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How Music Helps Language Acquisition

February 01, 2016 5 min read
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My son is a kindergarten Mandarin immersion student. One of the highlights of my day is dropping him off at school and staying to watch their first activity of the day: singing songs in Mandarin. Today’s post by Jennifer Paterson, Founder & President of California Music Studios, highlights why this is a key component of any language program.

And be sure to join us Thursday, February 4, at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific for #GlobalEdChat, we will be joined by world language educators from across the country.

By guest blogger Jennifer Paterson

Musicologists and ethnomusicologists know that music is not only an important driving force of a society’s culture, but also a vital piece in the learning process. This is especially true when it comes to language acquisition. Music is a universal factor when it comes to human development and cognition, making it important for learning languages.

Music first or language?

If you think about it, the spoken word has a sort of musicality to it. The way we enunciate, our voice inflection, our word choices, and even the volume and speed at which we speak all have a musical effect. In the scholarly paper “Music and Early Language Acquisition,” researchers sought to prove that in order to speak, people must first have an understanding of music. The authors argue that spoken language should be described as “a special type of music.”

By these standards, music is not a superfluous part of life at all; it is necessary to all communication between humans. The researchers go on to point out that our brains process language musically, so there is much to be said of studying music alongside language, and at a very young age.

Can music help with language development?
According to professor of theory and music composition Anthony Brandt, children as young as newborns have a basic understanding of music. In an interview with Medical News Today, Brandt said that the sounds of language, not the meaning of it, are what infants first learn. It is later on that they are able to associate those sounds with what they mean. Brandt, who co-authored the research paper mentioned above, said that newborns can dissect parts of sound like pitch, timbre, and rhythm. Therefore, exposure to music trains babies’ brains for language comprehension and the art of speaking.

Brandt and his co-authors also found that infants cannot really tell what their native language is when compared to other languages, and the same is true with music. Once a baby has reached that one-year mark, he or she will start to distinguish the speech and music that is most closely associated with their own family and society. This is why exposing infants to several languages and types of music is so important: the more sounds they hear, the wider their base of understanding of sounds, language, and music as they grow older.

Can adults benefit from the music-language connection?
Though it is more difficult to acquire new languages after early childhood, it is certainly not impossible. Experts used to believe that adults could never truly grasp a language as solidly as native speakers of it, but recent research has contradicted that. In a study published in the journal PLoS One, scientists created a fake language and then taught it two ways to groups of adults. The first way was in a traditional classroom setting. The second way was through immersion, including listening to music that used the language. At the end of five months, the immersion group was exhibiting brain patterns consistent with native language speakers. Those who learned in the classroom had processed the language but were approaching it with a different mindset, literally, than the immersion group.

But why does music help with new language acquisition for babies through adults? The answer is simple: it provides a fluid way to process sounds that your brain automatically enjoys. When you sit down and open a textbook that features another language, or even put on headphones to mimic pronunciation, you are contriving a “learning” mode. Rather, when you simply turn on music featuring a different language, you are hearing it used lyrically, and even if you really cannot understand WHAT is being said, you are absorbing some of it in context.

Language expert Susanna Zaraysky, who is fluent in seven languages, says she often has relied on music to help her reach fluency. In a piece for The Everyday Language Learner, Zaraysky says that learning a language through music, at least in part, is easier because it activates more areas of the mind than language alone. Music calls on both the left and right sides of the brain to work together, and that leads to higher comprehension.

How can I incorporate music into learning another language?
Convinced that music can make a difference in language acquisition but not sure how to actually make that work in your own life? Take a look at a few ways to use music to learn a new language, no matter your age:

  1. Find music you like. If you don’t like heavy metal music in English, don’t seek it out in another language. Find music you would enjoy in any language, and then make yourself a playlist or online station. Turn it on in the car, at home, and listen to it at work if you are able.
  2. Watch music videos. You can find any song or genre you like online, so look up some music videos in the language you’d like to learn. Watching and listening together takes more concentration, plus you may be able to observe the way mouths are moving to create certain words. It also helps you understand the words in context.
  3. Write down the lyrics. Once you’ve heard a song a few times, write down the lyrics as you listen. Pause the music to give yourself time to catch up, and rewind when needed. This will teach you the written portion and reiterate the words you are hearing.

The connection between music and language acquisition is powerful, so use it. It’s never too late to learn something new, and music can make the experience a lot more fun.

Follow California Music Studios, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo credits: StockSnap.io

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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