Written by Aparita Bhandari
This story is from the fifth issue of CBC Music Magazine. To download the full issue for iOS — including the mapping of Grammy-nominated album Native North America and a look into the rise and fall of the Canrock revolution — click below. (For Android devices,click here.)
When he was nine, Paulinho Garcia started singing in a Sunday’s children program at Radio Inconfidencia in his hometown of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. As a result, he had access to the radio station’s impressive record collection.
“That’s how I learned how to speak English, by listening to all the English records, from the United States, from England,” says Garcia, 67, from his current home in Los Angeles. “At first, I was paying attention to the music. As a singer, I liked the melody, the rhythm. Then I started pronouncing words little by little. At that point, I could sing well. But if people talked to me, I did not understand them. Then I started learning — this word means this, that word means that. And soon I was speaking English.”
Naturally, when Global Language Project’s music division approached him with the idea of making an album for children and their parents to learn Portuguese, Garcia was on board. The result is Aquarela, an album with songs ranging from classical pieces to traditional song-games and folk tunes, set to release in March.
It sounds like common sense, using popular tunes to repeat and memorize words instead of boring rote exercises to conjugate words. Indeed, recent research backs up some of Garcia’s childhood experience. A study conducted in 2013 in the U.K. suggested that singing can help in “short-term paired associate phrase learning in an unfamiliar language.”
However, learning a language is not a simple matter of repetition. Language requires comprehension and social interaction, linking our utterances with our environment and intention. So, can singing really help us talk to each other? After all, as the old cliché goes, music is a universal language.
In my own experience, it helps open a door. I’m fluent — spoken and written — in Hindi, my mother tongue. When my older child, Mallika, was born, I spoke almost exclusively in Hindi to her. I didn’t know any Hindi lullabies, and so I ended up singing slower tempo, softer Bollywood songs to her. Things got a little tricky after the arrival of my second child, Dax. In the hurly burly of life, I resort to using English to get things done quickly. I still try, whenever I can remember, to speak to them in Hindi. But I’m often met with resistance.
Bollywood songs, however, hold their attention. The catchy dance numbers, that is, rather than the pensive poetry to which I’m partial. I am loathe to use these tunes as an aid, but they do get my kids dancing, and sometimes asking me, “Mummy, what does that mean?” It’s not ideal, I keep on reminding myself, but it’s a start.
So why are my kids more interested in listening to Bollywood songs than my attempts to communicate with them in Hindi? It may have to do with the connections between music and language.
Your brain on music
Why do we listen to music? In his book The Singing Neanderthals(2005), Steven Mithen, professor of early prehistory at the University of Reading, England, expands on this “universal feature of humankind.” Music has been ignored in the study of the evolution of language, he argues. “Without music, the prehistoric past is just too quiet to be believed … [b]ut when music has not been ignored, it’s explained as no more than a spin-off from the human capacity for language.”
The connection between music and language has concerned many people, said Aniruddh Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts University, Massachusetts, during a 2009 Library of Congress talk. From Plato and Darwin to “artists including Leonard Bernstein, who gave a set of lectures at Harvard in the ‘70s about the possible connections between the grammar of music and the grammar of language, according to Noam Chomsky’s theories. So it’s a persistent question.”
While using music therapy in treatments for reading or speech disorders such as dyslexia and aphasia are becoming increasingly common, the debate on whether music is more than auditory cheesecake is ongoing.
Of course, there’s a lot of interest in what music can do for your brain. Media reports on kids who take music lessons doing better than their peers can create hype around the subject, while the reality is that these kids often come from better socioeconomic backgrounds. The best example of our fascination with this idea is the Mozart Effect, where media reports and a book based on a small study created an industry that continues to flourish despite the dispute among scholars on the efficacy of playing Mozart CDs to increase your IQ. So experts are cautious about making claims.
It’s not as simple as stating that music will help you learn a language, says Michael Schutz, associate professor of music cognition/percussion at McMaster University. But research does indicate that “the brains of people with extensive musical training do a better job tracking changes in frequency than those without,” he explains. “Crucially, recent evidence is consistent with the idea that training actually causes the improvement, suggesting musical experience actually improves our ability to perform tasks important for speech.”
References to music so far have been in relation to playing an instrument regularly, even at a hobby level. But what about learning a language through song? After all, don’t we all learn our ABCs through song?
From goo-goo ga-ga to Lady Gaga
While music is an important part of an infant’s development, it doesn’t necessarily lead to learning language. The musical way in which we speak to babies helps us communicate with them. Mithen describes how motherese or “the exaggerated prosody (the rhythm and pattern of language) helps infants to split up the soundstream they hear, so that individual words and phrases can be identified.” It isn’t until they begin to understand the meaning of words, and specific patterns of intonation and pauses, that they start picking up language.
Motherese helps regulate social relationships and emotional states in babies. Maternal singing may have even greater emotional power, notes Mithen, citing a study done by Sandra Trehub, professor emeritus at the Infant and Child Studies Lab at the University of Toronto (Mississauga) that indicates “the significance of singing as a care-giving tool … [empowering] mothers in supporting their infants’ development.”
However, a 2012 paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggests that “infants use the musical aspects of language (rhythm, timbral contrast, melodic contour) as a scaffolding for the later development of semantic and syntactic aspects of language. Infants are not just listening for affective cues nor are they focused exclusively on meaning: they are listening for how language is composed.”
There’s no evidence that children or adults can fully learn a foreign language by singing songs in that language, says Trehub.
“At best, they might learn about sound patterns in that language, but not about meanings or how to communicate. With language, comprehension precedes production, which means that a young child who comprehends simple sentences may only be able to produce one- or two-word utterances or none at all.”
This is true of my own kids’ fascination with K-pop. After discovering Korean pop music bands such as Got7 and Girls Generation on YouTube, my kids have taken to watching them regularly. One day, I noticed Mallika, my five-year-old, copying the lyrics. Or at least what she thought were the lyrics. While one of their favourite songs was playing, I Googled the lyrics and tried to help them sing along. My kids didn’t buy my explanation.
“Mallika, it’s not ‘taco some yeah.’ It’s ‘jakku sumgyeo,’” I’d say.
“No! Taco some yeah,” she’d reply.
It took talking to one of my Korean friends to convince my kids about the pronunciation, and to truly understand the meaning of the lyrics. But that’s the first step in learning a language — talking to someone about it. And the conversation between my children and their Korean friends through K-pop songs offered us all an opportunity to talk about it.
This exchange is precisely why Global Language Project decided to include songs as part of the language learning material resources, and ask Garcia’s help to create a Portuguese language CD for children and their parents.
“Language is a gateway to another culture, and music plays a huge part in any culture,” says Angela Jackson, the founder and CEO of Global Language Project, adding that upcoming projects include albums of Mandarin and Arabic songs for children. “What we are doing is getting songs sung by mothers and grandmothers, and passed down. So a five-year-old is listening to a same song in New York that a five-year-old in Brazil is listening to. It’s about building a bridge.”
You talking to me?
From a linguist’s perspective, songs can be a helpful aid while learning another language, at any age. Some key factors for language acquisition include the reasons you want to learn and use a language, says Suzanne Hilgendorf, associate professor in the department of linguistics at Simon Fraser University.
“Language is intimate, it’s about expressing identity, meaning, interacting with other people. Language is a social phenomenon, it’s not just about mastering code,” she says. “So when we think about music or song lyrics, the motivation is there. It’s appealing to engage with music. It’s a more inviting tool than sitting in class and looking at a verb chart, or doing scripted dialogue with your partner.”
But there is more to language than memorizing certain words. Although we use certain phrases such as “Hello” or “How are you?” with high frequency, language involves production, or generating sentences. You need to get affirmation from someone else that they understood what you said.
Repetition of language in songs can lead to accidental learning, says Jack Chambers, professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Toronto.
“A generation of European teens has learned American slang and swear words through rap. ‘Yo momma! Shee-it!’ There are probably more benign examples too, with 1950s love songs conveying pillow talk. ‘Sweetheart, oh baby mine,’” he says. “Sesame Street used music obsessively in its alphabet fetish. Bollywood will probably serve your children better than Sesame Street or random rap fandom ... But none of these is as effective as systematic practice in speaking the language, mixing the learners with native speakers. Send the kids to school in Delhi.”
But what happens when languages have been lost, and are associated with experiences of trauma, as in the case of many Aboriginal languages in Canada? Initiatives to revitalize these languages include setting up language nests for young children, and additional resources for their parents. In these cases, songs become a helpful tool to overcome some of the challenges of instruction.
Songs help create a safe space for new learners of the Aboriginal languages, says Aliana Parker, a language revitalization program specialist with the First People’s Cultural Council in British Columbia.
“I frequently hear people comment that it’s a very safe, accessible and friendly way to produce a language,” she says. “Because for anyone learning, producing is frightening. When you are listening, you can smile and nod. Repeating it back can be overwhelming.
“But when you are singing, you sing slower, more clearly. The language is structured in a different way. That makes it a little bit easier to approach in terms of production, in having it come out. And there are usually drums in the background, so you can sing quietly to mask your mistakes.”
Moreover, music is an important part of many First Nations communities. Language is passed through song, and music is an inextricable part of the culture.
“You hear songs at feasts and potlatches, any sort of ceremony,” she says. “All community members participate in these on a regular basis, even people who are not speakers of the language. They will probably know one or two songs because they have been hearing them regularly at these community events and throughout life.”
However, at the heart of any language revitalization program is the desire to bring the language back home, for an intergenerational language transmission.
“The context for B.C. right now is that most parents are not speakers, they don’t have the language to pass on,” says Parker. There are various initiatives to engage such parents, and offer them support, including language lessons and one-on-one language immersion with fluent speakers. Other approaches include lullabies.
“There are traditional lullabies that have been passed on that the community has held on to. We’re also seeing the initiative of creating new lullabies,” she says.
While many experts are cautious about reading too much into the idea of songs helping learn a foreign language, Katie Overy thinks the subject warrants more research. A senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh's Reid School of Music, Overy supervised a study at the university, published in 2013, that suggests adults who “sang words or short phrases from a foreign language while learning were significantly better at speaking it later.”
The idea for the study came from her own academic background in researching the potential of rhythm-based music lessons to support dyslexic children’s language and literacy skills, and an inquiry from one of her PhD students, Karen Ludke.
“Karen had a language background, and she had been teaching English, in New York, to people who wanted to improve their English, and their English accents,” says Overy. “She discovered accidentally that songs helped. She then wanted to study if singing could help with foreign languages.”
For the lab experiment, Overy suggested using Hungarian.
“I lived in Hungary for a year, tried to learn Hungarian and failed, very hard. I learnt some of the things children sang in school,” she says, laughing. “Hungarian is very strange; it’s not related to other European languages, and it was very easy to recruit people who didn’t know any Hungarian. They weren’t even familiar with the sounds.”
The results of the study suggest that the learning went beyond simple memorization of the sounds of the words, says Overy. To measure the learning, tests included using inaccurate versions of the phrases and engaging in a short conversation entirely in Hungarian.
“So the participants did have some semantic understanding, and could use the phrases in a conversational context. These were not pure nonsense syllables,” she says.
While the study did not test or provide any hypotheses for why singing worked, it discussed two key possibilities, based on prior work in the psychology of verbal memory. When words are presented in a song condition, the structure of the melody enhances phonological discrimination.
“Each note tells you this is a new syllable,” Overy explains. “Hungarian can sound like a confusing blur of words to a non-native speaker, but when it’s sung, this helps you break it down into smaller parts.”
Another hypothesis could also be true: when you are memorizing melody and words together, they become integrated in memory, giving you an extra cue to recall the word.
“But both Karen and I are also interested in another idea, a simpler idea,” says Overy. “That tunes stick in your head a bit…. In real-world language learning, when you learn lyrics to a song, the song stays in your head and fragments of it come back to you, maybe later in the week.
“We have not investigated that. But there is increasing evidence — with new research in auditory imagery — that some people have tunes in their head a lot of the time.”
So while we may not learn a whole language through song, that singing can help us navigate our way through it. That’s gotta be music to anyone’s ears.
Bonus track: Our friends at NPR put together a video showing how jazz music has given us a lot more than groovy tunes; it's also created new language.Watch here.