April 29, 2007

Music and language

Barry at Staring at Empty Pages has a post about a study on the effect of music training on the ability to learn language.

Northwestern professor Nina Kraus was on the radio talking about the report, “Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns”, which was to be published in the April issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Barry questions whether the study is as definitive as the authors make out because of three problems he found in the study. I believe he's correct that this study only says something about learning Mandarin with its emphasis on tonality and not something that relates to the general ability to learn new languages.

Nevertheless, it is probably the case that studying music would help someone learn new languages because one of the key components of learning a new language is actually hearing the differences in pronunciations. When children are in the prime language acquisition ages, they have a remarkable ability to distinguish between all sounds for all human languages.

As the chapter by Werker shows, language acquisition begins very early in the human lifespan, and begins, logically enough, with the acquisition of a language's sound patterns. The main linguistic accomplishments during the first year of life are control of the speech musculature and sensitivity to the phonetic distinctions used in the parents' language. Interestingly, babies achieve these feats before they produce or understand words, so their learning cannot depend on correlating sound with meaning. That is, they cannot be listening for the difference in sound between a word they think means bit and a word they think means beet, because they have learned neither word. They must be sorting the sounds directly, somehow tuning their speech analysis module to deliver the phonemes used in their language (Kuhl, et al., 1992). The module can then serve as the front end of the system that learns words and grammar.

Yet as we grow, our brains filter out sounds that we don't use or are not familiar with. This is why it is so hard for most Americans to correctly pronounce names from other languages. As one friend told me, the Indian languages map two distinct phonetic alphabets onto the American alphabet and there are subtleties that I absolutely cannot hear. What music study could do is keep more of the active listening connections live instead of having them swept away by our auditory filters. Anyway, it's an interesting topic for study.

Posted by Mary at April 29, 2007 12:19 PM | Science | Technorati links |

French Right Candidate Marky

Posted by: ccoaler at April 29, 2007 12:31 PM

Thanks for the comments, Mary. Yes, I'm always fascinated to see how readily children can pick up sounds, and adults seem unable to.

A few years ago I watched an American trying to pronounce "zehn", the German word for "ten", while native German speakers repeated it back. The American could not get the initial "ts" sound, and couldn't even hear that she was saying it wrong.

Last year, I saw a similar situation in which a native speaker of English and Spanish kept pronouncing the French word "bûche" (log) as though it were "bouche" (mouth), and similarly was apparently unable to hear the difference.

I, on the other hand, seem to be able to pick up new sounds, to hear and imitate them well. And I have no musical training (which, of course, in itself means nothing).

Anyway, it's an interesting topic for study.
Agreed! My quibble was only with their conclusions, but I absolutely think it merits more study!

Posted by: Barry Leiba at April 29, 2007 03:14 PM