The Language of Vibration: How Some Bugs Communicate

People and animals feel sound aside from hearing it, and often, the most meaningful communication are at frequencies that humans can’t detect. For example, among other communication tools, whales use low frequency sounds to find a partner or family over long distances. Elephants do the same.

But you don’t need to be a heavy weight to make some noise. For example, a tree cricket rubs its wings’ tooth-like parts to communicate (kind of like people grinding their teeth to express anger). I’ve been looking for insect zappers lately, and these were just some of the fun facts I learned along the way.

According to Rex Cocroft, a biologist at the University of Missouri, treehoppers use leaf stems to communicate. The insect’s abdomen can vibrate like a tuning fork due to muscles in that body part and in their thorax. The vibration travels down the legs of the bug, into the stem, and then to other bugs.

There is barely any airborne sound produced in the process. And so, Cocroft improvises with record player needles and cartridges to detect the stem’s vibrations. In contrast, the treehoppers just use their legs’ sensitive sensors to pick them up. It’s kind of like an awesome, organic form of bug telegraph.

On the other hand, Dartmouth College biologist Laurel Symes listens to vibrations that we do hear, like those from tree crickets. With their wings’ tiny teeth (the pre-requisite for communication?), they vibrate their flaps as if they were drumheads. What’s amazing is that they can discriminate slight differences in frequency, with acuity at par to that of a classical musician.

In the woods, there are a lot of different types of crickets making noise. To us, they all sound the same, but they are actually different. Female tree crickets can tell which sound came from their kind, so they’ll know where to go for mating. (Imagine if human relationships begin the same way).

I enjoyed learning about these languages of vibration and sharing them here. But still, I’ll get a bug zapper to kill insects. It’s just that nothing spoils barbecue parties more than some pesky bugs. And so, here’s to hoping that I’ll have as wide a communication gap as possible with insects of any kind.

Music Helps in Learning a Language

The past weeks, I’ve been fiddling my acoustic guitar. I’ve been reading a list of home recording studio equipment too. My record player has also been spinning quite an amount of vinyls on repeat. Regardless to say, I’ve been stuck in a musical man cave lately (queue soundtrack). That meant less time studying the languages that I’m trying to learn. Or was I actually learning because of all that music?

If I remember it right, there was this news some time ago saying that music helps in learning a language. I believe it was on The Telegraph website (I’m too lazy to look it up now). The news presented a study which found that adults who sang a foreign language were twice as fluent at it later. I couldn’t agree more, because I observe it on my own students. Below are reasons why I think this is so:

  • Music is considered the “universal language.” It breaks down barriers and connects across different cultures.  I have always believed that you’ll learn a language better if you immerse in the culture that surrounds it. I will probably be advocating about that very often in this blog. It’s just that nothing displays a language’s quirks and nuisances better than a culture that shows it in action.
  • Music is fun! I study languages with the same passion that Math geeks do with their numbers (none of that for me, lol!). When I study foreign tongues through music, it’s more than twice the satisfaction. And unlike with classes and usual speaking situations, with music you are more relaxed (which helps a lot). Furthermore, you can take music anywhere nowadays. So the next time you download some songs, visit the foreign section.
  • Singing increases vocabulary and improves pronunciation. The lyrics of a foreign song are a minefield of new words and phrases just waiting to be unearthed. Also, singing along will help your native accent less noticeable as time goes by. That’s because the rhythm and beat of music eases you into the proper articulation and pronunciation of words. Below is an amusing video of a rap song in 6 different languages:

Now, if you want to learn Portuguese, you might want to enroll at the Arizona State University. There, lecturer Clarice Deal is teaching the language through bossa nova, a Brazilian music style derived from samba. I usually hear that kind of music in cafes, so I tend to associate it with coffee. So now, I’m off to have a cup with some sugar and cream, and maybe a bit of Portuguese too. See you in the next post!