I have always been fascinated by the ways in which music affects the brain in general But recently, I’ve begun to ask: how does it affect language?
Growing up, my parents’ taste in music was very diverse, especially in regards to language. I was raised listening to Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, German, and numerous others. Though I was completely unaware of the words that I was singing, I realized over time that I was able to mimic the accent I was hearing as well as register and memorize the entirety of the songs. I didn’t know what they were about, but I was able to use the context of the music and emotions to get a general sense of what the music was about and the messages it tried to convey.
I am currently studying French, and though I am only 30–40 percent fluent in the language and my knowledge is very limited, I am able to recognize syntax, vocabulary, and meaning in French music I listen to. My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to do some research.
Markus Christiner and Susanne M. Reiterer performed a study to see if the ability to sing and the ability to sing well positively affected their ability to acquire and perform in varying languages. They used over 40 singers with varying proficiency. This tested their ability to imitate speech and their memory. The study discovered that singing allowed for a better presentation of accent, where the brain is more flexible and open to the unfamiliar and unusual speech sounds of differing languages as an adult, as well as a more exercised memory with auditory patterning.
Although children have an innate universal grammar while developing, which allows them to more readily learn new languages, it is increasingly difficult as humans age to have the same retention of language and become fluent.
A child can learn five languages simultaneously before puberty and be fluent their entire lives, but an adult will struggle with learning any new language from their teens to old age. If this study shows that the skills developed as a singer (especially classically trained) allow for a greater retention of language and pronunciation through music, then this furthers the correlation between music and language.
There is also the specific look into music and language retention in infants and children. An article written by Jennifer Paterson on Education Week, while not fully scientific, references multiple studies on infants and children in regards to their retention of language based on music.
According to Brandt, a scientist mentioned in this article, infants are able to discern the pitch, timbre, and rhythm of sound and are more aware of the sound of speech than its actual meaning. If the child is exposed to multiple spoken languages and music spanning multiple languages, they are most able to absorb the more universal range of sounds they will be able to replicate.
Davood Madani and Mahboobeh Nasrabadi conducted a study among preschoolers in Iran and their acquisition of the English vocabulary presented to them. 62 children learned the designated vocabulary using musical related activities and the other 51 were taught in a normal classroom setting.
They realized at the end of the teaching trial that the children taught through music had a significant retention of the material compared to the group taught without music. If music has this strong of an ability to improve our memory and our ability to memorize and be fluent in languages, I wonder why it is not used more often as a study technique.
In every article I have read on the topic, it all boils down to how music has the ability to expose us to context and vocabulary in a fun and innovative way. Music obviously has numerous alternate purposes and uses. However, when trying to learn a language, watching movies, reading books, and listening to music are the most suggested. Their ability to provide pronunciation, context, and a more native approach to learning the language is how we as adults can more proficiently expand our horizons.