I pray in Hebrew. Many of my prayers have fixed wordings; as such, sometimes (alas) I wind up reciting them without wholly concentrating on what I'm saying.

When I'm doing so, I find that concurrent ambient conversation in Hebrew tends to confuse me from what I'm saying. Ambient conversation in English does not. Why the difference?

  • 2
    Is it any type of ambient Hebrew or is it other people praying in Hebrew? What is your Hebrew proficiency (native, fluent, conversational, just prayers, etc.)? When did you learn Hebrew (from birth, as a young child, as an older child, as an adult, etc.)? Do you ever perform memorized English speech (comparable to your memorized Hebrew prayers)?
    – acattle
    Jan 25, 2013 at 12:51
  • @acattle: My native tongue is English. I speak modern, colloquial Hebrew fairly well, but not well enough to understand it unless I'm listening to it. (Same for Biblical Hebrew, I suppose, though no one really speaks that.) I learned Biblical Hebrew from a young age, as part of studying the Bible, and picked up modern, colloquial Hebrew gradually later (some of it I know from studying Biblical Hebrew (since they're pretty much identical), some I picked up in later childhood, some I picked up as an adult). I never perform memorized English speech AFAIR.
    – msh210
    Jan 25, 2013 at 16:45
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    Well that's all a factor. You said your passive-listening in Hebrew is not very good so it could be as simple as "my brain hears Hebrew and makes an effort to understand it, distracting me". I'm not an expert in this, though.
    – acattle
    Jan 26, 2013 at 13:15

1 Answer 1


Part of what we think of as our hearing faculty is in our ears and part is in our brains.

We here all noise with our ears and then our brains do all kinds of filtering and analyses:

  • At one level human speech sounds stand out because these sounds fall within a particular range. Our ears contain tiny hairs of different lengths which vibrate in sympathy with different sound frequencies. The vibrations are converted into electrical signals and sent to the brain. This is very much like Fourier analysis.
  • At a much deeper level, languages we know very well stand out more because our brain subconsciously processes the sounds as speech.

This is where ambient language can enter your thoughts and confuse you. For me my Spanish is sub-fluent so mostly I can concentrate on a conversation I'm having with people without bothered by a loud TV in the background which would interfere with my thoughts in English. I do however find that I subconsciously eavesdrop on people speaking Spanish, even when I haven't used it for a while.

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