A few weeks ago we published an article on how language could have originated from bird singing. It’s no news that music and language are closely related, but the connection between these two fields is still a study object for scientists. So far, there were several studies stating that a musical background can enhance the ability to learn a second language.
Now, according to a recent study, speakers of tonal languages, such as Cantonese or Vietnamese, seem to have a better aptitude to learn music. The study also suggests that tonal language speakers can process some musical aspects as well as trained musicians would.
Tonal languages are common throughout East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa or in native tongues of the American continent. For this type of language, different tones determine the meaning of the words.
The study was conducted by a group of scientist at Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute. For the purposes of this study the researchers gathered a group of trained musicians and two groups of non-musicians, with English and Cantonese speakers.
During the study, all the participants were submitted to several basic audio and complex musical perception tests (aiming to measure their pitch memory or processing speed, etc.), as well as cognitive tests (to measure their working memory and general reasoning).
According to the results obtained during the tests, while the trained musicians had the best on basic auditory measures, Cantonese speakers (non-musicians) matched their results. Based on these results, the study highlights the overlap of music and language in the brain, also suggesting that tonal languages may have some influence on the development of musical skills.
Gavin M. Bidelman, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis and one of the authors of the study, stated that “for those who speak tonal languages, we believe their brain’s auditory system is already enhanced to allow them to hear musical notes better and detect minute changes in pitch”. “You can think of some tonal languages in essence as a language version of music”, he added.” If you pick up an instrument, you may be able to acquire the skills faster to play that instrument because your brain has already built up these auditory perceptual advantages through speaking your native tonal language”, he explained. Bidelman also emphasised that although these findings could be applied to the other tonal languages but not all of them.
For the researchers this goes beyond the musical and language skills and could mean that music and language are mutually reinforcing areas of human cognition: “If music and language are so intimately coupled, we may be able to design rehabilitation treatments that use musical training to help individuals improve speech-related functions that have been impaired due to age, aphasia or stroke”, Bidelman said. He also suggested that the opposite could work; that speech training programs for tonal language speakers could also help increase their musical listening skills.
You can find the study here – “Tone Language Speakers and Musicians Share Enhanced Perceptual and Cognitive Abilities for Musical Pitch: Evidence for Bidirectionality between the Domains of Language and Music“.
Article written by Júlia de Sousa, trainee at TermCoord