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Language can be music to the ears

You don’t have to be musical to find melody in spoken words

Whether or not they have musical ability, students who rate a new language as sounding melodic are better able to speak it, according to a study by researchers in Austria, Latvia and Germany.

Both language and music are characterised by changes in tone and rhythm, and the link between music and language is regularly exploited in the classroom, for example, by learning new vocabulary via singing. Previous research has tested whether common abilities underpin progress in both subjects, but Christiner et al wanted to know whether the listener’s subjective perception of how melodic a language sounded influenced their ability to learn.

The researchers recruited 86 adult native German speakers (36 men and 50 women) with a range of musical and linguistic abilities. Some only spoke German while others spoke up to three foreign languages. None of the participants spoke any of the five languages chosen for the study: Chinese [sic], Japanese, Tagalog, Thai and Russian.

“It seems that the perception of melody in language really is in the ear of 
the perceiver”

Musical aptitude (detecting changes in rhythm or tone) and singing ability were tested and participants were also recorded as being non-musicians (33), amateurs (21) or professional musicians (30). Presumably two didn’t answer.

One ability well-known to influence the acquisition of both language and music is short- term memory – that part of the brain which temporarily stores and repeats information during learning. All participants took a short-term memory test, listening to and recalling strings of digits.

Participants were taught to rate how melodic a language sounded using samples of Slovak and Farsi. Then they listened to four samples of each of the five unnamed test languages and rated each on a scale of 0 (not melodic) to 10 (very melodic).

The language performance task consisted of listening to four sets of 11 syllables spoken by two male and two female native speakers of each of the five test languages. The researchers took care to minimise variation in speech rate and used only declarative statements rather than questions, which might have apparent differences in intonation and hence pitch. Participants were asked to repeat the four phrases in each of the five languages. Performances were rated from 0 to 10 by several native speakers with professional linguistic backgrounds: agreement between raters was very high (Cronbach’s alpha 0.86-0.93).

The collected scores were analysed to identify which abilities were good predictors of language performance. As much as 59% of the differences in language performance scores could be predicted by the number of languages spoken, short-term memory, musical ability and how melodic the new language seemed to the listener.

To further investigate the influence of rating the new language as melodic, the participants were divided into two groups: high melodic (those who generally rated the languages as more melodic) and low melodic. You might expect that the high melodic group would also score higher on tests of musical ability, but this was not the case: the two groups did not differ in musical ability. The average score for the other major predictor of language performance, short-term memory, was also similar for both high melodic and low melodic groups. Yet the high melodic group had significantly higher performance scores in all five languages.

Professional musicians also had better language performance scores, but high melodic participants were no more likely than low melodic participants to be professional musicians. Being a professional musician or high melodic had large effects on language performance (f = 0.55 and f = 0.40), but these effects were independent of each other.

It seems that the perception of melody in language really is in the ear of the perceiver and does not depend on musical talent.

This is good news for both students and teachers, as there are several ways to boost the apparent tunefulness of language. Some of these tactics may mimic the first language of them all: motherese, the way that parents all over the world speak to their infants – slowly, with more ‘sing song’ intonation, variations in pitch and a lot of repetition.

REFERENCE

  • Christiner, M, Gross, C, Seither-Preisler, A and Schneider, P (2021): ‘The melody of speech: what the melodic perception of speech reveals about language performance and musical abilities’, Languages 6:132; https//doi.org/10.3390/languages6030132
Image courtesy of PHOTO BY OMAR MEDINA FILMS FROM PIXABAY
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Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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