Learning a new language can affect musical processing in children


Research has shown that a music-related hobby boosts language skills and affects the processing of speech in the brain.

According to a new study, the reverse also happens – learning foreign languages can affect the processing of music in the brain.

Research Director Mari Tervaniemi from the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences investigated, in cooperation with researchers from the Beijing Normal University (BNU) and the University of Turku, the link in the brain between language acquisition and music processing in Chinese elementary school pupils aged 8–11 by monitoring, for one school year, children who attended a music training program and a similar program for the English language.

Brain responses associated with auditory processing were measured in the children before and after the programs. Tervaniemi compared the results to those of children who attended other training programs.

“The results demonstrated that both the music and the language program had an impact on the neural processing of auditory signals,” Tervaniemi says.

Learning achievements extend from language acquisition to music

Surprisingly, attendance in the English training program enhanced the processing of musically relevant sounds, particularly in terms of pitch processing.

“A possible explanation for the finding is the language background of the children, as understanding Chinese, which is a tonal language, is largely based on the perception of pitch, which potentially equipped the study subjects with the ability to utilize precisely that trait when learning new things. That’s why attending the language training program facilitated the early neural auditory processes more than the musical training.”

Tervaniemi says that the results support the notion that musical and linguistic brain functions are closely linked in the developing brain.

Both music and language acquisition modulate auditory perception. However, whether they produce similar or different results in the developing brain of school-age children has not been systematically investigated in prior studies.

At the beginning of the training programs, the number of children studied using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings was 120, of whom more than 80 also took part in EEG recordings a year later, after the program.

In the music training, the children had the opportunity to sing a lot: they were taught to sing from both hand signs and sheet music. The language training program emphasized the combination of spoken and written English, that is, simultaneous learning. At the same time, the English language employs an orthography that is different from Chinese.

The one-hour program sessions were held twice a week after school on school premises throughout the school year, with roughly 20 children and two teachers attending at a time.

“In both programs the children liked the content of the lessons which was very interactive and had many means to support communication between the children and the teacher,” says Professor Sha Tao who led the study in Beijing.

Interrelation of Language and Music Skills

Several studies have examined potential relationships between music and language skills and have shown that there are significant positive correlations for various competencies, such as e.g., pitch and phonemic discrimination (PD; Lamb and Gregory, 1993; Anvari et al., 2002), rhythm and prosody (e.g., Patel et al., 2006), rhythmic abilities and reading (e.g., Douglas and Willats, 1994) and the recall of melodies and sentences (e.g., Harms et al., 2014).

Most of these studies, however, are correlational but there are also experimental studies that investigated the impact of musical training on language skills. For example, Strait et al. (2011) showed that musical aptitude was a significant predictor and accounted for over 40% of the variance in reading performances in children from 8 to 13 years with little to no music training. In addition, they could show that the relation between language and music processing is particularly strong for rhythmic skills (Strait et al., 2011).

More precisely, rhythm production skills turned out to be predictive for expressive grammatical abilities in school children (Gordon et al., 2015) and the ability to synchronize to a given beat predicted performance in pre-literacy skills such as phonological awareness (PA) and verbal memory in preschool children (Carr et al., 2014). In summary, prior evidence suggests that language abilities profit from musical abilities and demonstrate that a musical training has short- and long-term effects on important pre-literacy skills, such as PA (Degé and Schwarzer, 2011; Moreno et al., 2011).

Theoretically, most of these studies have emphasized that musical training fosters children’s perceptual skills and enables them to process auditory material with higher precision (cf. OPERA-hypothesis; Patel, 2012). It has been argued that better auditory processing skills in turn lead to an enhanced processing of speech.

Recent neurophysiological studies showed a higher proficiency of musicians compared to non-musicians in the pre-attentive encoding of low-level speech sounds (spectrally or temporally manipulated phonemes and vowels) as well as superior perceptual discrimination of subtle differences in pitch, duration and timbre of sine wave tones and vowels (e.g., Kühnis et al., 2013).

Taken together, these findings suggest that differences in lower level speech perception between musicians and non-musicians may arise from a generic constitution of the auditory system rather than from speech specific representations. According to this view, transfer effects of musical training should be particularly strong for low-level auditory and phonological skills. In line with that, the meta-analysis by Gordon et al. (2015) suggests that transfer effects from a musical training on PA are small (d = 0.20) but relatively robust, even after controlling for hours of training and type of control intervention.

In this context, previous studies point toward possible interfering variables such as musical expertise (cf. Gordon et al., 2015) that have to be taken into account when investigating music competencies and transfer effects. Other meaningful factors are represented by (non-verbal) intelligence (e.g., Schellenberg, 2005) as well as executive function (e.g., Degé et al., 2011) that seem to play a mediating role within the interrelation of language and music competencies.

In sum, previous studies have shown relationships between different competencies on various levels and emphasized the constitutional advantage of enhanced auditory processing skills derived from musical training. However, a comprehensive description of the interrelations between different language- and music-related competencies is still lacking and results remain fragmentary. This is particularly relevant because findings have important educational implications. At present, it is unclear which competencies exactly correlate and might promote the development of language skills across kindergarten and preschool.

Acquisition of Language and Music Skills

There are important parallels between theories of the development of language and music (Chen-Hafteck, 1997; Brown, 2001; Kraus and Slater, 2015). In particular, in both domains a hierarchical model of step by step skill acquisition during childhood has been suggested. For the music domain, a chronological order of skill acquisition has been proposed (see e.g., Shuter-Dyson and Gabriel, 1981; Dowling, 1982): First, young children seem to be able to discriminate and react to different characteristics of sound (e.g., frequency; Bridger, 1961); next, from age five and upward children acquire the ability to discriminate between same and different melodies and rhythms as well as to repeat them; in a last step at the age of six and hereafter they seem to establish a harmonic sense (Krumhansl and Keil, 1982).

Although infants showed very early the ability to recognize changes in melodic contour and range, the recognition of tonality and pitch seem to occur in later stages of infancy (Trehub et al., 1984). Thus, young children have rather global discrimination abilities and are able to differentiate between identical and non-identical tones. However, with increasing age and musical experience, they develop more differentiated perceptive skills in preschool (Sergeant and Boyle, 1980; Trehub et al., 1984). The same applies for the control of pitch during music production which seems to be one of the abilities in the course of musical development that are developed last (Trehub et al., 1984).

Previous studies suggest a chronological order in the acquisition of song production, as well. At first, children are able to reproduce the words, second the rhythm, third the melodic contour before they are finally able to reproduce the intervals accurately (Davidson et al., 1981). More generally, previous research points toward a difference between the acquisition of perceptive and productive skills. As proposed by Dowling (1982) there might be different kinds of musical schemata, one referring to music perception, one to music production and/or one referring to both.

Similarly, theories of language development also assume that different skills are acquired in a chronological order (cf. Bloom, 1998; Jusczyk and Luce, 2002). For example, models of spoken language comprehension assume that processing is hierarchically organized, with reference to a greater abstraction of acoustic features of speech at higher processing levels (e.g., Davis and Johnsrude, 2003).

Research points toward the ability to discriminate between different vowel contrasts and speech sound patterns (phonetic level) in early infancy and the subsequently establishing ability to discriminate between identical and non-identical words (morphemic level) (Trehub, 1993; Jusczyk and Aslin, 1995). Following that, passive vocabulary expands and children are supposed to be able to segment words from fluent speech until they are able to recognize the meaning of successive words in a sentence (syntactic level).

Similar to music, previous research of language acquisition revealed an imbalance of perceptive and productive abilities in young children is that production seems to follow perception (e.g., Bates, 1995). Although evidence is inconclusive, it has been assumed that perceptive skills are necessary but not entirely sufficient for the production of speech (Bates and Goodman, 1999). Only few studies have addressed the question of similarities and differences in the production and perception of language and music so far. Existing evidence, however, indicates that there might be similar processes in terms of incremental planning in sequence production (Palmer and Pfordresher, 2003).

Distinguishing Levels of Cognitive Processing in Language and Music

As the acquisition of both music- and language-related skills has been described as a sequence of hierarchically organized levels, it can be assumed that these levels might build upon each other. Indeed, there is evidence from neuropsychological studies in the domain of spoken language perception that language is processed on different cognitive levels (e.g., Besson and Schön, 2001) and that music processing on different levels is associated with distinct brain regions (Koelsch et al., 2005). In addition, there seems to be an overlap in structural processing between language and music.

For example, the processing of music-related syntactic information [harmonic progression (HP)] showed activation in a cortical network that has been thought to be domain-specific for language processing (Koelsch et al., 2002). The syntactic processing of language and music stimuli even seems to compete for the same cognitive resources when being presented at the same time (Fedorenko et al., 2009).

Moreover, a direct comparison of the production of linguistic and melodic phrases showed activations in similar functional brain areas indicating shared neural systems for phonological generativity (Brown et al., 2006). On the other hand, there is evidence leading toward activation of distinctive brain areas for the processing of other features, as e.g., semantics (Brown et al., 2006). In conclusion, it is to be assumed that there are specific overlaps between language and music as well as distinctive processing systems.

To summarize, previous studies indicate that it is reasonable to assume that both language and music skills can be systemized in different levels of cognitive processing which rely on units of various stimulus length. However, it is still unclear how exactly performances on different levels are interrelated and whether performance on lower levels is predictive for higher level processing.

reference link: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01616/full

Original Research: Open access.
“Improved Auditory Function Caused by Music Versus Foreign Language Training at School Age: Is There a Difference?” by Mari Tervaniemi et al. Cerebral Cortex


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