Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Melody of Language

I've been interested in language acquisition ever since my first baby started to talk. In keeping with the theme of this blog, one of his very first words was "mau," referring to Grey Kitty. In fact, "mau" predated "mama." I didn't care bit. I thought watching him learn language was one of the coolest parts of parenthood.

That changed with my second son. I was just as excited about him learning to talk - but it didn't happen for a very long time. Worry displaced joy. At age two, when most kids are combining three words into crude sentences, the Tiger had just a handful of words. He didn't even say "no." Now, three years later, he's mostly caught up, following a little speech therapy, a lot of terrific help from a support group online, and the simple passage of time. And believe me - he has learned to say no!

So I was fascinated when Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily (Science Blogs) reported recently that music apparently helps in language learning. A research team headed by Daniele Schön had students learn a set of six nonsense words; it took them 20 minutes to learn where one word ended and the next began. Schön's team then mapped each of the six words onto a unique pitch. They found that the musical association dramatically increased learning. (Their abstract is here; since the full text of their article is not accessible on the Web, the following graphs are courtesy of Dave Munger's post.) The graphs show the test subjects' accuracy after seven minutes of hearing the nonsense words paired with a unique musical note:


Munger observes:
The dotted line in each graph represents the average score for all listeners, and each square is the average score for an individual listener. As you can see, in the speech-only experiment, listeners did no better than chance. But in the second experiment, nearly everyone did better than chance, and the average score was 64 percent correct -- significantly better than chance performance. Simply associating each syllable with a musical note improved performance.

But in real songs, syllables aren't always matched with the same notes. Sometimes different syllables get the same note, and sometimes the same syllable is sung with a different note. In a third experiment, Schön's team allowed the notes to vary with each syllable. Again, listeners could identify words at a rate better than chance (though they weren't as good as in the second experiment).

Schön and her colleagues don't go so far as to argue that music is a requirement for learning language, but they do make the case that the extra information provided in music can facilitate language learning. They also suggest that other information, like gestures, might be equally helpful for learning a language.

But there is additional evidence suggesting that music plays an important role in language. Similar areas of the brain are activated when listening to or playing music and speaking or processing language. Language and music are both associated with emotions. And of course, we know that children -- especially small children -- really like music. This study offers another bit of evidence that the link between language and music may be a fundamental one.
The cool thing about this, from my totally anecdotal persepctive, is that I saw exactly this in the Tiger's language development. (I should be embarrassed that every time I cite something from Science Blogs, I end up sullying it with non-scientific thinking. I guess I'm not embarrassed enough to desist.)

The first time I heard my Tiger utter multiple words, he was singing "Ring around the Rosie." He'd hum the first part, then repeat the last line over and over:
Ash-ah! Ash-ah! Da da dow!!
Granted, that's the sort of phrase that only a parent can appreciate - especially when it's on endless repeat. But the cool thing is that the tune helped him put the syllables together when he couldn't otherwise get beyond single-syllable utterances. He was maybe two-and-a-half at the time. Equally great, I was able to understand him, thanks to the melody. (He has a great natural ear for music, and that was apparent long before he was talking.)

All fired up, I took this information to our speech therapists. Oddly, frustratingly, they didn't know what to do with it. Now, it seems to me that Schön's research suggests fruitful new approaches. Though I'm no longer in the trenches with late-talking, and I'm not a scientific expert by any means, I am a tuned-in mother who learned a lot about how to encourage language. And I'm guessing that late talkers could really benefit from the therapist using more music - not just prerecorded songs, but melodies sung aloud to help kids acquire new vocabulary.

The photo shows my piano; that's me making noise at it.

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