The Role of Music in Learning Foreign Languages

Hasan Farhan

Music is present in every part of our lives. There is music in the morning which starts with the songs of birds; there is music in our prayers be it ‘bhajan’ or ‘qawwali’ that connect us to God; there is music in the celebrations like birthday parties and marriage parties, and there is music in the lullaby of a mother too. In a nutshell, music is part and parcel of our daily life. Albert Einstein once said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”

Albert Einstein needs no introduction. He is one of the smartest persons the world has ever seen. Albert Einstein was a German-born physicist. He is considered to be the most influential physicist of the 20th century. He is known for his theory of relativity. You will be surprised to know that he gave credit for his theory to music. He was very passionate about music. He began taking violin lessons at an early age, and later he also learnt playing the piano. Albert Einstein stated to Shinichi Suzuki (inventor of the international Suzuki method of music education): “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception”(Shinichi Suzuki, 1969. “Nurtured by Love. A New Approach to Education”, p90).

According to his son Hans Einstein, “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties” (Ronald W. Clark, 1971. “Einstein. The Life and Times”. p106). This shows the importance of music in his life.

Language, like music, is also an essential part of our lives. Language is present in our communication, thoughts, prayers and in our rituals. The life would come to a standstill without language.

We are living in a global era. Nowadays, there is a need of individuals who can work in a culturally diverse environment and who are good at foreign languages. Knowing more than one language is an asset in personal and professional life. In spite of all these facts, many people believe that learning a foreign language is not their cup of tea. The reason could be lack of time or lack of interest due to long and boring classes. The good news is that there is a solution to this problem, and the solution lies in music. Music can easily cope with this problem by making foreign language learning fast, easy and compelling. Music stimulates learner’s memory. A recent research at the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music reveals the effect of music on learner’s memory. In this research, there were 60 participants. Hungarian language was chosen to teach them because none of the participants had any experience of learning Hungarian language. The participants had to memorise some phrases in Hungarian, and repeat them back. After a fifteen minute learning process, they went through several tests. Those who had heard phrases in song scored highest in tests. Moreover, they were far better at recalling phrases than those who heard the phrases spoken.

Research has shown that children who learn music in their childhood are good at grammar, vocabulary and they have a higher verbal IQ. Let’s visit Finland, a country where the average person can communicate in three to five languages. Finland has a custom of music training at an early age. The majority of preschool Fins go to ‘Musiikkileikkikoulu’ which means ‘Music Kindergarten’.

Musiikkileikkikoulu offers a weekly class of 45-60 minutes where children are taught music skills by professionally trained music teachers. Children don’t enter school until they are seven years old. Language learning process starts at 9 or older. In spite of starting formal schooling at age 9, their learning skill is superb. Finnish children can speak three to five foreign languages. They are also good at mathematics, science and reading. They have scored exceptionally well in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and have been among the top students in the world.

Recent study has shown that playing a musical instrument changes the shape and power of the brain. In addition, playing a musical instrument can also increase IQ by seven points in children as well as adults.

The above examples show that music plays a key role in learning foreign language and affects children and adults alike. Now, there are a few important questions: What is so special about music? How does music help us learn foreign languages faster? Let’s explore the human brain to find out the answer.

The human brain is divided into two hemispheres-right and left. Both hemispheres are equal in size, but their functions are different. These two hemispheres are connected by the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum functions as a bridge to connect the brain cells in one hemisphere to those in the other hemisphere. Generally, the left hemisphere is considered to be dominant in language processing. The left hemisphere plays a vital role in speaking, but it does not mean that the right hemisphere has nothing to do with language. The right hemisphere is more sensitive to intonation and stress which are emotional features of language and it can better remember the details of the words it encountered. Playing an instrument and singing songs are activities which activate more parts on the right and the left hemispheres of the brain at the same time and improve the communication between two hemispheres. A recent study carried out by Amy Spray and Dr G Meyer from the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool shows that brief musical training can increase the blood flow in the left hemisphere of our brain which is responsible for most of the language functions.

Music makes foreign language learning interesting and it makes our mind more active during this learning process. It is possible to forget any word or sentence we learnt a few days ago, but if we learn a sentence in the form of a song, it remains in our mind for a long time. For example- learning an alphabet of a new language in the form of a song is easier than learning it in the same traditional way.

Music can improve our listening comprehension. The language learners who play a musical instrument can easily identify and process different sounds in language. Ear training is an essential part of the education of a musical instrument player. Ear training helps a musical instrument player to recognise and master relative pitch, intervals and rhythmic patterns. This ear training is very useful in learning foreign languages and especially tonal languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese or Thai.

Mastering a foreign language requires good vocabulary and pronunciation. Music is helpful in building vocabulary and improving pronunciation. When we learn a story or poem through songs, we hear word as well as word combinations. This helps us build our vocabulary without much effort.

Many useful expressions can also be learnt while singing a song. Music also improves our pronunciation which is important to speak a foreign language with panache. With the rhythm of the music it is easy to articulate the words. This way music makes pronunciation quite natural.

According to Charlemagne, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Learning foreign languages opens doors to a new world. Learning a new language is like undertaking a journey, and music makes this journey interesting and helps us reach the destination of this journey, i.e. speaking foreign languages fluently. The best part is that children, youth, adult and older people, everyone can undertake this journey with the help of music. So let’s start our foreign language learning journey right away with music.

Writer is a Research Scholar and Spanish Language Instructor

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