Recognising patterns

The company I work for makes software that is used by people all over the world and has been translated into 30 different languages. Sometimes our users request translation changes because although we use native speakers to create them they may not have the full context as the translators are not users of our product.

One of our Arabic-speaking users asked us to replace this word المصادقة with this one لتفعيل الحساب in the following sentence:
تم إرسال بريد الكتروني لـ %{email} للمصادقة. يجب عليك الضغط على رابط المصادقة في الرسالة الإلكترونية.

If this were English or even any other Latin language we’d have no trouble finding the word in the sentence. But for non-Arabic speakers it’s quite hard to do. I found this interesting. Imagine being asked to replace the word fox with cat in the following:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

It’s easy to find “fox”. You don’t even need to look at the letters as the word as a whole is recognisable. But in trying to find المصادقة in the Arabic sentence I had to look closely at each word and each character in each word. Actually, I ended up cheating and used find and replace. Why is this? There must be something about familiar patterns that are easy for our brains to spot. I’m sure the 300 million or so Arabic speakers would have no trouble finding the word but to me the characters are unfamiliar.

There’s a famous 1973 paper called Perception in Chess which studied the ability of chess players to recall the location of pieces on a chess board after viewing it for 5 seconds. They found that when the pieces on the chess board were from a real game the more experienced chess players were better at recreating the board from memory. If the pieces were placed randomly and not representative of a real game then there was no difference in recall between advanced and less experienced players.

Familiar patterns, it seems, are useful for memory recall other cognitive tasks. I guess this is why repetition is so useful when learning something new.

2 thoughts on “Recognising patterns”

  1. I think we’re all wired to look for patterns, as they help us navigate the world with more ease. It’s certainly arduous learning new patterns – i.e. languages with a different script and alphabet – especially when we’ve got out of the habit of continuous learning, like our school days.

  2. I’ve just been to the Story Museum in Oxford where I saw a copy of Gillian Cross’s Demon Headmaster – that has children doing pattern recognition and coding in it, and how they use it in their fight against baddies. It was good to see that book, as I thought it was one of the ones that history had forgotten. I really liked coming across a children’s book that recognised tech.

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