use of apropos in English is as an adjective, in which case it means something like relevant.  Another use of it is in the phrase apropos of, in which case it’s a discourse connector, or a preposition, or something–I’m not entirely sure.  Finally, there’s a special use, apropos of nothing, in which case it’s definitely a discourse connector.  Here are some examples of its use as an adjective meaning relevant or pertinent–all examples but the ones from Twitter are from the enTenTen corpus, via the Sketch Engine web site:

  • The one most apropos in this instance seems to be: to pacify or attempt to pacify an enemy by granting concessions, often at the expense of principle. 
  • Only the cheesiest and best pop song ever! And I found the lyrics to be quite apropos at the time.  
  • It’s tradition to give wood for a fifth wedding anniversary, which is quite apropos for me since I’m married to a blockhead.  (A blockhead is a stupid person, and a block is a particular sort of piece of wood)
  • It is like the modern day holy grail in the face of disruptive tech trends that usurp business models, not to mention Moore’s law being ever more apropos.
  • It might’ve been cool and apropos if blood started coming of the showerhead, but no go. 

Apropos of means something like with respect to, in relation to, as far as … is concerned.  Some examples:

  • I have been thinking about this apropos of the numbers of children claimed to be known to children’s social care.  
  • In 1807 Napoleon wrote Louis, apropos of his domestic relations, a letter which is a good example of scores of others he sent to one and another of his kings and princes about their private affairs.
  • In a letter to Mian Bashir Ahmed, Iqbal has emphasised the point that a comparative study of Ghalib and Bedil apropos of their poetry is necessary.

Now, there’s a particularly common form of this: apropos of nothing.  It is used to indicate that something is not relevant to anything that preceded it, or to introduce something that is not relevant to anything that has preceded it.  The first example explains it about as well as I could:

  • So when you say “ apropos of nothing, person X said this” it means “out of nowhere (relating to nothing) person X said…
  • “Definitely probably,” Wurtzel said, and then asked, apropos of nothing, where I went to school.

…and there’s an especially common use of apropos of nothing, which is straightforwardly a discourse connector used right at the beginning of something that you’re saying.  You use it to introduce a topic that you’re just now introducing and which you’re pointing out is not relevant to anything that’s come before it in the conversation.




…and that’s how I used it in the post.  Why did I use it at all?  I don’t know… I guess because not only is the post not connected to any previous post (other than that it contains a reference–see the first tweet just above–to Trump’s crappy behavior), but there isn’t even any connection between the linguistic thing under discussion (apropos and à propos–this is very meta) and the videos in the post (which are about child language acquisition).  So:

  • Apropos of nothing but my frustration with my inability to understand the French phrase à propos, here’s a couple of videos on how you do experiments to study how children learn language.  

It’s worth noting that this is not what you might call “everyday language”–you would expect any of these uses of apropos in English to come out of the mouth of someone who went to college, is relatively articulate and well-spoken, etc.  This example is a good illustration of that fact:

  • And it’s a weird choice, considering the language Jenna uses (she alternates between swearing and using phrases like “ apropos of nothing”… seriously, what 14-year-old says “apropos of nothing”?), the fact that the boys in her middle school are potheads, and her best friend dresses like a hooker.

Criminy–I’m almost at 1200 words already, and I haven’t gotten to the French à propos at all yet–and WordReference tells me that it’s complicated!  Another time, perhaps–native speakers, please feel free to jump in here…

8 thoughts on “Apropos of nothing, here are some babies”

  1. Of course discrimination and selection in hearing (and maybe this also includes faster or slower frequencies that animals hear but that we are taught to ignore, or why not perceptions like Joan of Arc’s catchings), and the subject even more fascinating for me is the same process in seeing (you know, the second ring of power …), process in which the absolute power of the language, what they tell us, is overwhelming for the weak little baby -the weak little human .

    Apropos of à propos, you seem to understand it rather well . “A propos de” as a preposition means about, exactly like “apropos of”, badly spelt attempt for looking civilized . Then it can be used as a noun, “à-propos”, which means relevance, accuracy, sometimes wit and fastness, depending on the context, but always regarding a reaction to a discussion, an action or an event . This can concern acts as well as words . “xyz…, répondit-il avec à-propos” . “Il a fait preuve de beaucoup d’à-propos”. “J’admire le bel à-propos avec lequel elle a réagi”. “Pour éviter d’être déstabilisé il faut avant tout de l’à-propos” . I don’t really get what can embarrass you apropos of this, but if it is the case, provide examples please .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow–I had no clue that it could be a noun–thanks. I’ll pay attention and try to remember some examples when I get back to France.

      What would be the French equivalent of starting a sentence with “Apropos of nothing…”?


      1. If it is inside a conversation there are several possibilities, indeed . “Pour parler d’autre chose, …”, “En changeant de sujet, …”, “Sans aucun rapport, …”,”Dans un autre domaine, …”, “Sur une autre question, …”, the list is long . If it is the beginning of something as in your post here I’d say the list is even longer and depends on your mood of the moment, because obviously starting with this when there is no discussion before implies a somehow funny intention, or at least a state of mind and feeling . So, difficult to reduce it to one or two ways . A literal translation can make the deal : “A propos de rien du tout, …”.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is incredibly well timed for me since just yesterday I was learning when and when not (in Deutsch) to pronounce and listen for the R sound. Turns out that if the R is at the beginning of a word or syllable then you should hear and speak it. But if the R comes at the end of a word or syllable, then you shouldn’t hear or speak it. For example, the word “aber” (preposition) meaning but, sounds more like aba, but up to yesterday, I had been pronouncing the R. When I first heard native Deutsch speakers using the word “aber” all I could think of was the band ABBA.

    As for language acquisition, I’ve often wondered if dogs have the ability to more easily acquire languages than humans. What I mean is dogs know the language of whoever speaks to them but they can also be taught commands in another language. I’ve heard that it is common practice for US military dogs to know commands in German, but they are “speak” English when not working. Of course, a dogs acquisition of language is different since they lack the anatomy to speak a language.

    Apropos of nothing I don’t think the word apropos will ever naturally roll off my tongue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s no known upper limit on how many languages a human child can learn natively. Personally, I’ve met a number of people who had spoken 5 languages since childhood.

      The bigger similarities between dogs and people might have to do with their abilities to make use of a couple kinds of visual information. Humans and dogs, when healthy (humans) and socialized (dogs), are both quite sensitive to facial expressions. Humans and dogs both learn early that a human pointing at something means something. From what I understand, our cousins the chimps don’t figure that out.

      Good luck with German R–I’m struggling with the Czech ř at this very moment, especially in consonant clusters! 🙂


      1. “…our cousins the chimps” . It is the second time I notice you seem to have an interesting family, you could tell us more one day . Are your simian origins the reason why you learn an infinity of human languages ?


    2. Dogs: I don’t know how common it is these days, but Welsh speakers used to train sheep-herding dogs in both Welsh and English so that there would be more potential buyers for them.


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