I remember how school changed for me after starting piano lessons; it all of a sudden got easier. And then there were the really really smart kids who had great grades, scored high on all of the placement tests and were perhaps “smarter than the rest.” I noticed that many of them played an instrument, primarily the piano, and I remember thinking then that perhaps there was a correlation.
And absolutely there is a connection. Nina Kraus, of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Illinois, says, “when we play a musical instrument we are exercising and making important electrical connections, or pathways, in our brains. This might even help our brains when we are trying to learn another language, or a new subject in school.” In another study related to reading Nina argues that “kids who are poor readers have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat…It seems that the same ingredients that are important for reading are strengthened with musical experience. It may be that musical training, with its emphasis on rhythmic skills, can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential for learning to read,” she said. This study adds to the emerging (and fascinating!) correlation between musical-rhythmic skills and performance in other areas related to language, such as non-verbal elements and kinaesthetic learning.
Another recent study with jazz musicians shows that the part of the brain that is activated while playing together is the same area that is related to syntax of a language – the order of words. In the study, one musician would play four bars and the next would make up four bars in return, to compliment the previous sound. They were improvizing and having a “music-like conversation” really, which makes the connection to syntax so interesting. The study showed that even as they were not playing and were waiting their turn simply listening to the sound of the other, “the brain wasn’t resting. The musicians were processing what they were hearing to come up with new sounds that were a good fit.” This reminds me of when we are in a conversation and sometimes are thinking about what we are going to say in return rather than just listening to the other talk. You know it´s happened to you too!
A lot of language learning success is related to being able to recognize and repeat patterns, and what else is full of patterns and rhythms – music. The intonation of a language, not to be confused with pronunciation or accent, is an essential part of mastering a second language and has all to do with hearing rhythms and tones. There are countless examples of music and its relation to language learning. Whether you learn a second language by imitating rhythms and sounds or by listening to a song and learning the new language as a result, find the beat to help you in your language learning process!