The Easiest Way to Learn a Language? Music - Easy Week

By Brian Fencil

Photo by Rodrigo Esper.

In high school, you were probably forced into language classes for a few years, where you and 30 other, unexcited adolescents filled out countless, repetitive worksheets. Undoubtedly, your teacher tried to make lessons fun and engaging by playing various songs which hopefully, didn’t require mandatory singing. I can still recall the chorus of Ojala Que Llueva Cafe, one song my teacher used to teach us how to say “Ojala que,” meaning “I wish” in Spanish.

But, is there any merit to teaching languages through music? Or do teachers just make students listen to the same song over and over, until they start thinking, “Ojala que learning language were easier”?

Music can, in fact, help you learn a new language. Psychologists have determined that music is a legitimate way to remember vocabulary; it teaches the rhythm of language and helps with pronunciation. Songs also provide listeners guidance to build a foundation for all language abilities. The process draws on some parallels with the way babies learn dialect.

When we talk to infants, we use a much more musical type of speaking known as baby talk. We slow our speech, vary our pitch, and take longer pauses. We exaggerate our words to give infants important clues to dissect the stream of sound they hear.

As adults listen to someone speaking, they hear distinct boundaries between their words. However, these boundaries are often not real, but actually perceived–a fact that becomes obvious when listening to a foreign language (which sounds like a fast string of borderless syllables). Baby talk teaches word boundaries and the rhythm of the language to young ones. For mature minds, music in a second language teaches many of the same aspects.

An article from California State University shows that when people study a language, those who listen to respective song lyrics are able to learn vocabulary, understand grammar, improve their spelling, and develop linguistic skills better than those that do not. The benefit is partly because music is fun and engaging and gets multiple senses active, making it easy to remember the words.

Also, music allows students to drop their guard. Singing a song provides people the opportunity to relax. They become less likely to stress about stringent grammar structures, and try a more playful approach with using the language.

These types of benefits are narrow and specific. Nevertheless, a great deal of evidence proves that music can have widespread effects on language, and even IQ.

Music and language are both rhythmic, have melodies, along with patterns of rises and falls. Because of these similarities, when children are exposed to music, they can learn to identify rhythm, tempo, timbre, and duration of musical tones. Honing such skills helps children distinguish the melody and rhythm of speech, which helps identify syllables, words, and phrases.

Likewise, learning music requires the training of specific skills used in listening and reading. Individuals who play music are required to convert symbols to meaning and attend carefully to pitch. A musically trained brain ends up being better at making sound-to-meaning associations, detecting changes in dialect, and picking out speech in noisy environment. Plus, children who learn to play an instrument exhibit better verbal memory, phonological awareness, and reading skills than their peers. Studies also show that giving children music lessons can increase their IQ.

Despite the broad range of evidence of how music can be beneficial, the mechanism behind the improvement is not well understood. Though, some anatomical factors provide clues.

Using imagine techniques, psychologists found that music and language have many overlying areas in the brain. One area of the brain identified with spoken language and syntax, and it becomes active when musicians play. The brain, after proper training, can process melody in the same way it processes speech.

Getting to specifics, the brain’s temporal lobes are the part used to remember both word meaning and melodies. Also, the parts of the frontal lobes that are used learn the rules of syntax in a sentence also comprise the section that comprehends the rules of harmony in music.

Beyond the brain and into greater scales of human social interaction, explaining why there are so many overlaps between music and language requires us to look far back in human history. For our species, music predates speech by hundreds of thousands of years. Darwin hypothesized that early human speech resembled music more than language.

The use of song as speech might seem impossible in our modern age. However, we should consider how many species of animals use songs to communicate. Birds, for example, chirp songs to attract mates, warn about danger, tell others about food, as well as identify family members. Whales even express similar rhythms, phrase lengths, and song structure found in our music. And for our closest animal companions–chimpanzees–it is shown that members of this species prefer consonant music to dissonant music.

Through epochs, human language grew as an evolution of music. The songs that early humans communicated slowly became more exact, more detailed. Melodies ultimately became words.