Do Musicians Make Better Language Learners?
Second language learning and musical ability
Posted July 5, 2017
Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.
Wikipedia's lists of famous multilinguals as well as YouTube videos usually include singers who perform in several languages, like the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (Russian, Italian, French, German, English, Czech), Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli (Italian, Spanish, English, Latin, German), and Colombian phenomenon Shakira (Spanish, English, Portuguese, Arabic, French, German). Their communicative abilities in these languages vary greatly, from native and native-like to just a few words, but when they sing these words they sound quite impressive to their fans
These singers, as well as musicians like the cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Chinese, French, English), provide grist for the mill of those who believe that people with musical talent – or at least musical training – have an easier time learning foreign languages. Common sense suggests that years of paying close attention to pitch and rhythm give musicians a leg up. Their fine-tuned ears must be better at picking out sound patterns of the second language (L2) and the advantage in perception should translate into superior pronunciation. But before we start separating music majors into special sections of foreign language classes, let’s see what research has to say about brain connections between music and language.
Neuropsychological studies show that music and language are represented in distinct areas of the brain, indicating thereby that the link between musical ability and second language learning is not as direct as one would think. Additional evidence of separation comes from cases of selective impairments, that is people with language impairments, such as aphasia, who retain their musical skills, and individuals with intact linguistic skills who lose their musical abilities. These differences in cortical representation do not tell the whole story, however, because music and language do rely on common – or at least similar – processes: detection of differences in pitch, meter, rhythm, phrasing and interpretation, tonal memory, memory for long sequences, and the ability to imitate and improvise based on familiar sequences. These similarities led researchers to ask two questions: Are abilities in one domain easily transferred to another? And are musicians better L2 learners than the rest of us?
To answer these questions, researchers turned to languages that differ in the uses of pitch or perceived frequency of vibration. Pitch is central in music, where one greatly envied and admired gift is absolute pitch, i.e. the ability to identify and recreate musical notes without the use of a reference tone. Pitch is also central in language, revealing the meaning of utterances (question or statement? angry or ironic?). Tone languages also rely on pitch to differentiate between meanings of similar sounding words. In Mandarin Chinese, for instance, "ma" could mean ‘mother’, ‘hemp’, ‘horse’ or ‘scold’ depending on the accompanying tone. The tone system is extremely challenging for speakers of English who habitually pay attention to pitch height and never to pitch contours of individual words (a change of pitch in English can transform the word ‘book’ from a statement into a question but it cannot make it mean ‘horse’).
To see how musical ability affects the learning of L2 Mandarin by L1 English speakers, Anita Bowles and her colleagues asked 160 native speakers of English to learn a small lexicon of Mandarin pseudo-words by listening to recordings. The challenging aspect of the task was the fact that the words were similar in sound but different in tone and therefore in meanings, and participants had to acquire not just sound-meaning but sound-tone-meaning correspondences. The participants also completed a questionnaire about their musical experiences and undertook a battery of cognitive tests that measured pitch perception, auditory memory, musical aptitude, general cognitive ability and general L2 aptitude. The results revealed that months of private music lessons were a better predictor of the accuracy of tonal word learning than general cognitive ability and L2 aptitude measures.
These findings were corroborated by other studies where English-, French- and Italian-speaking musicians outperformed non-musicians in identifying Mandarin tones, yet the findings by Bowles and colleagues also had a twist – on the whole, musical variables were not a powerful predictor. The key predictor – not surprisingly – was success on linguistic tasks involving tone discrimination (same or different). The correlation between these tasks and musical training could arise, in the researchers’ opinion, because musical training enhances pitch ability and/or because people with high levels of pitch ability gravitate towards musical training. Other than a minor advantage in discriminating tones, however, there does not appear to be any conclusive evidence that musicians are better at L2 learning or have superior pronunciation skills.
Diana Deutsch and her colleagues suggested that the question should perhaps be turned around, asking whether speakers of tonal languages have superior sensitivity to pitch. To test their hypothesis, Deutsch and her colleagues asked speakers of two tonal languages, Vietnamese and Mandarin, and speakers of English to read aloud lists of words in their native languages on two different days. The analysis of pitch revealed that native speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin maintained precise and stable pitch in enunciating words, while English speakers were significantly less consistent on different days. Follow-up studies found that speakers of tonal languages were better at identifying musical pitches than speakers of English or French and more likely to have absolute pitch.
So where do we stand on the relationship between music and language? We certainly should not jump to the conclusion that speakers of tonal languages make better musicians. There is more to musical talent than sensitivity to pitch – not every speaker of Chinese becomes a Yo-Yo Ma. By the same token, not every musician is a polyglot – there is much more to L2 learning than tonal discrimination and when it comes to syntax, vocabulary or pragmatics, musicians have no advantage over the rest of us. Yo-Yo Ma is trilingual because he was born to a Chinese family in Paris and grew up in New York, while opera singers put years of hard work into learning foreign language diction.
This is not to say that music is not useful in learning a language. The most widely accessible tool – songs – help L2 learners acquire new patterns of stress and rhythm, strengthen pronunciation skills and make an emotional connection to the language of choice. Many learners owe their success to listening or even singing along with popular songs. This strategy can be used by everyone – including those with a deaf ear for music.
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Photo of Shakira from Wikimedia Commons.
Bowles, A., Chang, Ch., & V. Karuzis (2016) Pitch ability as an aptitude for tone learning. Language Learning, 66(4), 774-808.
Deutsch, D., Henthorn, T., & M. Dolson (2004) Absolute pitch, speech, and tone language: Some experiments and a proposed framework. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 21(3), 339-356.
Zeromskaite, I. (2014) The potential role of music in second language learning: A review article. Journal of European Psychology Students, 5(3), 78-88. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/jeps.ci
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