Last update on July 13, 2019

Picking up a new language isn’t just about being in the classroom or doing workbook assignments; it turns out that learning a language through music helps with rhythmic clues for the brain.

The role of prosody is crucial in signposting linguistic information. But prosody truly matters for this reason: it helps us remember linguistic information, by gluing the bits and pieces of language which are meaningful together.

Many years ago, I had a phone number which, according to local phone number pronunciation conventions, was 80-48-03, where the dashes indicated a ‘chunking’ break. We said the name of each digit, by the way of ‘eight zero-four eight-zero three’. These things vary, too: for example, I’ve lived in places where the norm would have been to say ‘eighty-forty eight-zero three’. Now, I have difficulty remembering numbers in general, including my own phone numbers because I don’t call myself all that often, as the joke goes. In any case, the standard spoken layout of this particular phone number didn’t help me. I then happily realized that 804803 could also be chunked as 804-803 – much easier for me to remember.

So the next time I answered the phone, which was by stating the phone number, I said ‘804-803’. The caller fell silent, then said, “Sorry, is this 80-48-03?” My turn to fall silent. You get the picture, right? Same ‘word’, different prosodies: we might as well have been speaking different languages.

Rhythm creates meaning and memory

Wink-wink to those of you who, like me, were reminded of alphabet songs, here. In both cases, we have a random sequence of items but nevertheless makes sense to those in the know – which is a good definition of any spoken language.

The thing is that when we chunk apparently random things together we’re signalling that they’re not random after all: these chunks carry meanings. As with my phone number, different chunking may impair intelligibility – or carry different meanings. Take this classic example of disambiguation of print through prosody (or if you prefer, the uselessness of print for carrying prosodic meaning): what does this is how small shops should be’ mean? We’re not speaking different languages when we chunk this utterance in different ways, but we’re saying different things – either ‘how small’ shops should be, or how ‘small shops’ should be – and this is also what we do when we use different languages.

Chunking language as we speak is what makes it memorable, too. Rhythmical beats ‘stick’ in our memories. Carolyn Graham, musician, writer, teacher, and teacher trainer, explains why. She developed jazz chants to use in her language teaching because, as she puts it in her website, ‘The brain loves rhythm. This means memory’. Brains love anything else that adds to making sense to their owners. Carolyn Graham’s other major insight about language teaching is that the language used in the classroom must be real, useful and appropriate to the learner.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s used songs as a sure-fire way of learning the rhythmical clues of new languages. It turns out that singing assists language relearning, too, for those of us who have lost our language(s) through trauma or disease. Gottfried Schlaug’s research, at his Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory, reports how music helps ‘glue’ together damaged and/or disordered parts of the brain into recovery of language: we seem to be able to sing word chunks that we are unable to speak, for example.

How does music accelerate language learning?

Why do speech melodies have this effect on us? The simple answer is that we’re natural singers and dancers because we can’t help it: we’re born that way. We’ve known about this for quite a while. Jean-Pierre Lecanuet, for example, in a 1999 book chapter titled ‘Foetal responses to auditory and speech stimuli’, reviews previous literature reporting that ‘a large number of speech components – mostly, but not only, the prosodic ones – are transmitted to the amniotic milieu’ (p. 340). The whole book, Perceptual Development, edited by Alan Slater, offers reviews and reports of early research on this topic.

The so-called ‘effortless’ language learning claimed of children may well appear ‘effortless’ because children are having fun: they sing and dance, involving their whole body in their learning. All of us, in other words, know how to involve ourselves with our languages in this way from the very beginning. It may not sound so outlandish, then, to suggest that language teaching methodologies embrace these natural human skills to help us practise our new languages from the very beginning, too. My take is that all of us learn best when we’re having fun learning.

You may be wondering where the ‘missing link’ is: jazz chants and babies? Here it is. Ten years ago, one of the students in my Child Language courses was struck, as a musician, by the similar makeup of scatted and babbled syllables. He went on to produce a thesis, titled The Phonology of Scat Singing which, to my knowledge, is the first research piece ever to put together scatting, baby babble, and English phonology.

When we invented our languages, we made them melodic because this was the natural thing to do. It’s the melody which signals and glues together the lexical and grammatical bits and pieces which we’ve come to (mis)represent as ‘languages’.